Profile of Dr Meredith Belbin: The father of team roles

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He's 82 years old and about to start a new business venture whilst also writing another book. It's no surprise, therefore, that retirement is not a word in Dr Meredith Belbin's vocabulary. Annie Hayes reports on this incredible man who is best known for his work on team-role theory.

The academic

Belbin's CV is full of academic accolades, peppered with a fascination for industry. He graduated in classics and psychology at Clare College, Cambridge. Belbin admits he has always been a thinking person: "I loved chess as a schoolboy and at university until I thought this is not a sensible way of spending one's time at Cambridge. In any case there was plenty of stimulus in reading Greek, Latin and Ancient History. All was well until alarms set in at the thought that I might end up teaching classics at the same place where I had been at school. Fortunately, I was able to make a quick switch to psychology, later being offered a job next door to the department in the Nuffield Research Unit, looking into the problems of ageing".

The study related to what happened to workers as they aged and became the subject of his Ph.D. It was to trigger a fascination with industry: "Before it was completed I had conducted investigations in over 100 firms. I became hooked on industry. It was a place of infinite complexity and excitement. I decided there and then I did not want to be an academic".

"I am not too keen on self-description but I remember what others say. These include 'Definitely not a salesman' and 'Hopeless at doing anything practical'. I don't think these deficiencies matter much as I have a penchant for working with people whose strengths I lack."

Dr Meredith Belbin, on personality traits

After working in a wide range of industries, Belbin later returned to Cambridge to become chairman of the Industrial Training Research Unit (ITRU); director of the Employment Development Unit; the first lay member in Cambridgeshire of the Lord Chancellor's Advisory Panel on the Appointment of Magistrates, and senior associate of the Institute of Management Studies in Cambridge.

It doesn't stop there either. Belbin has authored numerous books including 'Team Roles At Work' (1993), 'The Coming Shape Of Organisation' (1996) and 'Changing The Way We Work' (1997) to name but a few. His latest book, 'The Evolution of Human Behaviour and its Bearing on the Future', is also now available.

He is currently external examiner for the Department of Engineering Management in the University of Bristol, and has recently been appointed visiting professor and honorary fellow of Henley Management College.

The human touch

The love affair with the daily ins and outs of industry was sparked by the complexities he witnessed in the relationships between employees and across the hierarchies. It was a time of industrial strikes and Belbin became hooked on the way to attain employee commitment when everyone seemed to be at an all-time low.

Of course, extracting the best from people is helped by Belbin's preference for the positive. Asked how he would describe himself Belbin says: "I am not too keen on self-description but I remember what others say. These include 'Definitely not a salesman' and 'Hopeless at doing anything practical'. I don't think these deficiencies matter much as I have a penchant for working with people whose strengths I lack. However, the more I believe in something, the easier I find it to get the message across. If I possess any positive attribute I think it would be intellectual courage. It seems to pay off".

This positivity translated itself well, when in Moscow a young Belbin told industrial managers that if they continued to treat people as in the Tsarist and Stalinist eras, it would prove a severe handicap in the modern world. Understandably the message went down like a lead balloon. It was a tactic, however, that paid off: "To my surprise I was later invited to conduct a top management seminar for one of Russia's leading firms. I feel some pride in the turn-around of attitudes and the subsequent progress of that industry in a highly competitive world".

Disappointments

There have been so many successes in Belbin's career it's difficult to pinpoint any failings and again Belbin errs on the brighter side when asked about them, preferring to think in terms of 'disappointments'.

Belbin became part of a husband and wife team [Eunice his wife was appointed director of the Industrial Training Research Unit] and he subsequently became its chairman, combining this job with acting as OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) consultant running successful demonstration projects in Sweden, Austria, the UK and the United States.

"In the end we found we could make predictions of how individuals would combine and how particular teams of particular people would fare. Next we applied these findings to various bodies and firms across the world and I have had the pleasure of being invited to speak on the subject in many countries."

Dr Meredith Belbin, on team role theory

"Sir Richard O'Brien was chairman of the Manpower Services Commission and later we designed a project focusing on how to create jobs in areas of high unemployment. On all counts the work was very successful until there was an about-turn in government policy. Thatcher became prime minister. We were now entering the complete free market era, O'Brien got the push and my work on public policy came to an end. However, I did manage to publish 'The Job Promoters: A Journey to a New Profession'. It was all rather sad because my heart has remained in public policy work."

Today, Belbin is a partner in Belbin Associates, a firm that started out as the result of the application of his psychology know-how. During the middle years of Belbin's life he utilised his academic knowledge of psychology to provide a service to industry advising on the selection of candidates. Eventually he designed 'open-ended' tests to replace 'closed' tests and ran a thriving business.

"Regularly I would travel up from Cambridge to ICI in Billingham to offer my input. One day a manager said 'why don't we send the test results down to you by fax?' I had never heard of a fax but found it was slow and the quality of print poor. But things improved. Then a computer buff observed 'If your interpretative skill is real, it could be turned into a program'. And so it was. Interplace was the product. To the best of my knowledge it is the largest and most comprehensive system of its kind in the world. Belbin Associates was founded in 1988. One of the technical skills that are involved have their origins in the work of the ITRU."

Team work

Belbin is most widely respected for the work he has conducted on organisations and teams and particularly for his team-role theory enabling better understanding of the roles played by team members and how team interactions can be adjusted to increase team effectiveness.

The work was conducted over a long period and of this Belbin says: "People thought results would never see the light of day. But in the end we found we could make predictions of how individuals would combine and how particular teams of particular people would fare. Next we applied these findings to various bodies and firms across the world and I have had the pleasure of being invited to speak on the subject in many countries".

The notion of team roles is now widely spread. Plagiarism, says Belbin, is a further tribute to its success: "The problem now with the focus of people factors is that HR has tended to lose sight of the work factor. And so we have developed an ambiguous way of expressing the demands of work, based on a colour language designed to overcome the problem of semantics. If we are going to get the best out of meeting objectives and using human resources to best advantage I think we will need to understand both team roles and work roles".

Retirement... never

So what's left for this incredible man? He's just turned 82 years of age and isn't prepared to rest on his laurels quite yet, in fact the very idea, by his own admission, simply repulses him: "Retirement brings about scrap heap connotations. I find it ludicrous that people retire at 50, the economy simply can't afford this. When people retire they have nothing to talk about in my view, those that look forward to retirement must be bored in their current job".

True to his word, Belbin is cracking on and this time his focus is on management: "It is something of a shock for me to realise at this late stage in my career that not many people understand management. The focus on MBAs lies on the nature of business and the services that management must deploy. Few learn how to be a good manager, how to recognise talent, how to give what work to whom and how to optimise the size of various people combinations". Belbin is focusing on this goal by writing his next book, 'Size and Human Organisation'.

With such an expansive career I wanted to find out what in his view has been the biggest change in industry: "Without a doubt it has been the emancipation of women in the workforce and now in education. There are more women than men at university and it's the case globally". Belbin believes it's an exciting era and says there will be plenty of changes afoot in terms of how the dynamics will change in teams and group responsibility.

With his positivity shining through, Belbin does not hesitate for a moment in getting fully involved and hangs onto the driving force that has been central to his career –the need to find a solution and, more importantly, the belief that there is a solution to every problem and challenge. It's the momentum that has taken him from strength to strength and the reason why age is no barrier to his continued achievement.

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