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Team Roles at Work
By R. Meredith Belbin
Butterworth-HeinemannCopyright © 2010 Meredith Belbin
All right reserved.
Chapter OneHow roles at work emerged
This book is about the establishment of roles within a team where the assumption of duties and responsibilities depends on a measure of self-discovery combined with a perception of the needs of the team as a whole.
If it is argued that roles are not normally brought about in that way, I would have to agree. Usually, people are given roles; they do not find them. Nor for that matter do they associate work with teams. Yet I would claim that advanced teamwork is one of the most efficient ways we know of accomplishing complex tasks and missions.
The concept of the team is well established in sport but in so far as it relates to work, it is of comparatively recent origin. Teams, where the players play a different part but enjoy broadly equal status, have scarcely any precedents in the broad political history of mankind. The only possible exception arises in hunter-gatherer society, which I will consider below. But otherwise, the assignment of duties and responsibilities has operated through rank and has incorporated traditional rules and conventions. So it is important to heed the nature of these forces if we are to proceed, for, in the complex societies of our times, nothing ever begins on a blank sheet.
If the word 'teams' does not appear in recorded history, it is not surprising. It would hardly be a fitting description of the many key groupings of people that have significantly affected events over the last 3000 years. Yet in an earlier age, when closely knit bands of nomadic hunters and gatherers roamed the earth, social life was very different from what followed later.
Evidence from surviving indigenous peoples suggests a pattern of social behaviour marked by its elemental, spontaneous, and sharing characters. These small dynamic groups were closely related in kin, commonly matrilineal in descent and matrilocal in their places of residence, and developed relationships that owed little to the exercise of personal power. Distinction in the roles in which people engaged were linked with gender and age and had evolved in a way that was perceived natural. The notion of natural roles is far removed from how work is ordered in a world where divisions of labour are studied and enforced from the point of view of productivity.
The nature of working relationships changed with the building of towns and cities, along with the settlement and ownership of large tracts of territory. As the gains in material culture became worth defending, evolution exerted its unrelenting laws. The survival of the fittest meant that ascendancy was conferred on the possessors of superior weapons. And, inevitably, those possessors discovered that what could be used in defence was of equal value in attack; that weapons constituted investments, offering conspicuous rewards in the harvests of war — booty, tribute, growing empires, and a vanquished people who could provide wives, concubines, or slaves or, failing that, might be exterminated at will. (The Mongol and Ottoman empires, the largest the world had ever seen, owed their remarkable rate of expansion from so small a base to the discovery of a winning formula: interbreeding with the available women in the conquered lands and killing all but the most submissive men. So their empires grew as their kinship expanded).
As primaeval teams recede, tyrannical order develops
Weapons and violence alone were not enough to give this new order of society permanence. Something extra was needed. That something was disciplined organisation and it was conferred by patriarchy based on the authority of the war leader. Its uniform theme was the exertion of, and respect for, power.
Just as power regulated dealings between states, turning some nations into imperial masters and others into the subjugated, power was directed inwardly as much as outwardly. It was the key to organisation within the state — in political or social spheres no less than in the military. Power was wielded by the implied threat of force, or overtly by terror, commonly aided by resort to torture and even, in some societies, by human sacrifice.
Power, by its nature, starts at the top and is exercised downwards through a succession of subordinate relationships. Its mode of operation ensured that the key issues of politics hinged on the whims and personality of the ruler. And, as the ruler aged, all attention turned to succession. Where would-be heirs could point to no acknowledged rules to bolster their claims, succession became literally a subject of life and death. Monarchs were fortunate if they died peacefully in their beds. Sons murdered fathers in their haste to seize the throne. Rulers surrounded themselves with ever-watchful bodyguards and the duties of administration were passed to eunuchs, whose ambitions to install their own line were limited by the destruction of their capacity to reproduce. But even so, plots for assassination could still be hatched from afar. Poisoning became the favoured long-range weapon; food tasting a common security occupation.
Those who ruled their empires by the sword may have been preoccupied with their own well being and personal ambitions but tyranny had one positive outcome. It showed what a disciplined organisation, even in its harshest forms, can accomplish.
The level of economic and cultural success that each empire reached now depended on a new governing factor — the division of labour. The higher the level of achievement, the more intricate this division became. The assigning of duties and tasks necessary to maintain the system demanded complex handling; for every successful system that uses labour, whether imperial or industrial, has to settle the recurring question — according to what principles should work be distributed?
