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Managing difficult relationships at work

Often relationships at work fail quietly. But hidden conflicts and 'silent fails' in relationships can be just as harmful to the team as palms on desks and raised voices.

Managing difficult working relationships is key to ensuring team success.

Belbin Team Roles can help by providing a common language and framework for understanding individual behaviour and strengths. By identifying individuals' preferred ways of working, Belbin Team Roles can help to reduce misunderstandings and conflicts between team members.

"When there is trust, conflict becomes nothing but the pursuit of truth, an attempt to find the best possible answer."

Patrick Lencioni

Difficult for you or difficult for everyone?

To begin with, it’s important to identify the scale of the problem. Is there one person who is seen as a ‘difficult coworker’ by a few members of the team or does the difficulty surround your individual working dynamic with someone?


Difficult for everyone

If there’s one ‘difficult person’, consider:

  • Is the person in question self-aware?

In her research into self-awareness, Dr Tasha Eurich discovered that, although most people believe they are self-aware, only 10-15% really are. In a work context, this means that many people are unlikely to be conscious of the impact of their behaviour on others.

Help them to better understand how they come across

During the Belbin process, we counteract this by asking people to collect Observer Assessments. Whilst the Self-Perception questionnaire focuses on an individual’s own view of their behavioural strengths, the Observer Assessments allow colleagues, managers and other key stakeholders to give their views.


For those with low self-awareness, the Observer Assessments can help them to better understand how they come across.

They can reveal hidden strengths and act as a discussion-starter. Perhaps the individual is playing out of role? Perhaps the team’s expectations of that person don’t align with what they believe to be their strengths? Maybe they have aspirations to play a different role?

Working through the Belbin process – both as individuals and collectively as a pair or team – can open up crucial discussion about behaviour anchored in real-world examples.

The language of Belbin Team Roles helps defuse conversations, so that they don’t result in personal attacks.

How does the ‘difficult person’ fit with the team culture?

It’s also important to consider the Team Role culture of your work environment.

Sometimes teams have a predominance of a particular Team Role. Individuals who fit the mould are hired or recruited into the team and behavioural diversity is lost.

If someone in the team does not share these Team Role strengths, they can be labelled as ‘difficult’ or cast as an outsider just for contributing in a different way.


Is there a strong team culture?

For example, consider a team high in Resource Investigator and Shaper strengths. This team would be fast-moving and dynamic, taking ideas and running with them. If we introduce a strong Monitor Evaluator, who points out potential drawbacks and takes time to arrive at a decision, this person may be seen as cynical, pessimistic and obstructive, when in fact, they are simply contributing to the team in a different way.

The Team Role Circle (in the Team report) can help to identify these difficulties by showing the spread of Team Roles within the team.

Difficult for you

If a particular working relationship between two people is under strain, there are a number of possible reasons.

In his book, Team Roles at Work, Dr Meredith Belbin describes three difficulties that can affect working relationships:

  • Failing to establish a relationship in the first place – if you recognise that you are experiencing difficulties in communicating effectively with someone, this might result in limiting your interactions and avoiding one another. Neither of you can envisage how an effective relationship might work.
  • Shadows of the past – perhaps you have had to deal with a difficult experience, despite both of you trying to make things work. This can result in a crisis further down the line.
  • Success is context-dependent – you might have a positive relationship for the duration of a particular project, only to struggle in a different situation.

The Belbin Working Relationship report can offer some valuable insights.

Once each person has completed the Self-Perception Inventory (and obtained Observer Assessments), their individual data can be combined to demonstrate the similarities and differences in their Team Role approach, pinpointing potential sources of conflict and identifying areas for discussion.

Failing to establish a relationship to begin with

In this situation, it could be that there isn’t enough common Team Role ground. Even without knowing one another’s Team Roles explicitly, two people might have detected a difference in approach or priorities that feels insurmountable or not worth their time and energy.

The good news is that there is often scope to work well with someone who has Team Roles complementary to your own, so long as each person has an understanding and appreciation of the contribution the other is making.

Plant and Shaper relationship

In this example, Lisa, who has a top Team Role of Plant, might clash with strong Shaper, John.

Lisa is likely to need space and time to explore new ideas, whereas John will be focusing on goals and deadlines.

If Lisa understands that John will be concerned with timings and John gives Lisa space to create, the two are likely to work together more effectively.

And since the two share the Implementer role, each is likely to have an eye to practical considerations. This commonality can help them to navigate their differences in approach successfully.

