A Better Way to Understand Teams and Roles

Updated: Nov 1, 2016

Understanding Teams and Roles

A Better Way to Understand Teams and Roles

Team interaction and management is a core discipline in HRM studies and is a critical area of competence for any manager. The success or failure of the entire organization, after all, is entirely dependent on how effectively the people within it can work together.

Of course, any management task involving people can be a little confusing, even messy; people do not neatly fit “models” and prescribed solutions, and the challenges only grow as people are brought together into purposeful groups. In this article, some of the well-known important concepts of teams and the roles people play in them are presented to show how popular academic ideas are reflected in real life, and what approaches can be taken when people in teams – as they inevitably will, pretty much all the time – do not behave in quite the way our textbooks and lectures lead us to believe they should. 

What Is a Team?

That sounds like a simple question with an answer that everyone should understand without a lot of mental exercises, but the “team” in “team management” is more often than not treated casually, or overlooked entirely. According to Dr. Etienne Wenger, an effective team is not merely a group of people working towards a common objective" but a community of practice, which has three “crucial” characteristics:

Domain. The shared domain of interest – in a work team setting, this would usually be the “purpose” of the team – gives the group a distinct identity, which may or may not mean anything to anyone else. As an example, Wenger describes how a street gang’s identity as a unit is formed by the shared domain of its individual members, even though that is ultimately probably not in their best interests or those of civilization as a whole. The key to the idea of “domain” is learning: what starts out as just a common interest among individuals is refined and increased by learning through interaction.


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Community. A community is characterized by joint activities and shared information, which contributes to the shared learning. The distinction between “community” in common sense – such as a neighborhood, or a group sharing a common topic of interest on a Facebook page – and community in the sense meant by Dr. Wenger is subtle and perhaps difficult to understand. It is easier to think of it in terms of where the intended benefits of the team interactions are focused by the team members; if the intention is an individual benefit, then the team is probably not a true community. For example, a neighborhood might not be a true “community” (although we may call it that), if whatever “neighborliness” practiced by the residents is primarily motivated out of self-interest for their own security and comfort.

Practice. What differentiates a “community” from a mere “group” is shared practice, or as Dr. Wenger describes it, a shared pool of intellectual resources – stories, tools, experiences, and ways to solve recurring problems. A group of truck drivers trading stories over coffee in a truck stop are not simply being friendly and entertaining themselves, but are actually building a knowledge base and learning from one another.

Dr. Wenger, who is a social learning theorist with a background in Artificial Intelligence, implies that a “community of practice” is most effective when it forms organically. This actually makes sense, because the motivation both in having an interest in the first place and then in pursuing it is largely intrinsic. Talk to any random truck driver, for instance – it’s nearly impossible to find one who doesn’t actually like being a “trucker”, in spite of whatever day-to-day annoyances might be encountered. But knowing how effective team works as a “community of practice” does make it possible to form the team purposefully, so long as the team members chosen individually have two basic traits

Commitment to a common interest or aspiration, as long as it is a specific interest or aspiration. If the goal for the team is to develop a world-beating software application, then the people chosen for the team should be passionate about developing software; enthusiasm for the vague aspirations expressed in the company’s Mission Statement or enjoying “working with others” is not enough, nor particularly relevant.

Good communication skills, or specifically, the ability to coherently communicate the passion for the common interest in practical terms. This also applies to being able to interpret others’ ideas. Naturally, finding the passionate, communicative people to build a team is only part of the puzzle; they still won’t be able to accomplish anything if they do not have clear roles to play.

Roles in Teams

A popular – and to be fair, not altogether useless – theory that one will encounter at some point in management studies in the Team Role Theory of Dr. Meredith Belbin. Dr. Belbin’s research led him to develop a description of nine roles in teams, which should be represented in a balanced way for the team to be effective:

According to Belbin’s website (the theory has become, not surprisingly, the basis for a multi-million dollar consulting business), the behavioral analysis that determines what individuals’ team roles should be “Can be used to build productive working relationships, select and develop high-performing teams, raise self-awareness and personal effectiveness, build mutual trust and understanding, and aid recruitment processes.”

The theory is backed up by empirical research, and does, in fact, give insights into how people work in teams, but only after the team has been formed and interacts for a period of time, when roles and attitudes begin to emerge because Team Role Theory has two big flaws. The first is generalization; some people are predictable, but most are not. The context of the team and the actual objectives the team is trying to achieve have a much greater part in determining how team members will act than the theory allows, because the roles themselves were developed from statistical results; results that furthermore did not allow for people to have aspects of more than one “role” in their personalities, which most people do.

The second flaw in Team Role Theory is over-thinking; in any team, as a practical matter, there are only four roles that need to be filled: the Team Leader, the Record-Keeper, the Worker, and the Progress-Chaser. In other words, the leader organizes the team and keeps communication flowing smoothly; the record-keeper keeps track of what the team is doing; the worker actually accomplishes the tasks the team needs to complete; and the progress-chaser conducts follow-up, testing, and monitors progress against the expected schedule. In most teams, every person will have parts of all four roles. What Team Role Theory can do to help – and why it is important to study and understand it, though it is not as practically useful as advertised – is to give some insights into what roles, and to what degree of those roles, prospective team members are best suited to fill.

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Read more about teams and team roles:

Belbin Associates: https://www.belbin.com/rte.asp?id=8

Dr. Etienne Wenger and Communities of Practice: https://www.ewenger.com/theor

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