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Interview of the month: Dr Meredith Belbin


Dr. Meredith Belbin has been renowned for his work on teamwork in the workplace for many years. His research into what makes for a successful team began over 20 years ago and included nine years study at the Henley Management College. During this time, Belbin and his team of researchers studied the behaviour of managers from all over the world. The managers undertook a series of psychometric assessments that led Belbin to identify nine different clusters of behaviour, which were given names.

Since then, Belbin's team role inventory has become widely used around the world. Many people will have at some point been asked to complete a self-assessment questionnaire that identifies them as a Shaper, Implementer, Completer Finisher, Co-ordinator, Teamworker, Resource Investigator, Plant, Monitor Evaluator or Specialist, or a combination of these. More recent research has concentrated on identifying the types of jobs people with specific team role characteristics are best suited to. Belbin's work on 'work roles' has looked at identifying the mix of tasks and responsibilities required by a job.

It can be argued Belbin's work is becoming more relevant as organisations increasingly move towards teams that come together to work on specific projects. One development has been the launch of an online programme, Interplace, to allow team styles to be analysed using a computer. Dr Belbin is currently a Visiting Professor of Leadership at the University of Exeter and Partner in Belbin Associates, a company set up to develop his work commercially. He has written a number of publications, including Management Teams - Why They Succeed Or Fail, Team Roles at Work and The Coming Shape of Organization.

More recently Dr Belbin has widened his research to look at how evolution has affected gender roles in the workplace. His latest book, 'Managing Without Power: Gender relationships in the Study of Human Evolution', follows a historical line in identifying the shifting roles of women and men at work over thousands of years. In it, he identifies a number of key gender types which he argues reflect the way different people behave in the workplace today. These are termed Primaevals, Warriors, Slaves and Professionals, and Belbin says males and females exhibit different characteristics in each category.

TrainingZONE spoke to Dr Belbin about the legacies of his work on teams and the implications for the ideas put forward in his new book.

TrainingZONE: Your team roles inventory theory is widely used in the workplace today. Did you think it would become so popular?

Dr Belbin: We would not have expected it to become so widely used. However, Tom Kempner, then Principal at the Henley Management School, was enthusiastic about the prospects. I conducted research at Henley over many years until I became convinced the approach was going to be successful. I realised that the various complementary inputs by different personalities contributing to a team were important, and that there should not be too much of one input at the expense of another.

TrainingZONE: Why have you developed the analysis online? We note that it includes observed behaviour as well as self-perception.

We have used observed behaviour for many years. It is essential for guarding against self-deception. However, the processing of the material became too complicated for hand-scoring. That means one needs computer analysis to cover all combinations. However, people still need something simple and immediately accessible. Above all, they appreciate a cost-effective means of receiving straightforward personal advice.

TrainingZONE: How does such advice differ from that based merely on self-perception?

Dr Belbin: We believe in building on strengths rather than focusing on weaknesses. Weaknesses can create a lot of soul-searching but they can be more reliably overcome by creating balance in the team. It is all about gaining a proper perspective.

TrainingZONE: The results can differ according to the situation, can't they?

Dr Belbin: Yes, that's why there's a big emphasis on observation. It's important for people to understand how they are seen.

TrainingZONE: The new book appears a departure for you, as it looks at anthropology and evolutionary subjects, but it's still addressing topics in the workplace, isn't it?

Dr Belbin: Yes, it's looking at the basic nature of society and community. It has taken me many years of research into the materials of anthropology, prehistory and history to discover how we have reached where we are now and what may be feasible in the future.

TrainingZONE: The book has wider implications beyond the world of work - do you think people will read it from a business perspective or be interested in the more general implications?

Dr Belbin: Some people may be interested in the final conclusions. Our aim is to place the workplace in an evolutionary perspective. A great deal of human evolution has taken place in the last few thousand years, which has been generally disregarded. This has resulted in a great diversity in strains of humans, both of men and women. The big issue is how we manage diversity. As far as current policies apply, I'm concerned about the ultimate outcome of equal opportunities policies. I'm all against unfair treatment. But equal opportunities are prone to produce unforeseen outcomes as men and women compete against each other for the same jobs. That unprecedented position is leading to a new set of social strains. Such advance is being made at a high price. An alternative policy, in line with the best lessons from our past, is that men and women should be working on complementary terms - mixed teams work very well together.

