Bridging Faultlines in Diverse Teams

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.

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Companies create diverse teams to take on their most complex challenges — tasks across boundaries, functions and geographies that no single department or function could accomplish. Yet guiding these diverse teams to success requires some counterintuitive management practices. In particular, team leaders should focus on tasks at the early stages, rather than on interpersonal relationships, and then switch to relationship building when the time is right.

In a recent study of teams at large companies, we found that diverse membership of teams and task forces is becoming the order of the day. Take Nokia Corp., which frequently brings together disparate talent from different departments among its businesses around the globe, while at the same time partnering with many external suppliers. Or consider the British Broadcasting Corporation, which routinely creates huge teams for events, such as the production and broadcast teams for the 2006 FIFA World Cup and the 2008 Olympic Games. These typically involve groups of more than 100 people, a high proportion of whom are not full-time employees. Team members often represent more than 15 different nationalities, with skill sets ranging from electrical work to intellectual property, from scheduling to production. The BBC’s teams also face the daunting challenge of a one-shot deal for which execution has to be right the first time.

The challenges that Nokia and the BBC face are by no means unique. Between 2004 and 2006, we partnered with executives from 15 large European and American companies to study 55 of their teams. What was most striking about these teams was their sheer size and complexity. The diversity of Nokia’s design team — with men and women of many nationalities and with a wide range of ages, representing multiple functions from many different businesses — was repeated in companies in many different industries from across the globe. Companies in the media industry (such as Reuters Group PLC and the BBC), in telecommunications (such as France Telecom and Canadian wireless giant Rogers Communications Inc.) and in banking (such as Royal Bank of Scotland and Lehman Brothers Inc.) all employ large and diverse teams to attack some of their most difficult problems. Many of the teams in the study numbered more than 50 people, all had more than three nationalities represented and most brought in people from several functions and businesses.

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1. The power of integration on innovation has been described in L. Gratton, “Managing Integration Through Cooperation,” Human Resource Management 44, no. 2 (2005): 151-158; and S. Ghoshal and L. Gratton, “Integrating the Enterprise,” MIT Sloan Management Review 44, no. 1 (fall 2002): 31-38.

2. Richard Hackman’s work on group dynamics provides early insights into the formation and maturation of teams; see, for example, J.R. Hackman, ed., “Groups That Work (and Those That Don’t): Creating Conditions for Effective Teamwork” (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1989). The difficulties of managing complex teams are described in L. Gratton, “Hot Spots: Why Some Teams, Workplaces and Organizations Buzz With Energy — And Others Don’t” (San Francisco: Berrett Koehler Publishers, 2007).

3. The way in which teams collaborate with each other is increasingly seen as central to their effectiveness. An overview of this argument is provided in S. Alper, D. Tjosvold and K.S. Law, “Interdependence and Controversy in Group Decision Making: Antecedents to Effective SelfManaging Teams,” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 74, no. 1 (1998): 33-52.

4. Knowledge sharing has been argued to be central to the innovative capacity of a company. See, for example, I. Nonaka and H. Takeuchi, “The Knowledge-Creating Company: How Japanese Companies Create the Dynamics of Innovation” (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995).

5. The challenge of team faultlines is currently being studied by several scholars. For an academic description of faultline theory, see D.C. Lau and J.K. Murnighan, “Demographic Diversity and Faultlines: The Compositional Dynamics of Organizational Groups,” Academy of Management Review 23, no. 2 (1998): 325-340.

6. The study of in-groups and out-groups has been a central theme of group analysis. For an overview of some of the key concepts, see, for example, H. Tajfel and J.C. Turner, “The Social Identity Theory of Inter-Group Behavior,” in “Psychology of Intergroup Relations,” ed. S. Worchel and L.W. Austin (Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1986), 7-24.

7. The distinction between surface-level and deep-level attributes has been explored in more detail in S.E. Jackson, K.E. May and K. Whitney, “Understanding the Dynamics of Diversity in Decision-Making Teams,” in “Team Effectiveness and Decision Making in Organizations,” ed. R.A. Guzzo and E. Salas (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1995), 204-261. For a more academic treatment of the theory, see D.A. Harrison, K.H. Price and M.P. Bell, “Beyond Relational Demography: Time and the Effects of Surfaceand Deep-Level Diversity On Work Group Cohesion,” Academy of Management Journal 41, no. 1 (1998): 96-107.

8. Task orientation and relationship orientation are a continuum of leadership styles and have been examined in leadership research for more than a decade. For an overview of both, see G.A. Yukl, “Leadership in Organizations,” 6th ed. (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 2005). The distinction was first made in the 1950s in the seminal research by E.A. Fleishman, “The Description of Supervisory Behavior,” Journal of Applied Psychology, 37, no. 1 (1953): 1-6.

9. For a more detailed overview of Type A characters, see, for example, M.A. Chesney and R.H. Rosenman, “Type A Behavior in the Work Setting,” in “Current Concerns in Occupational Stress,” ed. C.L. Cooper and R. Payne (London: John Wiley, 1980), 187-212; and M. Friedman and R.H. Rosenman, “Type A Behavior and Your Heart” (New York: Knopf, 1974), which provides a detailed description of the psychological construct.

10. The potentially negative impact of speed on creativity has been explored by several scholars. See, for example, C. Mainemelis, “When the Muse Takes It All: A Model For the Experience of Timelessness in Organizations,” Academy of Management Review 26, no. 4 (2001): 548-565. For an overview on time, see D.G. Ancona, P.S. Goodman, B.S. Lawrence and M.L. Tushman, “Time: A New Research Lens,” Academy of Management Review 26, no. 4 (2001): 645-663.

11. For an overview of studies on the impact of time on group development and processes, see S. Blount, ed., “Time in Groups,” vol. 6, “Research on Managing Groups and Teams” (Greenwich, Connecticut: JAI Press, 2004).

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