Instability can benefit teams with different expertise


AUSTIN, Texas — Colleagues who team up to solve problems or work on projects can take advantage of the fact that they have less in common and bring light to light, according to a new study from the University of Texas at Austin. their different areas of expertise. The findings have implications for how managers can better train and manage teams so that all voices are heard.

Knowledge-diverse groups of workers—or “knowledge-diverse teams”—share more information among group members, a key trait of effective teamwork. As people with diverse knowledge and skills share their expertise, their influence flows back and forth to benefit the entire team, said Steven Grayassistant professor of management at the McCombs School of Business at UT Austin.

Steven Gray

“For teams, instability is often seen as a negative,” Gray said. “But we found a scenario where instability is helpful. Within a diverse team, this kind of fluidity helps members build position and reputation by demonstrating their expertise and unique value.

Even so, homogeneous teams—those made up of members with similar knowledge and skills—share more when member influence over time is stable.

A knowledge-diverse new product development team might include a scientist, engineer, operations expert, and marketer, while a start-up team might have a CTO, CMO, and CEO. financial. In contrast, a homogeneous team may consist of sales members who perform the same task but may have different types of customers.

Research is online in advance in the Journal of the Academy of Management.

Gray co-authored the research with J. Stuart Bunderson of Washington University in St. Louis; Gerben S. van der Vegt and Floor Rink, both from the Dutch University of Groningen; and Yeliz Gedik from Firat University in Turkey.

The researchers recruited MBA students to survey teams from different industries. The 156 teams surveyed were primarily based in Europe and came from sectors such as information technology, healthcare, hospitality, finance, manufacturing and agriculture.

Students administered three written surveys – two surveys of team members and one survey of supervisors – collecting data on job roles, educational background and demographic information. They asked how team members perceived the influence of others and on team processes. Supervisors evaluated team performance.

The researchers found that diverse teams with equal levels of influence shared 5% less information than diverse teams with more fluid leadership dynamics.

For such teams, stable hierarchies are harmful, the researchers said, because the nature of the problems a team addresses over time is neither constant nor static. Instability or fluidity in diverse team dynamics could help bring out everyone’s differing viewpoints better.

Homogeneous team members, or those whose skills are more aligned, however, shared 15% more information when team leadership dynamics were more stable over time. When these teams had a fluid dynamic, people tended to share less.

The research offers important lessons for both managers and teams.

Workers who are part of a team with diverse knowledge where influence diverges should know that by sharing information, they can demonstrate their value to their colleagues and gain greater influence and trust within the team. Gray said managers need to understand that it’s not enough to bring together people with diverse backgrounds and just give them a task. Instead, leaders of knowledge-diverse teams should think about how they can help elevate different viewpoints as tasks evolve. Managers of cohesive teams should think about how they can promote stability so members don’t compete for status.

“Instability in cohesive teams can be a disaster,” Gray said. “That’s far worse than the magnitude of the benefits of fluency in diverse knowledge teams.”

For more details on this research, read the McCombs Reporting on Big Ideas.


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