Belbin Team Roles and gender

Last week I spent a few days training to become Belbin accredited. The Belbin methodology has been around since the 1970s, when Meredith Belbin spent time observing teams of MBA students at Henley Management School undertaking a variety of tasks to understand what makes a successful team.

One underlying assumption was that teams with high cognitive ability would deliver the best results; surely bright people make good decisions? Seems logical… but in fact teams with high proportions of bright people were no more effective than the average, often getting stuck in analysis paralysis or conflict. Belbin then went on to mix up teams in different ways, and over time identified that the most effective teams contain a balance of 9 types of behaviour, including Shaper, Teamworker, and Resource Investigator (you can see the full list here). This doesn’t mean you need 9 people, just that you need a mix, and one person can adopt more than one of the roles.

What appeals to me about this methodology is that it focusses on behaviours rather than anything “innate” – which always worries me as a concept, given the ways in which society has historically used ideas of innate characteristics to oppress. Belbin defines a team role as “a tendency to behave, contribute and interrelate with others in a particular way” (emphasis mine) – in other words, this is not something inescapable, a genetic inheritance, but rather a set of behaviours that a person tends to adopt. And as any student of feminism will know, behaviours are learned; we develop them in response to the messages we receive from our culture, environment, and society. What does this mean, then; how does our gender have an impact on which roles we tend to adopt?

Belbin’s assertion is that all team roles are equally valid and that all must be present to create a high-performing team. But experience tells us that not all behaviours are valued equally in all businesses, and that behaviours can be assigned different values when displayed by a man or a woman (assertive vs bossy and so on). In almost every case that I’ve seen, organizations do this without even knowing - I can think of a number of teams I’ve been part of where team roles such as Co-ordinator (tellingly called “Chairman” in the initial role definitions) have been valued highly, whereas roles such as Teamworker, which performs some similar social functions, have been undervalued and even ignored.

So I want to spend some time thinking about these team roles, and how they impact on progression through to senior teams. I’d be interested to hear from you; does your organization value some sorts of behaviour more highly than others, and if so are they the ones more commonly associated with “male” leadership styles? What’s the impact for you? How does this change the behaviours you display?

In future I'll be blogging more about how we can use these team roles to develop a strategy of inclusion, so keep checking in for more on this.

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