Forget filling in a quiz to find your ideal partner – now, high-profile companies are using psycho-profiling to discover which candidates fit a specific type to complement the rest of the team. But, Victoria Madine asks, does it work?
It was more than professional know-how that Paul Hodgkinson, chairman and chief executive of contractor Simons Group, was looking for when he recruited his new finance director. Jim Kendall bagged the job because a Cosmopolitan-style personality quiz suggested he and Hodgkinson would work well together. In fact, walk onto any Simons site and most of the employees will be able to tell you what kind of team worker they are. This is because each of them has been through an assessment created by psychologist Meredith Belbin.

Simons Group has used the technique for more than five years to help recruit senior staff, and all new employees go through the test as a part of their company induction. Belbin suggests a team profile for the recruit, which helps the company to organise project teams for the future. The technique is even mentioned in the company's annual report.

Hodgkinson explains: "I can give a difficult project to a good team and it will succeed, or a straight-forward project to a bad team and it will fail miserably. Belbin offers a fascinating perspective for understanding a team's structure. In construction we are constantly grappling with team dynamics, which makes it all the more relevant." For Hodgkinson, the technique is more useful than personality assessments or IQ tests, because it considers teams, not individuals.

Hodgkinson is so enthusiastic about the technique that he intends to use it with steel specialist Caunton to select site teams for the companies' joint projects. The two companies have already worked together for more than a decade, and recently completed a £6m retail store in Lincoln. Hodgkinson hopes to bring them even closer together by using Belbin to help their managers choose well-balanced, efficient teams.

The companies have agreed to each put representatives through Belbin training to pep up their understanding of the theory – and encourage fellow colleagues to use it. Belbin's basic premise is that all teams need a set of individuals with particular strengths – and weaknesses (see "So which are you?"). So, a bossy, creative site manager with little time for details would be complemented by a project manager who was precise and methodical.

Belbin can label you something that you might not want to be known as

Elaine Greenwood, training co-ordinator

The method requires individuals to complete a series of questionnaires that make up the "self perception inventory". The questions deal with issues such as how you deal with stress, how you tackle problems and what gives you satisfaction in your job. Up to four colleagues or friends – described as "observers" by Belbin – are also given questionnaires so that they can give their opinion about how you tend to behave. The results are fed into a computer program called Interplace, and within seconds you have a profile. But how do employees feel about being branded as a particular type, and do managers really need a theory to help them choose a team?

Simon Morris, project manager at Simons, is convinced that Belbin can be a useful tool that has produced "uncannily accurate" profiles of his colleagues. "Often a project team has to be set up within just a few days," he says. "The client will often have spent weeks working out the composition of their team, so the more tools we have in construction for making fast, good decisions, the better." Morris thinks that a database of all Simons employees and their Belbin profiles will be a valuable resource for determining at a glance an individual's strengths and weaknesses. He adds: "I'd always first consider a person's experience and ability. Secondly I'd consider the Belbin profile."

But not all Simons' employees welcome Belbin's use. Elaine Greenwood, training co-ordinator at the company, feels it can be an intimidating process. She says: "Belbin can label you something that you might not want to be known as." Belbin considers Greenwood to be primarily a team worker – a role that she feels describes the job she does rather than her natural responses in a team environment. "You answer the questions according to the experiences you've had at work. If your job doesn't require much co-ordination or creativity, it won't be reflected in your profile."

Caunton has been aware of the Belbin technique for more than a decade and Simon Bingham, managing director at the company, says it has used its principles to understand its teams' dynamics and reduce the number of confrontations on the shop floor. A year ago, the company restructured its management system into five market focus groups and used the Belbin technique to help try to balance the teams.

So which are you?

Psychologist Meredith Belbin created the theory in the early 1970s, after researching why management teams succeeded or failed. Belbin argued – and argues still – that successful teams are composed of people that fit naturally into the following nine roles. Taken together, the roles make up a well-balanced team, capable of making quick, effective decisions. For instance, there should be someone who is good at research, another to think up ideas, and another to make sure the job gets done. Plant: Creative and full of ideas, the plant may also ignore details and need careful handling. Co-ordinator: Mature and confident, he or she provides direction, but may be seen as manipulative. Simons’ Hodgkinson and Kendall, and Caunton’s Bingham, are all strong co-ordinators – an essential quality for successful managers. Shaper: Challenging and driven, the shaper thrives on pressure, but can be interfering and offend other people’s feelings. Hodgkinson is strong in this role. Resource investigator: He or she is sociable and has lots of contacts, but loses interest in projects once their initial enthusiasm has passed. Simons’ Hodgkinson scores highly in this role. “I’m good at getting out there and getting people involved, but I don’t like details. I need people to sweep up after me.” Monitor-evaluator: This person asks if all the brilliant ideas will actually work. He or she is a good judge and very practical – such people can be rather serious and fail to inspire others. Simons’ finance director Jim Kendall scores highly as a monitor, thus complementing Hodgkinson’s low score – but his colleagues are quick to point out that he is not too serious. Completer-finisher: Painstaking and conscientious, this is the anorak type who searches out all errors. They can be reluctant to delegate. This is another role where Simons’ Kendall has a strength in contrast with Hodgkinson’s weakness in the role. Team worker: A must in every team. The team worker is perceptive, diplomatic and sensitive to the needs of others. But this person can often be indecisive in crunch situations. Implementer: The uncomplaining type who gets lumbered with the jobs nobody else wants. Without them, ideas never become action. Specialist: Knowledgeable or highly skilled, this person is dedicated but can dwell on technicalities.