Geographically-Colocated Subgroups in Globally Dispersed Teams: A Test of the Faultline Hypothesis

by Jeffrey T. Polzer, C. Brad Crisp, Sirkka L. Jarvenpaa & Jerry W. Kim

Overview — Team diversity can harness strengths or drive a team apart. Troublesome faultlines appear when team members identify with a subgroup more strongly than with the larger team. Previous research, conducted on teams who worked face-to-face, has shown that these faultlines can be based on demographic factors (such as differences in nationality). The authors of this paper conducted a study on faultlines that arise between subgroups in different geographic locations. They found that faultline dynamics did indeed occur in teams with subgroups in different locations, and that their geographic diversity caused disruptive group relations, diminished trust, and increased conflict between subgroups. Key concepts include:

  • Geographic diversity is becoming increasingly important as more organizations rely on dispersed work teams to perform their core work activities.
  • The existence of subgroups in different locations creates an "us versus them" mentality, which leads to misunderstandings and negative feelings between team members.
  • When managing geographically dispersed teams, build relationships and instill a collective identity to integrate subgroups in different locations, and be aware of the very real potential for disruptive group dynamics.

Author Abstract

We theorize that in geographically dispersed teams, members' geographic locations are likely to activate faultlines that impair team functioning. In a study of 45 teams comprised of graduate students from 14 schools in 10 countries, we found that geographic faultlines heightened conflict and reduced trust. These faultlines were stronger when the team was divided into two equally-sized subgroups of co-located members and when these groups were homogenous in nationality.

Paper Information