TrainingZONE: What you're talking about is mutuality?

Dr Belbin: Yes, I introduce that concept in the book. If you remove power from the equation, men and women work together to mutual advantage. I have reached the conclusion that women are naturally skilful in managing men! On the whole that arrangement works better than men when manage men and or when women manage women.

TrainingZONE: You talk about a progression to the age of accommodation, where traditionally female methods of working are coming to the fore. There's been much talk about the fact that this is happening and concern over what will happen to those in traditionally male roles...

Dr Belbin: We've inherited behavioural tendencies. The Age of Power produced through natural selection True Warriors who naturally operate in a dominant top-down controlling mode. These P-type managers, as I call them, may be talented and have drive, but they're not what will be wanted in the future. We need a different model, the A-type managers, who can deal with multiple objectives rather than a single one in environments where there are far more stakeholders involved.

TrainingZONE: What will happen to those P-type managers in future? Can people modify their behaviour?

Dr Belbin: Warriors have a lot to offer - they have lots of drive, for example - but they can also disempower others by their tendency to look for Slaves. Some are beginning to recognise this as a weakness and are starting to overcome it, but this tendency can still be difficult to discard.

TrainingZONE: What can trainers gain from this new thinking?

Dr Belbin: More people are in need of re-orientation - a rethink of what we expect from one another, and a more adaptive way of handling demands. Organisations and teams need re-orientation exercises so they can become better fitted to handle both external and internal pressures.

TrainingZONE: In the book you talk about work types which have evolved over many years...

Dr Belbin: I think evolutionary types are useful when attempting to understand unexpected behaviour. For example, you may find someone who is very hardworking and technically able, but when given responsibility may have a nervous breakdown. This is a common pattern with True Slaves.

The tendency for True Warriors to battle with others means that they prove unsuitable as team members, as there's no-one to battle with. In both situations the individuals are operating against their psychogenetic profiles.

TrainingZONE: Do you think this approach could be used as part of the selection process?

Dr Belbin: Rather than looking at which people are suitable for particular jobs, we need to focus on how we can best use the strengths and assets of individuals in a work situation to arrive at the best sort of group skills matrix. This calls for a complete change in orientation within the organisation.

TrainingZONE: Can you describe your more recent research on work roles?

Dr Belbin: It's become very important to our work in the last few years. Work roles are complementary to team roles in that they differentiate between tasks and responsibilities. Our view is that at present, there is no adequate way of communicating demands to prospective jobholders. The system is based on colours which denote job demands.

The important difference between team roles and genetics is that team roles are learnt and can go on developing. On the other hand, psychogenetics are linked to an individual's underlying arrangement of priorities. The fact that evolution has more-or-less stopped has left a huge legacy of differences between people.

TrainingZONE: Do you think this work sheds light on work patterns in different cultures?

Dr Belbin: If you look across the world, in the areas which have been fought over most often and peoples have struggled for territory, warriors and slaves are predominant. When you look at those countries which haven't been fought over a different situation prevails. For example, when the current population moved into Sweden, they didn't have to remove an indigenous population, so there was limited demand for Warriors. Sweden has the most well-developed team-working culture in world, and very few evident Warriors or Slaves - in contrast to the Middle East, for example.

TrainingZONE: Finally, which team roles do you most closely correspond to?

Dr Belbin: It's always difficult to assess this sort of thing when one develops the measures oneself! I've been assessed twice in Australia. But the results were different. In Melbourne, I was assessed as Plant, Co-ordinator and Monitor Evaluator, while in Darwin, I was Plant, Plant and Plant!

Dr Belbin's book, Managing without Power: Gender relationships in the story of human evolution was published on 10 May 2001 and is available in hardback for £16.99. For more information on the work of Belbin Associates, see


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