Incompetent managers and snake-oil consultants have rendered most business jargon quite unusable. Few people want to be 'empowered' (it will mean more work); even fewer want 'total quality management' (paperwork, higher costs and delays will surely follow). The one remaining concept most people think they understand is teamwork. That one's easy: we work together, we're a team.
If only it were that simple. As Meredith Belbin has been trying to explain for more than two decades, there are far more intricate and subtle forces at play in teams in the workplace.
Belbin's latest work on teams and individuals at work will delight his fans. It is timely, because the pressures on teams to deliver, in both the new and old economies, have never been higher. How to manage teams in this context is item one on most people's agendas.
In the past, Belbin famously identified nine different types of colleague (shaper, completer, plant, etc) who usually figured in teams. Now he has moved on to analyse the different types of work we perform, colour-coding seven different forms that result in more or less substantial or productive outcomes. From this, Belbin draws radical and challenging conclusions about how we manage jobs today.
A key area is pay and reward. Belbin thinks we are mistaken in assuming that 'people will only do their jobs well if they are offered the prospect of more. An alternative view is that most people, if they like their job and are properly selected, will wish to do their jobs well anyway.' Pay people fairly in the first place, rather than use distorting schemes to ratchet pay up.
Incentives and rewards have to be carefully designed. In one telling example, retail bankers whose bonuses depended on how much new business they developed (ie, how much money they lent) caused bad debts to rise dramatically. Belbin's views on performance-related pay would find favour with the teaching unions and none at all with David Blunkett.
To some readers, Belbin's precise, academic niceties may seem a long way from the muddled reality of everyday work. So what if he can distinguish ingeniously between 'task' and 'responsibility', between a 'team' and a 'group'? How does that help me with today's crisis?
The answer is that Belbin's analysis sheds brilliant light on the source of so much confusion and disappointment at work. There is little he doesn't understand about the way we work now. He is both captain and our number one team player.