Several types of solution were available. Whatever formula was chosen had an enormous bearing on the vitality of the system and on the survival value of the society that adopted it.
Some traditional ways of assigning people to work roles
It is not in the nature of autocratic rulers to consult servants and underlings or to weigh up their preferences when distributing duties and responsibilities. A few favourites may have enjoyed the pick of appointments. But the great mass of people had no say in the matter. Their work was determined according to their station.
The notions of rulers about what work particular people should and should not have been doing may have been based on prejudice and often on falsehoods. But whatever their merits or otherwise, such beliefs ensured that the required work got done. By classifying people, work schedules were more easily arranged. So to understand the productive forces of society and its dynamic mechanisms, one should first look at how work was and is assigned to those undertaking it.
When scheduled work began — of the type needed to develop major well-planned undertakings — only a limited range of possibilities existed. The most straightforward rules for allotting differentiated duties involved a classification of all people by age, gender, and race. That classification has such universality of application that it is no surprise it is alive and well today. In many contemporary societies it remains, as it has done for countless ages, the principal determinant of the rank and occupational positions in which people find themselves.
The Most Senior Person Gets the Job
One of the most favoured differentiators of status is seniority. Individuals line up for jobs, responsibility, and promotion in a sequential order where the first to arrive in service and employment has the highest claim. All the jobs are similarly ranked on the ladder of a hierarchy. As the years pass by, the candidates move up a rung and occupy positions with the higher status.
The premium placed on seniority was much in evidence as the nineteenth century moved into the twentieth century. A typical example was set by the railways. A newcomer would be given a station or track job before being allowed on to a locomotive. The entry job would then be as fireman. That title denoted a stoker busily shovelling coals into the boiler. Many years would pass before he was allowed to act as a locomotive driver. That was the route forward. There was no other.
An everyday example can be witnessed in a restaurant. There, an under waiter is ranked below a waiter, who in turn is less important than a wine waiter, above whom stands the head waiter. Each job involves different tasks, performance of which scarcely prepares the jobholder for the position above. But one unwritten code applies — no under waiter would ever be appointed who was older than a head waiter.
A seeming justification of the seniority principle is that age and experience convey confidence and wisdom (as once must have been true before the age of literacy). The principle is therefore traditional, with the conservative nature of its code ensuring the unwavering support of the establishment. As has been the case in China for centuries, status is attached to looking old. The practical advantage of the age and seniority principle is that anyone can check that no one has been promoted out of turn. At the same time, those who have any reason to be disappointed can console themselves with the thought that their turn will eventually come.
Here it is remarkable how a long-standing principle has lately been turned on its head. In sunrise industries, age and experience have given way to an emphasis on youth, vigour, and recency of education. For those who fail to match these requirements, the prospects are poor. As the passage of years renders them 'past it', the disappointed are consigned to the legendary scrapheap. So age still serves, even in its perverse form, as a visual marker for assigning work.
The Impact of Gender
There is another simple principle, of ancient origins, which from time immemorial has governed the allocation of tasks and responsibilities. That principle is gender. Men and women in most societies and firms characteristically do different jobs. The distinction in domains is so basic that in most languages — with the notable exception of English — nouns are either feminine or masculine. (That in some languages the compromise of neuter has introduced a grey zone does no more than mask the fundamental division).
The fact that there is no uniformity in what constitutes the orbits of masculinity and femininity matters less than the fact that the division exists at all. For by existing, it simplifies decision-making in terms of the roles people play. A dynamic market entrepreneur in West Africa is likely to be female, in India and China male. It is not aptitude but how the gender factor is treated in culture that largely determines the differences in job opportunities.
Those biophysical twins, age and gender, are at their most powerful in their bearing on work roles when they operate in combination. There we encounter a powerful consolidating factor: initiation ceremonies or rites of passage. These are kept rigorously separate for men and women as they move up the age scale. In tribal society, these often gain an added emphasis through secret ceremonies. Emphasis is added through physical mutilation, e.g. male adolescent circumcision and its female equivalent, clitoridectomy, and by wearing distinguishing clothing or other forms of decoration. These transition points may strike an observer as primitive and often brutal. But they have a function. They serve as frontiers, introducing, as they are passed through, new and socially accepted forms of work and privilege.
