What prevents icy relations between two team members chilling the climate for everyone? New research suggests that it’s not enough simply to have plenty of chances to communicate. Instead, teams that cope with a touch of frost carry out work where everyone sinks or swims together, and have “high quality social exchange”: simply put, they care about each other’s needs and achievements.
Jeroen Jong of the Open University of the Netherlands and his Tilburg University collaborators surveyed members of 73 teams from eight European organisations. Each team was coded as to whether any member had a negative attitude towards one or more other members (“dislike” or “dislike a lot” on a four-point scale), with 44 per cent of teams encompassing at least one such negative attitude.
The researchers predicted even a single negative relationship would disrupt team cohesion and reduce performance. However, they believed this harm could be ameliorated by three factors: frequent in-team communication; interdependent working; and high-quality social exchange. They reasoned that team members who communicate with each other have more avenues to process and respond to tensions and conflicts when they arise; that teams who work more interdependently have to find ways to live with issues; and teams that have high-quality social exchange are oriented towards restoring harmony or accepting difference with grace. Each of these factors was rated by team-members and averaged to create a trio of team scores.
The data confirmed that any negative dynamic within a team tended to erode its cohesion and reduce performance. But for both highly interdependent teams and those with high quality interactions, these harmful effects disappeared. Surprisingly perhaps, high in-team communication did not ameliorate the harm of frosty relations. Jong and his collaborators wonder whether communication might be more important for buffering against negativity arising in the first place, rather than for dealing with it when it occurs. However, this wasn’t directly tested. I’d also be interested whether there was a 3-way interaction: could cohesion be worst of all when a team contains a negative relationship, team members communicate incessantly, but this chat is characterised by low-quality interactions (including disinterest in wellbeing and each others contributions)?
This study suggests that local issues within a team – the feelings between two members – can “trickle up” to affect the team as a whole. Yet top-level features such as interdependent work tasks can push right back, and can be strong enough to hold problems in check, preventing a bad apple or two from spoiling the whole barrel.
de Jong, J., Curşeu, P., & Leenders, R. (2014). When do bad apples not spoil the barrel? Negative relationships in teams, team performance, and buffering mechanisms. Journal of Applied Psychology, 99 (3), 514-522 DOI: 10.1037/a0036284