The Importance of Team Roles In Teamwork

Team Roles In Teamwork

Team roles for a football team

Image Courtesy: toonaripost.com

Imagine this ridiculous scenario.  I want to create a winning NFL football team.  I believe the key to success is hiring the best athletes for my team. They should be strong. They must have a positive winning attitude.  They are intelligent (to recall the right play strategies).  Finally, they should be ‘team players’ that are obedient to the coach’s wishes of how best to deploy them in the game.  Guess what?  My team would fail miserably.  Why?

The Importance of Team Roles

While I found great athletes for my football team, I did not identify the team roles for each of the athletes on the team.  Consequently,  I unwittingly hired all quarterbacks.  They all met the criteria of athletic excellence that I described earlier.  All my quarterbacks  had specialized talent to throw the football.  Sadly, none of them had enough talent to catch the football, run the football, kick the football, intercept passes, block, and tackle.  Each of these team roles: ‘passer’, ‘runner’, ‘kicker’, ‘blocker’, ‘tackler’ are essential for a properly functioning football team.  All the team roles require the general strengths of the job description known as ‘athlete’.  However, each of the team roles also require different, specific strengths from the person fulfilling that role(passing, catching, running, blocking, kicking, tackling).  Finally, the team roles used are appropriate to execute the task of playing football.  Thus, there is no need to identify a role for hitting the football with a wooden instrument, such as a bat.  As owner of the team, I must identify the right combination team roles and then acquire the right talent to agree to operate and function in those team roles in order to execute the team’s mission–to win the game.

Team Roles Off the Field

Team Roles in Business

Image Courtesy: Ambro / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The complexity of a football team is a wonderful analogy to the complexity of teams in the business world today.  It’s no different off the football field.  A team that doesn’t have the right mixture of people performing in the right team roles is doomed to either failure or ineffectiveness.  Having the ‘best and brightest’ people on the team is not enough.  The composition of the team must possess the right amount and mixture of team roles that are aligned with the team’s ultimate objective or purpose.

“…by organizing people into a team, managers can easily identify and use the specific strengths of each individual member to the best advantage.” –Debra Housel, Team Dynamics

What are Team Roles?

The American Heritage Dictionary states that the origins of the word ‘role’ comes from the French word ‘rôle’ as in a roll of parchment containing a manuscript.  The term referred to the text from which an actor learned a character part.  Today, we continue to use the term ‘role’ to describe the characters that actors and actresses portray –”my character’s role is the evil mastermind villain”.   However, in addition to persona, we also use ‘role’ in other important ways

  • To relate the actions and activities assigned to or required or expected of a person or group
  • To describe what something is used for; – its function or purpose
  • To identify normal or customary conduct of a person in a particular social setting

A blend of all three definitions can be used to describe the variety of team roles present in a typical team.  In his book Team Roles at Work, researcher R. Meredith Belbin stated “The types of behavior in which people engage are infinite.  But the range of useful behaviors, which make an effective contribution to team performance, is finite.”
How often do leaders think about, identify, and define key team roles?  How often are team roles used as a basis to select people to join the team?  I fear that the answer is ‘not often’.   Regardless of whether or not team roles have been identified, team members will adopt a role.  The question then becomes, are the right team roles(out of an infinite set of roles) present? Are the right people acting in the right team roles?  According to Susan Wheelan, author of Creating Effective Teams “each member of a team must be clear about the role they are being asked to play, each member must have the competency to function in that role, and each member must agree and accept their role.”

How are Team Roles Defined?

There are many ways to go about describing team roles and I’m not going to attempt to identify all of them.  Here are three alternative perspectives of looking at team roles.  The first is personality based, the second uses functional descriptions, and the third uses thinking style.

 Team Roles – Alternative #1 (Personality)

Belbin’s research on the effectiveness and function of executive teams identified nine general team roles.  They are:

  • Completer Finisher – The ‘anxious’ one.  Conscientious, looks for errors, focuses on on-time delivery.
  • Co-ordinator – The ‘mature’ one.  Functions as chair to help clarify goals, delegate, and promoting decision making.
  • Implementer - The ‘disciplined’ one.  Looks to convert ideas into actions.
  • Monitor Evaluator – The ‘skeptical’ one.  Seeks to apply logic to explore all options and provides good judgement.
  • Plant – The ‘creative’ one.  Uses creativity and imagination to solve problems.
  • Resource Investigator – The ‘extroverted’ one.  Explores opportunities and develops contacts.
  • Shaper – ‘The challenging’ one.  Seeks to drive the team to overcome obstacles.
  • Specialist – The ‘knowledge’ one.  Provides subject matter expertise and skills that may otherwise not be present in the team.
  • Teamworker – The ‘cooperative’ one.  Seeks to pull the team together, remove friction, and focus on team objectives over self-interest.

Team Roles – Alternative #2 (Activity)

Many of Belbin’s team roles can be seen as personality driven and separate from a task or functional role.  An example of a contrast of roles is provided by Robert Heller, author of Essential Manager: Managing Teams, identifies the following team roles:

  • Leader – Recruits, sustains, communicates, moves toward compromise
  • Critic – Finds weaknesses, helps define issues, and points out barriers
  • Implementer – tackles problems, anticipates ways to prevent delays
  • Diplomat – focuses on external relationships to the team, acts as a liason
  • Coordinator – maintains focus, pulls tasks into a plan, performs scheduling and budgeting
  • Innovator – provides ideas and insights, identifies alternative courses of action
  • Inspector – tracks progress, uncovers missing issues, performs quality control

Team Roles – Alternative #3 (Thinking Style)

Finally, Edward de Bono, author of Six Thinking Hats defines team roles using hat colors to describe team roles based on thinking style:

Team Roles - Six Thinking Hats

Image Courtesy: six-thinking-hats.seebyseeing.net

  • White Hat – objective, focuses on facts
  • Yellow Hat – opportunity, focuses on positives
  • Black Hat – care and caution, focuses on negatives
  • Red Hat – passionate, focuses on feelings
  • Green Hat   - fertile, focuses on creativity, innovation
  • Blue Hat – abstract, organizes, focuses on facilitation

Final Thoughts on Team Roles

I don’t profess to have a preference about the right set of team roles to adopt.  The three perspectives I highlighted serve as useful general examples of the different dimensions of team roles to think about when constructing team.  Notice that the nature of team roles are not tied to a job description or function.  Many of the team roles identified do not rely on a technical competency or explicit knowledge.  There are other factors that are just as essential to technical knowledge in order to create an effective team.  Just as a football team that contains all quarterbacks won’t thrive, so too does your team depend a variety of team roles with people aware, able, and willing to operate within those team roles.

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About Valerisys (Mike Gallo)

I'm a farmer. My crop is knowledge. I founded Valerisys Consulting to help organizations make better planning and budgeting decisions by helping them harvest knowledge from their own organization. As a senior analyst, project manager, division director, and CFO, I have harvested data to help clients gain better insights into their decisions, using the language of finance.

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