An appreciative look at team roles is an obvious choice. When we are aware which roles come easily to us, and in which roles others excel, differences between people start to have value. We are able to complement each other, learn from each other, and increase the odds that our mutual efforts lead to more than the sum of our individual qualities. However, we also know that all this does not come naturally. Understanding each other, appreciating our differences and working with people who have a very different way of looking at things is a challenge.
When I talk about an appreciative look at Belbin team roles, I am basing this on Appreciative Inquiry (AI), a philosophy and method introduced by David Cooperrider in the mid-1980s. During his doctorate research, he discovered that how research questions are asked has a large bearing on the outcome of the research. For instance, he wrote:
Positive questions lead to positives images; positive images lead to positive actions.
In the following years he developed Appreciative Inquiry, together with Jane Magruder Watkins and others. This approach does not focus on solving a problem; rather, we ask for stories about situations in which an individual, a team or an organisation has made a difference in reference to a particular topic.
This approach is primarily a way of looking at things. This makes Appreciative Intervention, my translation into Dutch of the name Appreciative Inquiry, suitable for use alongside any other method or model: strategic development, coaching, team development, Lean and so on. In this article I will discuss the possibilities an appreciative approach allows professionals working with Belbin’s team roles.
An appreciative way of looking at things
An important source of appreciative intervention is the social constructionist principle. This theory is based on the idea that an “independent reality” does not exist. Instead, by our constant interactions humans create a shared reality which becomes our “truth”. This means we can never have an objective image of the world around us, because we were part of creating that image in the first place, and we continue to create it as we talk about it. As Ken Gergen said: “The words we use create the world we live in.” He calls us “relational beings” in his book of the same title. We are constantly communicating with others, he states, even when we are alone – when we talk to others inside our own heads, as it were.
When we look at people as rational beings, what follows is that our identity is flexible: people adapt their behaviour according to the situation or the person they are interacting with. While we may take the leadership role on one occasion, we might become someone completely different on another. Our behaviour is based on what we ourselves bring to the table (our temperament, preference for team role or learning style, etc.) and the environment in which we operate.
And here we find the first contribution of the appreciative approach to Belbin’s work: a more nuanced view of the importance of team roles. The role we take on in a situation is largely driven by our perception of that situation; we modify our behaviour accordingly. Moreover, we often do this subconsciously. One example: because we do not want to deviate from what is customary within a certain group or context.
An appreciative approach to team roles creates a more relaxed view: no individual is always the same, and team roles can shift depending on the situation and the people we are working with. This approach prevents us from putting restrictive labels on ourselves and others, or from saying: “Well, that’s just the way I am…”
An appreciative way of behaving
An important asset appreciative intervention has brought to the field is a method known as the “appreciative interview”. This is a conversation based on a guideline developed beforehand with some of the participants. During the interview, two participants explore valuable experiences, ideals and aspiration around a set theme: cooperation, excellent customer service, customer satisfaction and so on.
An appreciative interview always starts with the request to tell a story about a situation that has proved successful in the past. Next, the participants try to find out together why this situation was a success: which skills, qualities and factors played a role? From this, the next question usually follows: if all these skills and factors were realised in the future, what would this look like? This way the participants create an image of an ideal situation – based on past success.
Secondly, I see great opportunities when we combine a discussion about team roles with this appreciative method. Using this method, we anchor the qualities the several team roles bring to the fore into concrete experiences, allowing us to focus on the question, “how we can use the various team roles to shape the ideal situation?”
The works council of a large corporation asked for my help. A conflict between members of different unions had led to a severe breakdown of relations within the council. And since the board of directors had announced a series of cutbacks, the works council needed to drastically improve their internal cooperation to step up to their role as partners in this process.
As they knew about my tendency towards the appreciative approach, the works council’s board stressed that this approach was not their preferred approach. The board felt that all issues should be brought to the table and discussed openly.
I wasn’t keen on “openly discussing” a breach of trust with 25 works council members liaised to four different unions. I suggested we have an intake meeting with two representatives of each union, lasting no more than two hours.
My first request during this meeting was for each participant to introduce themselves to me by telling a story: “Which of the works council’s achievements during the past year made you most proud? Which one made you think: this is why I became a member in the first place!” After some incredulous looks, the first participant started their story. Each participant told me – and each other! – why they were happy to have joined. Every one of them was able to describe a success story that made the works council membership worthwhile for them.
After this, I asked the participants to think of someone they often disagreed with. This person was to be their partner in the next phase of our meeting. The council members present interviewed each other about their conflict. The first question was: “Tell me a story about when you were part of a conflict that had a successful outcome. What happened? Who were involved? What did you contribute?” And so on.
