Project teams can fly or founder on the demographic attributes of team members and the fractures they can create. Here’s how to recognize the potential for division, and how to respond in time when team fractures do arise.
In studying teams at large companies in Europe and the United States, the authors found that diversity and complexity are becoming the rule. Diverse teams bring to bear a range of experiences and attitudes to tackle companies’ hardest challenges. Paradoxically, however, the very nature of team diversity often creates conditions that reduce teams’ innovative capacity. The authors observed many failures in collaboration and knowledge-sharing that resulted from faultlines — subgroups or coalitions that emerge naturally within teams, typically along demographic lines such as age, gender and functional background. Yet the authors found that some teams were able to collaborate and share knowledge despite the presence of faultlines. A defining factor was the behavior of the team leader and, in particular, the extent to which the leader was task-oriented or relationship-oriented.
Where it is likely strong faultlines will emerge, many leaders tend to encourage team members to come together. However, simple socializing can make people’s differences more apparent and cause faultlines to solidify. The authors recommend that leaders vary their leadership style according to how long a team has been together. The article outlines four steps for successful functioning of diverse teams. First, leaders should diagnose the likely extent of faultlines in a new team. (The article contains a survey for gauging this probability.) Next, leaders should focus on task orientation when a team is newly formed. They then should consider when a switch in leadership style would be most appropriate. Finally, leaders should build a relationship-oriented style. Switching from task orientation to relationship orientation will be successful only when a team has developed a clear protocol for communication and coordination and an established operational structure.