23/09/2010 - 00:00

When team differences cause trouble

23/09/2010 - 00:00


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In order to find harmony in the workplace, organisations need to walk the talk when it comes to promoting teamwork.

Everyone is different. No two people are alike. But when trying to work harmoniously in a team, research from the Melbourne Business School has found that some differences spell trouble with a capital T, but they are not what you think.

It found that excessive self-confidence in two or more members of the group is kryptonite to productive group harmony.

Most groups are diverse. They can comprise a mix of men and women, ages and backgrounds, cultures and religions.

These differences, referred to in research literature as fault lines, are based on the idea that we generally feel more comfortable with people who are similar to us.

For example, a 50-year old woman is naturally affiliated with another 50-something year-old woman, rather than a 30-year old male.

Sometimes these differences can encourage an ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality. What determines whether these different characteristics are viewed positively or negatively is not whether they exist, but whether they are perceived by the people in the group.

Often a diverse group of people can work quite harmoniously with each other. Not all potential fault line situations are activated. That is, while the demographics of the group members suggest the potential for fault lines, the members may never actually feel or behave as separate groups.

Yet other times, the fault lines are activated and the group splits into two or more sub-groups.

Our research examined what activates these fault lines. It found fault lines are most likely to be activated when two or more members have excessive self-confidence.

It’s good to have self-confidence, but excessive levels can lead to undeserved entitlement, characterised by thoughts such as, ‘I’m better than everyone else just because I’m me’.

We define this as an entitlement belief. It’s the feeling of deserving, regardless of effort and it’s often associated with arrogance, conceit, authority seeking, and grandiosity.

The term ‘entitleds’ is used to refer to those individuals who are looking for ways to improve their own situation and increase the rewards they can receive from the organisation compared to others.

These people are predisposed to compete for glory, personal worth, and power and hence, are likely to establish themselves as a center of a communication often in opposition to others.

There’s a tipping point from healthy esteem towards narcissism. These people are not happy to win, if their competitor wins as well. They want to win at the expense of someone else. In fact they’ll give up some of their rewards just so their competitor does worse. They are very scary people.

They view themselves as amazing leaders, but they have no followers.

We all know someone like this in the office, and usually the higher you go in an organisation, the more you find. They are the people with big egos, the ones who promote themselves as doing extremely well and being just as intelligent, if not more so, than anyone else.

Individuals who possess high entitlement beliefs extend their political power in divisive ways by encouraging divides between races or classes.

The self-perceived superiority possessed by such individuals is proven to incite tension and polarisation among employees and the effects are exacerbated if the entitled members are in opposite fault line sub-groups.

Interestingly, our findings are inconsistent with literature that suggests that people with similar characteristics, such as excessive self-confidence, will act as boundary spanners across groups with differences.

The trouble with conflict in a group is that it can cause extreme negative process problems such as lack of coordination, cooperation, and cohesion.

Conflict increases the cognitive load, which interferes with complex thinking and processing of information.

Research suggests that the threat and anxiety associated with conflict inhibits employees’ cognitive functioning in their processing of complex information.

It narrows the range of attention and triggers negative memory material which in addition to interfering with group performance also negatively influences commitment, cohesiveness, and satisfaction.

Conflict depletes energy and effort that could be expended toward completing tasks and achieving mutual goals.

The good news is that there are ways to overcome this conflict from occurring even in groups hosting entitleds.

In my research, the groups who performed well, despite their fault lines being activated, overcame their sub-group mentality through discussion and by focusing on the group goal or in other words, by adopting a superordinate’s identity.

In other words, if there is a strong workgroup identity among group members, activated fault lines are less likely to incite conflict and coalition formation. If there is a weak group identity among group members, activated fault lines lead to coalitions and conflict.

A superordinate identity facilitates knowledge transfer by reducing the negative view of out-group members and by making in-group members receptive to the information shared by such others.

We found that a superordinate team identity lessens the likelihood of fault lines being created and acts as a positive force in workgroups.

Therefore, even in groups with activated fault lines, the team identification can assist the group to maintain constructive group processes and avoid process losses due to activated fault lines.

The question for organisations then becomes, ‘How do we promote this superordinate identity?’

The answer to this actually draws from some other research we’ve done previously on rewards.

A typical organisation folly is to claim that they love using teams, and yet when you look at how these organisations compensate their staff, it’s done at an individual level through salary bonuses.

This merely encourages competitive behaviour. Instead the most effective way to encourage teamwork is to reward group achievements by providing group-level bonuses.

Organisations just can’t talk the group talk, they need to put their money where their mouth is and give group level bonuses.

They can also do it by promoting teamwork in the organisation, having leaders talk about the importance of teamwork, and making it a salient objective.

* Professor Karen Jehn specialises in negotiation and conflict management subjects at the Melbourne Business School, where she is a Professor of Management (Organisational Behaviour). Her research examines intragroup conflict, group composition and lying in organisations.



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