Small group roles: Infrastructure vs. Psychodynamics

Being pointed to Belbin’s group roles (in wikipedia) has led me to make a distinction between infrastructure and psychodynamics in small group roles.

On the infrastructural side, school students are often assigned roles, such as “recorder,” in small group co-operative work.  The roles do not specifically address the creativity or interactions needed to succeed in the assigned task.  Instead they provide infrastructure within which — or on top of which — the group as a whole addresses the task.  Since I first encountered these roles, I have developed my own variant with tow virtues: they do not divert anyone from participating in a small-group activity and everyone has to reflect and synthesize what happened, (now in a book, Taking Yourself Seriously)[*].  (We have all seen groups in which the “Recorder” has little time to participate and is left to do most of the work to synthesize the group’s report.)

Belbin’s roles are on the psychodynamic side: Recognize differences among group participants’ aptitudes and capabilities, and structure the group interactions to mobilize each person’s strengths.  Alternatively, structure the group interactions to defuse some participant’s liabilities.

Why prefer one side over the other?  The psychodynamic might appear to offer efficiency–let’s get the best product in the least time.  I suspect, however, that efficiency in the short term trades off against efficiency in the long term.  That is, everyone has aptitudes and capabilities in each of Belbin’s roles so nurture these rather than lock people into their initial position.  Moreover, nurturing a participant’s non-dominant aptitudes and capabilities allows them to listen better to and make more space for the contributions from participants for whom that aptitude or capability is their strength.

There’s an egalitarianism evident in my take on the psychodynamic side.  That also informs my variant of small group roles, in which the infrastructure unobtrusively (at least once a person is familiar with the roles) makes it possible for everyone to be full participants in all phases of the particular small-group activity.  In that participation there will surely be Belbinian differences in contributions, but my infrastructural roles send the message that no-one is assumed to be the leader or the dominant voice.  Admittedly, I have not had the opportunity to test the roles and the egalitarian ethic outside the classroom, where bosses might emphasize efficiency or urgency of achieving goals.


[*] In brief:  Includer, Orienter, Phaser, Process Reporter.
(There is no recorder or note-taker role. Everyone has the role of Participant in all phases. Everyone is permitted to speak out once if needed to alert someone who seems to be neglecting or misunderstanding their role.)

Phases of small-group activity and specific roles active in that phase:

1) GETTING TOGETHER to begin activity Includer, Orienter, Phaser
2) The main part of the ACTIVITY Orienter, Includer, Phaser
3) SYNTHESIS and REFLECTION Includer, Process Reporter, Phaser
4) REPORTING On topic: Randomly chosen person; On process: Process Reporter

About Peter J. Taylor
Peter Taylor is a Professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston where he teaches and directs undergraduate and graduate programs on critical thinking, reflective practice, and science-in-society. His research and writing focuses on the complexity of environmental and health sciences in their social context, incl. Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement (U. Chicago Press, 2005) and Nature-nurture? No (2014, On reflective practice, see Taking Yourself Seriously: Processes of Research & Engagement (with J. Szteiter, 2012,

4 Responses to Small group roles: Infrastructure vs. Psychodynamics

  1. I like the concrete tasks needed to consistently take care of people, environment, process, and product. I wonder if you listed some ways the phaser might get people to transition more easily (some facilitation tips in addition to time keeping) if this role would then address the efficiency or urgency you listed as potential needs for use a business setting.

    • What facilitation tips do you think that the phaser needs?
      Your comment does lead me to think: In a business setting, there may be a paid facilitator who is not a participant in the sense of having to generate ideas and carry them out. If so, I might give the facilitator all four of the small group roles. I would hire a person who was skilful in such facilitation.
      Now, if the business wanted the facilitator to train the employees so that they could go on to work in small groups without a paid facilitator, I might ask the facilitator to come with 4 hats, one for each role, and switch hats when they shifted roles. The goal would be to show the employees how unobtrusively each role could be performed. The next step in the training would be to give those hats to four people making up the small group and run a meaningful activity (with the facilitator gently watching over the flocks).

      • Teryl Cartwright says:

        I had to go back to my project in the Dialogue Processes class and review the small group activity before responding. I think the Phaser is the person who keeps the group “present,” otherwise they might seem to be the group outsider (with hurrying the group or interrupting to call time as if teacher/leader). To answer your question about tips, I think the Phaser could have a mini check in/freewrite: allow 1 minute for quick one/two questions to be written down (or the tangent ideas) as well as any unshared thoughts to possibly come back to later. (Basically keeping things that get misplaced and lost because they’re unspoken.) This would give some space in transitioning for the quieter members to contribute and alleviate some frustration for not getting due to time. The Phaser might be paying attention to include some statement that connects to the next section or affirmation of progress upon completing each phase. I am trying to think of tasks that don’t influence the reporting or becoming managerial. I wonder if there are other ways to move the group that are not strictly time based but natural to group flow. I want the Phaser to not feel like he/she could be replaced by a smart phone alarm. Are there roles that could be moved from the Orienter or Reporter? What are some transitioning skills to add?
        I like your idea of hats and modeling the process for a business group, I think that it is really helpful to be shown how it works as it works. I would want the business to compare this to regular meetings/activities or have some debriefing so that they would use it again. If the facilitator could even do some one on one coaching of various roles then this tool might build into a continued process. (Coaching after group meeting–otherwise the paid facilitator becomes the excuse not to use again without the “expert” or “crutch”.)

        Too many words, I like your economy with so much more expressed!

  2. I like Teryl’s idea of the Phaser (or perhaps the Orienter) leading the group in transitions from one phase to the next.

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