Age and gender have offered a means of separating roles, so bringing together complementary work activities throughout the history of mankind. But in due course, as the population filled the land, and intertribal and imperial conflicts became more intense, skirmishes gave way to conquests. There were the victors and there were the vanquished. And now a new principle became available for assigning roles at work, for, those features of appearance that had hitherto marked out enemies now offered a special opportunity for constructive exploitation. The new formula for assigning work took in racial segregation and stratification. And so it came about that peoples of different stocks took on different working roles.
Racial Roles and Hierarchies
Virtually all the early cities about which we have historical evidence were built up on ghettos. Cities were assemblies of peoples chosen for their specialist tribal skills. Inevitably, they looked physically different from one another. The ethnic factor played a major part in channelling them into distinctive occupations. Trades were passed from father to son and shared to some extent within their own community, but were nearly always hidden from outsiders.
Manpower policies thus have an ancient lineage, accounting for much of the belief that different peoples have different talents for particular classes of work. So strong was this belief that whenever one empire overran another in the ancient world, it was customary for the new ruler to transplant that source of wealth creation, the ghetto of skilled tradesmen, from the old city to the new capital.
So it was when Cairo fell to the Ottoman Empire. Then, Selim the Grim uprooted the peoples of the most useful ghettos and resited them in Byzantium. As a consequence, Cairo never regained its former pre-eminence in the ancient world.
Because people in ghettos looked different, one could recognize or even assume their occupation. In due course, as empires expanded, these ethnic variations signified not merely the rich trade tapestries of cities but also different positions in the hierarchy of the empire.
This gradation was extended by bringing in and finding a place for slaves. Because conquered peoples belonged to different tribes and races, who were overcome in different circumstances, their positions within the system varied. The best positions would go to those who enjoyed superior status. For example, a Greek slave would typically end up as a tutor in a Roman patrician family. The losers became the hewers of wood and the drawers of water, or, in Roman times, the harshly treated labourers who toiled on the latifundia.
Slaves who distinguished themselves through their work performance became emancipated and so moved one step up the social and work ladder. Yet race, and its junior cousin, tribe, still remained primary factors in marking out positions within the complexity of the empire.
To this day, in liberally minded cities, different ethnic groups are still attached to certain trades, industries, and professions. A balance between these ethnic groups can therefore enrich the life of the city. Moreover, much is to be gained for the groups themselves. There are social and cultural advantages both in passing on special skills within family groups and in restricting knowledge.
Yet the corollary is that those who start in disadvantaged positions face an uphill climb in rising to higher things, whatever their talents. Progress is hardly possible for those outside the favoured circle until the old stereotypes are broken down.
The rise of the free city
These age-old conventional systems for assigning people to work had their part to play in expanding the productive base of society. But their greatest limitation to continued development was that they neglected individual differences. There was no place for those glittering and unexpected talents that often rear their heads in the most unexpected places. Personal behaviour was circumscribed by those stereotypes that attach to membership of an identified group. Individuality could find no place in such societies — a condition still to be witnessed in large parts of the world today. The acceptance of individual differences in the population at large did not enter the social and political scene until the power structures of empires and associated tyrannies began to crumble.
The opportunity for change first arose when small city-states laid down their roots beyond the reach of powerful empires. So it was that Miletus, famed for such great thinkers as Heraclitus and Hippocrates, achieved its trading and cultural pre-eminence on the rocky coasts of Asia Minor; similarly Knossos on the apparently undefended island of Crete, Rhodes, and Samos in the Aegean; Athens in the age of Pericles; or Corinth on the isthmus of the Peloponnese and its later colony, Syracuse, on Sicily. So it was that Venice established itself on sand dunes in the North Adriatic out of reach of invading Goths and Vandals; or Aigues Mortes, that remarkable and well-preserved walled city, set in a salt marsh on the Camargue and beyond the easy grasp of the Bourbons; or the cities of Armenia and Georgia in the mountain fastnesses of the Caucasus, protected from the ravages of the Mongol and Ottoman empires; or the independent Swiss cantons, founded by Huguenot artisans, protected in their remote mountain strongholds from the oppressive forces of the French monarchy; or the Baltic cities of the Hanseatic League spreading skills and enlightenment well beyond the Baltic itself; or the city states of Florence, Siena, Bologna, Assisi, and others on the Italian peninsula, flourishing during the Renaissance before mega empires could once again resume their onward march.
Excerpted from Team Roles at Work by R. Meredith Belbin Copyright © 2010 by Meredith Belbin. Excerpted by permission of Butterworth-Heinemann. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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