Team Role opposites

Each Team Role cluster has an opposite number.

  • The dominant Shaper and the supportive Teamworker;
  • the creative Plant and the practical Implementer.

When it comes to difficult relationships, Team Role opposites are often the cause of the disconnect. In these situations, one person’s approach is anathema to the other.

Resource Investigator and Completer Finisher relationship

For a high-scoring Resource Investigator, the Completer Finisher’s unrelenting insistence on pinning down every last detail might feel tiresome and draining.

For the Completer Finisher, the Resource Investigator’s enthusiasm without apparent substance might be fanciful and unnerving. Failing to see the value of the other’s contribution, each does their best to ignore the other.

In this situation, Team Role learning and understanding is key. Once each person has identified the value of the other person’s contribution – and devised a strategy to deal with it effectively – the relationship can develop more successfully.

Shadows of the past: once bitten, twice shy

In the second scenario, the working relationship may have been working well, up to a point. Whether or not the bad experience falls within the bounds of Belbin Team Role behaviours, we can use that language to attempt a repair.

First, we need to rebuild trust. A facilitator might explore the incident with both parties, using Team Role language to depersonalise the conflict.

It might be explained that one played the Shaper and made the final decision before the other (a strong Monitor Evaluator) had been given time to reflect and advise. The first was anxious to move things along, whilst the second felt their position to be undermined.

Shaper and Monitor Evaluator relationship

The first step towards a solution can be as simple as articulating our styles clearly.

For the high Monitor Evaluator, this would mean saying, “I need time to arrive at a decision, and I become disengaged when I’m not consulted”. For the high Shaper, this would mean saying, “There comes a point when discussion needs to make way for action. I’m always keenly aware of that deadline.”

With this in mind – and with a greater understanding of the dynamics of the working relationship – the terms of the new ‘relationship contract’ can be negotiated.

Success depends on context

Problems often arise not because people differ but because they are too much alike.

Just as relationships can fail because of a lack of common ground, it’s also possible to have too great an overlap when it comes to our behavioural preferences.

They share the same interests, possess similar talents and take the same approach. The result is that they fall over each other, have difficulty in establishing personal identity and fail to gain the potential advantages of symbiosis. They feel uncomfortable but have no grounds for complaint.

For example, colleagues who are Specialists in the same field might find plenty to talk about, sharing professional insights and discoveries. However, when brought in to work on the same project, the same pairing might find themselves competing over Team Role territory.
There are several questions to consider in this case. The first relates to team composition. How thoughtfully was the team put together? Do you need two Specialists in the same area?

By aggregating data from the Individual reports, a Belbin Team Report can help establish the gaps and overlaps present in the team, enabling managers to decide who is needed and when. If two ‘similar’ (in Belbin terms) people are needed, how can work be delegated so that the role of each is clearly defined and to prevent misunderstandings?

The recommendation is that when a conflict of interest separates two parties, the argument should never become personal. Only by depersonalising the situation is a compromise likely to be found.

Team Role Sacrifice

The last possibility – if both individuals are needed in the team for structural or logistical reasons – is for one person to make a Team Role sacrifice.

In addition to our preferred roles (the roles we play most readily), we also have a number of manageable roles, those behaviours we can call upon if needed, and cultivate for the team’s benefit.

This is known as making a Team Role sacrifice. Developing manageable roles in this way can work to our benefit, as we uncover new skills which might not otherwise be brought to the fore.

However, making a Team Role sacrifice for a long period of time can be a strain.

As Dr Belbin says, ‘Moving from a natural role into a secondary role is like changing gear. That shift may make you feel as though the vehicle is not going at the speed for which it was designed’.

As such, Team Role sacrifice may be appropriate for the duration of a project, but shouldn’t be considered as an effective long-term strategy.

The shared language of Team Roles

Learning to use the key Team Role concepts in a flexible way is essential for developing the skills that make for good teamwork.

Teams need to learn the language of Team Roles to enable them to work effectively together and to appreciate one another’s contributions, while retaining their individuality and natural aptitudes.

Without this shared language, there is a greater risk of making an unhelpful personal attack and damaging relationships.

Are there ‘silent fails’ in your team?

Maybe it’s time to find out.

With our new report suite, Belbin Working Relationship reports are included free of charge. Why not see how your team fares?

For more complex situations, we recommend a bespoke conflict workshop conducted by one of our experienced Belbin facilitators. Contact us to find out more.

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