In this way, “conflict” was central to the interview, but I gave it a positive – appreciative – twist. We worked with four questions in all, the others being about values vital to the works council members, and their wishes for the future.
After the interview phase, the group re-joined me. Two men who had sat together immediately told me they hadn’t dealt with the assignment at all, setting aside the form with questions straight away. I asked them what they had done in the half hour they had just spent together. After some hesitation, one of them said they had had a very good talk and that he could actually understand why his counterpart was so angry and disappointed on how things were done in their council. The other answered that he had realised during their talk that he had become suspicious person, and that he didn’t want to be that way at all. He wanted to get rid of his distrust and asked the other participants to help him.
This first interaction paved the way for an open meeting in which all participants were happy to share, followed by two workshop sessions, during which the council members worked on remodelling their differences into productive assets. Mutual trust returned, and the works council became a serious participant in talks with management once more.
A design for a workshop on Appreciative intervention using
Belbin team roles
I like to start a workshop session with an interview. This creates a positive context and a framework for a discussion about Belbin team roles. The initial question for this appreciative interview could be: “Tell me a story about a situation in which you made a difference within this organisation.” Follow-up questions can explore what the exact role of the subject was in this success story – asking different questions of people with different team roles (see below).
After the workshop participants have discussed this one-on-one, they sit together in small groups and share the success stories and the individual contributions that have been made. In all likelihood, during these group sessions, concepts that look like team roles start to emerge.
Next, participants are offered the opportunity to create an image of the ideal future. The initial question in this phase is: “Imagine, it is 1 January 20…, and you and your colleagues bring your best – every moment of every day. Team roles are complementary and every team member has the opportunity to make a difference in their own way. What does this look like?” The participants are encouraged to use lively imagery and metaphors to paint this ideal picture.
In the next step, the team comes up with ways to best use the team members’ differences. Which conditions are important? Which other people can play a part? What are the means the teams has and needs? What could be the first small step?
In this workshop design, I have made the team roles central in the steps at the core of the appreciative approach. A four-hour workshop could look like this:
15 minutes Introduction
45 minutes Appreciative interviews
15 minutes Exchange in small groups
15 minutes Break
60 minutes Belbin test and explanation
30 minutes Imagining the ideal situation
15 minutes Break
30 minutes Increasing chances of success
15 minutes Determining first small steps and round-up
Examples of questions for different team roles
An appreciative interview always starts with the question: “Tell me a story about a situation in which …” People with different team roles will tell different kinds of stories. We can adjust the initial question to a number of working style preferences, according to the Belbin model. For example:
Questions for a Plant could be: Tell me a story about a situation in which an idea you supplied led to a remarkable result. Why did this idea appeal to others? How did you get the others to successfully implement your idea?
We could ask a Co-ordinator: Tell me a story about a situation in which you achieved success with a group of people. How did you make sure the group members remained focused on your common goal? To what degree did the situation serve your own purpose?
A good initial question for a Shaper is: Tell me a story about a situation where you could focus all your energy on a project and create something amazing. How did you encourage others? Which conditions were important to effectively channel your passion?
A Resource Investigator will likely easily answer the following questions: Tell me a story about a situation in which your enthusiasm really helped your team forward. How did you influence the group? What was your contribution?
Good questions for the Implementer are: Tell me a story about a situation in which your structured and organised actions were crucial in achieving a result. What did you do? How did others respond to you? What was the result of this?
An interview with a Monitor Evaluator can start with questions like: Tell me a story about a situation in which you helped a group with your thinking power and analytical skills. Who did you connect with and how did you manage that? How did you ensure the group’s attention was focused on your contribution?
A Teamworker enjoys talking about their ability to connect with others. Questions for them could be: Tell me a story about a situation in which you influenced a group process so that the group excelled. How did you contribute to the success? Which of your own ambitions was fulfilled during this project?
We can ask a Completer Finisher: Tell me a story about a situation in which you were incremental in finishing a project successfully. What was the nicest compliment you received about this? And to what degree have you been able to create co-ownership for the result within the group?
The pattern in all these interviews is that we ask the subject to tell a story, initially connecting with the strengths attached to our subject’s team role. Our additional questions are aimed at exploring whether they have been able to utilise that strength to aid the group effort.
Belbin Magazine, publication Teamrolacademie, 2015
For dutch readers: Lees de blog van Hanneke Laarakker met Nederlandse versie van het artikel hier