Disagreement about the Team’s Status Hierarchy: An Insidious Obstacle to Coordination and Performance

by Heidi K. Gardner

Overview — What happens when team members disagree about how much status each of the other members actually deserves? Does it matter that members might not even be aware that they disagree with one another? Published research on status conflict has so far focused primarily on the effects of overt status challenges, often originating from high-status members jockeying for top positions to attain valuable resources such as power, credit, and a better reputation. Yet new research by HBS professor Heidi K. Gardner explores how small differences, even latent ones, in team members' perceptions about their group's status hierarchy can undermine group collaboration, heighten team conflict, and lower performance. Key concepts include:

  • The author used survey data from a longitudinal field study of 89 consulting and accounting teams from a Big Four firm to test a model of how teams experience status disagreement over time.
  • Difference in team members' perceptions of the status hierarchy is itself enough to hamper team coordination and generate task conflict.
  • The difference in perceptions of the status hierarchy doesn't have to generate blatant status rivalries—or even be recognized at all—in order to cause trouble.
  • Somewhat surprisingly, when members are highly familiar with one another the negative results of status disagreement are even worse for team processes and outcomes. The author reasons that people who have worked together before wrongly assume that they have achieved consensus about each other's "place" and that they can coordinate their actions without a lot of explicit discussion. When disagreements do arise, they are especially damaging in teams that assumed they were well-aligned.
  • Third-party performance data for each team demonstrate how suboptimal coordination and increased conflict ultimately jeopardize its performance with clients.

Author Abstract

Hierarchies are pervasive in groups, generally providing clear guidelines for the dominance and deference behaviors that members are expected to show based on their relative ranks. But what happens when team members disagree about where each member ranks on the status hierarchy? Although some research has examined overt status rivalries, typically focusing on battles for the top positions, our study contributes novel findings on the effects of disagreement amongst all members' perceptions of their team's status hierarchy. This paper develops and tests a theory to explain how even small differences in members' status perceptions—differences that may not be apparent to the members themselves—can diminish coordination, generate task conflict, and weaken performance. Survey data from a longitudinal field study of 89 consulting and audit teams from a Big Four accounting firm allow us to examine how teams experience status disagreement over time, and client ratings demonstrate how coordination and conflict ultimately affect team performance with clients. 42 pages

Paper Information