Building and managing a research team
Building your team
What is a research team?
What constitutes a research team in one department or institution might be described elsewhere as a research group, research centre, research unit or research institute. Regardless of the terminology used, the key characteristic of a research team is that it comprises a group of people working together in a committed way towards a common research goal.
Research team diversity
There are many different configurations of research teams in academia and boundaries can be 'fuzzy'. They may comprise co-investigators, fractional or pooled staff, technical and clerical staff and postgraduate research students. There may also be inter- and intra-institutional dimensions and increasingly international ones; some team members' contributions may well be largely virtual, via email, phone or videoconference.
Also, team members may have different disciplinary backgrounds, different motivations and aspirations, and different cultural backgrounds. Over time, team members' roles may change from being core (fully dedicated to the research goal) to peripheral (committed to this research goal, but also working in one or more other teams), and vice-versa.
Assessing the balance and composition of your team.
Ideally, the balance and composition of the team in terms of skills, expertise and other contributions will be appropriate to achieve the team's objectives, i.e. for the research goal the team is working towards. The research team leader needs to be confident that team members have, or can develop, the necessary skills and knowledge for the research in hand, and you will make recruitment decisions on that basis.
There is also another perspective on the effective team which it is good to consider. In addition to knowledge, experience and skills individuals have different behavioural traits or characteristics they bring to the way they carry out their work and these can be aligned to particular roles in the team: some are very good at seeing a big picture, others very good at detailed work. Some are very oriented towards action - good at just getting things done; others are natural communicators and networkers. The need for these different roles will emerge at different times and it is worth considering the composition of your team to ensure you have a balance of strengths.
To find out more about specific team roles and the research by Meredith Belbin on which they are based, see the section further down this page.
Managing your team
Your responsibilities as a manager of the group
These are the responsibilities identified in Adair's action-centred leadership model:
- establish, agree and communicate standards of performance and behaviour
- establish style, culture, approach of the group - soft skill elements
- monitor and maintain discipline, ethics, integrity and focus on objectives
- anticipate and resolve group conflict, struggles or disagreements
- assess and change as necessary the balance and composition of the group
- develop team-working, cooperation, morale and team-spirit
- develop the collective maturity and capability of the group - progressively increase group freedom and authority
- encourage the team towards objectives and aims - motivate the group and provide a collective sense of purpose
- identify, develop and agree team- and project-leadership roles within group
- enable, facilitate and ensure effective internal and external group communications
- identify and meet group training needs
- give feedback to the group on overall progress; consult with, and seek feedback and input from the group.
Looking at the list of responsibilities above, which are the areas where you feel confident in your abilities? Which are the areas where you feel less confident, or might benefit from some support or development?
Most people will lack confidence in some areas of their people management skills. Look at the section on Developing Yourself as a PI for ideas and advice, talk to a more experienced colleague or ask your head of department to arrange some mentoring.
Team roles and development
A research team consists of people working together in a committed way towards a common research goal. Teams, like individuals and organisations mature and develop and have a fairly clearly defined growth cycle. Bruce Tuckman's 1965 four-stage model explains this cycle. It may be helpful to reflect on your team's current stage of development in order to identify relevant approaches to leadership and management.
In addition to understanding the development of your team over time, having an understanding of the preferred ‘team roles', the characteristics and expected social behaviour, of individual team members, including the team leader, will help ensure that the team performs effectively together.
Using team role or individual profiling tools can offer insights into building and maintaining an effective team, but team role analysis is most useful if all members evaluate their own and others' preferred roles, whichever tools are chosen.
There are a number of team role and individual profile tools available and your institution's staff development department or equivalent may have registered practitioners in one or more of these who can help you and your team understand your preferred team roles or working styles.
In the 1970s, Meredith Belbin and colleagues at the Henley Management College identified nine team roles, based on long-term psychometric tests and studies of business teams. Belbin defined team roles as "a tendency to behave, contribute and interrelate with others in a particular way". The resulting role definitions fall into three categories, each with strengths and allowable weaknesses, and have been used widely in practice for team development in the intervening decades. Further research by Belbin has led to the addition of a tenth ‘Specialist' role in recent years. Watch this short introduction to the work of Belbin, or read about the team roles.
Read through Belbin's team role definitions - what functions might each of Belbin's team roles play in a research team context?
Are there any other team roles in a research context? Are there any of Belbin's roles that play little part in a research team?
Think about your own research team: compare each member's strengths and weaknesses (including yourself).