Belbin in project teams: how behavioural diversity boosts team performance

Successful project management is a complex business. Why? Because it requires two elements which are difficult to combine: structure and flexibility.
Projects demand clarity when it comes to roles, expectations and communication. But they are also subject to change – whether that be in scope, deliverables, personnel, the market or numerous other factors outside the team’s control.
All too often, the focus in project management is predominantly on task and process. But what happens when (inevitably) the goalposts move and the processes become obsolete? Does the team press on with irrelevant tasks or do the people involved have the flexibility to adapt to changing circumstances?
Several paper silhouettes of heads in different colours.


Linking structure and flexibility with Belbin

Whatever the outcome, projects are only as successful as their teams. In order to navigate from start to finish, the team needs ‘buy in’ – in other words, people need to be: aware of the team’s purpose; engaged in contributing to achieve that purpose, and collaborating effectively with others, mindful of the team’s dynamics.
Belbin is one way to make that happen. According to Belbin Team Role theory, we each have preferred contributions that we make within a team – our working styles. Some focus on ideas; others, on details. Some are concerned with setting goals and work best to deadlines, whilst others take time to build rapport and morale. The list goes on.
Of course, people are complex. Each of us has several preferred Team Roles, and these behaviours can interact in interesting and distinct ways. Understanding our behavioural strengths can help us at every stage of a project: offering role clarity, aiding delegation, improving communication and much more. And crucially, because behaviour can change, we can adapt our behaviours to suit our environment.
In other words, the Belbin methodology offers the combination of structure and flexibility that underpins success in project teams.

Selecting a project team

For a project team to be truly effective, it’s crucial to consider behavioural strengths when structuring the team. Often, recruitment processes focus solely on ‘eligibility’ (the hard skills and competencies required to do the job) at the expense of ‘suitability’ – the behavioural styles required.
In his original research into management teams, Dr Meredith Belbin discovered that skills alone were not sufficient – the most successful teams had access to diverse strengths, which met their needs at each stage of the life cycle. 
It’s easy to consider the implications in practice: imagine that you have two applicants with the same qualifications and comparable levels of experience. One takes a creative approach and likes to think outside the box. The other is practical and will do the job efficiently and exactly as specified.
Which is a better fit for that job function? The answer depends on what that specific role requires and how it combines with the strengths of others in the team.
Gallup reports that we are six times more engaged when working to our strengths. Whilst many organisations subscribe to a competency model, the research shows that focusing on weaknesses actually has a detrimental effect on engagement and productivity, and dulls those strengths, instead of elevating overall performance.
Belbin reports can be used to discover an individual’s behavioural strengths and – if desired – to compare these with the demands of a job.
This gives an at-a-glance view of the degree of fit between individual and job, so that there are no costly surprises later on, such as ‘quiet quitting’ or high employee turnover.

Team Roles at each stage of a project

Flexibility means not only that team members can respond effectively to change, but also that the team itself changes shape according to its environment.
Research shows that teams with greater cognitive diversity – or marked and recognised differences in approach – solve problems faster.
Understanding the Belbin strengths present in a project team boosts engagement, facilitates effective delegation and communication and reduces frustration and waste.
Have you ever worked in a team that never made it past the ‘ideas’ phase? Or one that worked in isolation and neglected crucial changes in the market? One where decision-making was too slow or important details were missed?
When we understand the behavioural strengths present in a team, we can plan when to involve each team member. For example, creative Plants and inquisitive Resource Investigators are good at coming up with ideas for the more cautious Monitor Evaluator to vet. 
Involve the Monitor Evaluator too early and they’ll dismiss ideas out of hand. Leave it too late and your product might reach production before you realise it’s unfeasible.
Likewise, if your creative Plant is involved in the planning and implementation phase (when your Implementers come to the fore), they’re likely to want to reinvent the wheel, causing unnecessary delays and frustration all round.
The diagram below gives an outline of when each Team Role behaviour is useful within the project timeline. 
The diagram provides an overview of when the individual team roles make sense within the project schedule.
It is important to note that some Team Role strengths can be drawn upon at any time (such as the Shaper, who motivates the team to achieve its goals and meet deadlines). In addition, as noted above, people have more than one Team Role strength.
In other words, a successful project team doesn’t necessarily need nine people, but should have access to the Team Role behaviours required at each stage.
In some cases, a particular contribution might not be required at all. Indeed, the Specialist Team Role was not identified as part of Dr Belbin’s original research, because the exercise teams were playing as part of the experiments did not require specialised knowledge. It was only later, when Belbin was being used in industry, that the value of this contribution came to the fore.

Embedding the language of Belbin in your project team

It isn’t enough to assemble the right people at the right time and wait for the magic to happen.
In order to harness the benefits of behavioural diversity with Belbin, each team member needs to know when to make their contribution, and how to call on others’ strengths when needed.
The Belbin Team report collates individual data to give a project team an idea of where its strengths lie, as well as any gaps or overlaps in contribution which could present challenges. 
Armed with this information, the team can use the language of Belbin Team Roles to allocate work effectively, select members for sub-teams and ensure more productive meetings.
In practice, this might mean someone announcing when they are going to take on a particular role (“I’m going to play the Shaper in this meeting”) or recognising when someone is playing out of role and making the necessary allowances.
When difficulties arise, the Belbin language can depersonalise issues. Rather than blaming someone for allowing an error to slip through the net, the team can ask who is best placed to play the role of Completer Finisher.


Attending to process alone is not enough to foster resilience in a VUCA environment. For a truly high-performing project team, managers must ‘bake in’ behavioural diversity from the team’s inception to assure a breadth of experience and perspective.
Project teams should be designed with individual and team strengths in mind. Strengths-based working leads to greater individual and team engagement, and alleviates the frustrations and disillusionment associated with ineffective working practices.
Behavioural strengths should be recognised and understood by each team member. This enables team members to build strong networks for effective communication, collaboration and knowledge-sharing, and helps with onboarding, gap analysis and succession planning.
In order to derive greatest value from a methodology such as Belbin, the language of strengths (and weaknesses) should be part of the team’s everyday lexicon, used to delegate work, aid communication, address conflict and celebrate success.

Author: Victoria Brown, Head of R&D, Belbin
Keywords: Project management, Belbin

The IAPM certification

The certification can be taken via a reputable online examination procedure. The costs are based on the gross domestic product of your country of origin.

From the IAPM Blog

Become a Network Official

Do you want to get involved in project management in your environment and contribute to the further development of project management? Then become active as an IAPM Network Official or as a Network Official of the IAPM Network University. 

For better readability, we usually only use the generic masculine form in our texts. Nevertheless, the expressions refer to members of all genders.