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? Because, as it turns out, adult working life is largely team work! We work in teams all the time: on joint projects, in labs, on committees, when writing and editing, when sharing our results with others and getting feedback — almost nothing in academic life is a solo job.

But it will come as no surprise that, even though teams and group work are the norm for many, if not most of us, from grade school through to retirement, 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.

Luckily for us, though, we have research and resources to help us frame our work on teams and understand our own work, and that of others, better. Popular in the UK and gaining users in North America, the Belbin Team Roles framework to help individuals better understand their strengths on a team, and to help teams understand how better to work together and communicate more effectively.

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picture of six arms with hands overlapping in the middle

The Belbin framework outlines the nine team roles that every successful team needs (and tells us that the ideal team size is about 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 three 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 forward, 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 of us has three or so of these roles that are our natural behaviours when contributing to a team. What do you think yours are?

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