What do you think of when you hear “group work?” The traumas of middle school? Or the focused and coordinated teams you work on in your job? Groups and teams, although used interchangeably as organizational vocabulary, actually represent two different collectives, according to research by Meredith Belbin. Groups, according to Belbin, consist of more than eight people working in a more-or-less coordinated fashion in a particular area of an organization. They may not share goals or deliverables, but find it useful to coordinate communication and efforts. Teams, on the other hand, are optimally four to six people working together to achieve a shared objective. Teams’ effectiveness can be gauged by their effectiveness in achieving those outcomes.

Almost nothing in our adult work lives in post-secondary education is a solo job. We work in groups and teams all the time: on joint projects, in labs, on committees, when writing and editing, when sharing our results with others and getting feedback. So it makes sense to attend to what we know about optimal team composition and stellar team performance.

We often don’t work on teams that were intentionally put together from the start and engineered for smooth functioning and best results. Rather, we wind up with people who share our spaces or our job descriptions, or our interests. And we might not know how to work best with the team we wind up on.

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Image shows six hands, both male and female, clasping wrists to make a circle.

There are research studies and resources that can help us frame our work on teams and understand our own work, and that of others, better. One tool that coaches and consultants can use to help teams function optimally is the Belbin Team Roles assessment and framework. Identifying the tendencies and behaviours each individual brings to teamwork can help teams understand how better to work together and communicate more effectively.

The Belbin framework outlines the nine team roles that every successful team needs (and tells us that the ideal team size is four to six people, so people need to have strength in more than one area) and puts these nine roles into three key areas: thinking roles, action roles, and people roles.

The thinking roles are where the team turns for idea generation, idea evaluation, and necessary subject matter expertise.

The action roles focus on driving the project to completion, creating process and project maps to make sure things happen in the right order, and paying attention to the detail work that can’t be overlooked.

The people roles are filled by team members who make connections outside the team and bring insights and contributions back with them, those who work to eliminate friction within the team and prioritize diplomacy, and those who identify talent and delegate authority.

Each of these nine roles is essential for the smooth and successful functioning of a team, and for the team to achieve the results it is aiming for. And each team member will naturally have strengths in three or so of these roles. What do you think yours are?

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