Meredith Belbin: 'The EU is a minuscule bureaucracy'

YOU LIVE & YOU LEARN: The father of team role theory explains why massive executive salaries and top down culture don't work.

Last Updated: 20 Aug 2020

My family were evacuated in the War from Sevenoaks to Gerrard’s Cross, which ironically was much more dangerous. I remember cycling to see this house that had disappeared, and finding a firebomb sticking out of a ditch. I put it over my handlebars and took it home but my parents called the air raid warden to take it away. I was disgusted at them for taking away my bomb.

I was most influenced by women teachers in my education. Unlike the male teachers, who loved the cane but still struggled to keep order, they could only do things through engagement and influence. As incentives, these are more effective than punishment, something I later found in industrial relations too.

At the moment it’s all about Leadership with a big L, having the strength to stand up to your opponents and underlings. This is what happened with the banks, driving catastrophes around the world because top bankers insisted on getting their way on everything and getting rid of people taking contrary views.

In our team role experiments in the 1960s, we noticed this one group was getting all its ideas when the chairman went to the bar with the person who had all the bright ideas. We called these clever people plants, because the chaps at Henley insisted we plant one in each group. We’d previously put them all in one team, but they hadn’t performed well because they kept clashing.

It’s so important to put people in an area they feel comfortable in. When we recruit someone, we never tell them precisely what the job is. If you spell it out and ask if they can do it, of course they’ll say yes. This way, people reveal their true selves far more. It’s been very successful. No one’s left our office for a better paid job.

Large companies often can’t cope with their size. You get to the point where walkaround management isn’t possible anymore and things can go wrong very quickly. The management tries to dictate the culture by writing a statement of values and sending it to everyone, whereas in fact values have to be rooted in the employees. Top down culture doesn’t work.

As you might imagine with someone who’s devoted their life to team work, I’m opposed to the notion a CEO is entitled to vast salaries because he turned around an organisation. What about everyone else? Having high salaries at the top creates headroom lower down, but the effect is that those at the bottom can’t talk to those at the top because there are so many layers in between. That’s the basis of bureaucracy, to which I’m fundamentally opposed.

There’s a lot of rubbish talked about the EU dominating us. I can speak from personal experience that it is a minuscule bureaucracy, with no forces to exercise control at all. It’s one of only two organisations in history based on influence and consensus, not power (the other is Switzerland – who ever heard of the PM of Switzerland?). 


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