What is in a group? Organizations seek to manage the workplace where encampment, us versus them, and self-seeking group formation does not limit the overall functioning of the organization. Such groups can limit the ability to see outside of one’s own perspectives and further encourage poor choice making based upon this limited perspective. Research by Carton & Cummings (2013) discusses the nature of identity-based subgroups and knowledge-based subgroups and how their identities influence the operation of the workplace.
Work teams are more popular than ever. Over 80% of Fortune 1,000, companies are using work teams to maintain productivity (Garvey, 2002). In an effort to improve, overall functioning of teams there has been a level of effort to understand how subgroups and group member interaction impact the overall process. When team members function well together, they are more likely to be productive in their approaches.
Subgroups can form based upon fault lines that are based on differing characteristics of the group (Bezrukova, et. al., 2012). Those characteristics could be age, race, ideology, religion or any number of other factors. Each subgroup has their own way of viewing problems and manners of interacting with other groups.
A team with more fault lines may be better than a group with only two. Two large groups can make decisions ineffective as they protect their turf through in-group and out-group dynamics while a number of different fault lines could improve effectiveness by offering a rounded perspective but ineffective turf protection. Think of three people making a decision and creating a natural tiebreaker versus two people with completely different vantage points.
There are two broad categories of sub-groups:
Identity-Based Subgroup: A group based upon a person’s characteristics or other social defining categorization (Hogg & Terry, 2000). These groups see themselves as similar based on social characteristics and will generally disparage the identities of others. You may view religion, race or age as a difference that may create a sense of shared identity.
Knowledge-Base Subgroups: A group based on how people view and process information (Galbraith, 1974). This group could view and see information through an educational or occupational background and define information based upon this vantage point. For example, engineers and social workers will naturally view information different and therefore break into groups based upon these vantage points.
The Carton & Cummings (2013) study used teams selected from a multinational firm in the food processing business. Three hundred twenty six teams were formed throughout a number of different locations. Teams were engaged in a tournament that determined how their output met the needs of the organization. They may work in operational improvement, customer service, or product development.
The researchers were able to integrate subgroup type with subgroup configuration. Teams should be designed so that identity based teams would be imbalanced and knowledge based teams would be balanced. Rifts in identity-based groups should be mended by relation development, positive norms, and respect for other subgroups. Knowledge-based rifts can be improved through boundary expanding and finding value in decision-making through acknowledging different perspectives. Knowledge-based groups outperformed identity based groups in the samples.
The study encourages executives to think about how subgroups are developed and to make better design of group formation. They can encourage imbalance to foster decision-making by not allowing dominance of a single group, encouragement of balanced in-out group mentality, and integrating those who are more identity with those who are more knowledge based. This research seems to indicate that knowledge-base subgroups are ideal performers when compared to identity-based subgroups.
Bezrukova, K., et. al. (2012). The effects of alignments: Examining group faultlines, organizational cultures, and performance. Journal of Applied Psychology, 97, 77–92.
Carton, A. & Cummings, J. (2013). The impact of subgroup type and subgroup configurational properties on work team performance. Journal of Applied Psychology, doi: 10.1037/a0033593
Garvey, C. (2002, May). Steer teams with the right pay: Team-based pay is a success when it fits corporate goals and culture, and rewards the right behavior. HR Magazine, 34 (5), 33–36.
Galbraith, J. R. (1974). Organization design: An information processing view. Interfaces, 4 (3)
Hogg, M. A., & Terry, D. J. (2000). Social identity and self-categorization processes in organizational contexts. Academy of Management Review, 25, 121–140.