STUDY BY CORINNE BENDERSKY SHOWS STATUS CONFLICTS CAN HURT TASK GROUP PERFORMANCE
Impact can be moderated by group leaders and participants
Corinne Bendersky, Assistant Professor of Human Resources and Organizational Behavior, says it's essential for members of a task group to have a sense of their status within the group. "It's like many social shortcuts or heuristics we use to navigate our complex social world," she says. "Status is important in establishing a hierarchy so it's easier to make and implement decisions. It can be very functional."
But in a recent paper called, "Status Conflict in Groups," Bendersky and co-author Nicholas Hays show that task groups can also be derailed as members compete for higher status within a social hierarchy. The findings come from a study of student teams.
Bendersky shows that status conflicts deserve to be considered along with task conflicts, relationship conflicts and process conflicts, which are already well established in the literature on group performance. A task conflict is a disagreement over ideas relating to the group's task; a relationship conflict is an interpersonal difficulty between group members; and a process conflict is a disagreement concerning how to assign responsibilities and get work done. The study finds that status conflicts help provide a more complete picture of variations in group performance than models that only include task, relationship and process conflicts.
The study used both qualitative and quantitative methods to distinguish status conflicts from other types. "Our qualitative method was to observe groups and code the conflict instances as one of the four types," Bendersky explains. "Interactions that were about challenging or reinforcing the social hierarchy by bringing someone else down or elevating one's self were coded as status conflicts."
Quantitative data were gathered from students using a four-item survey scale that measured status conflict. "We validated status conflict as being distinct from task, relationship and process conflict scales measured from the same people," Bendersky explains. "We were able to distinguish responses with respect to status, relationship, task and process conflicts and then observe the unique influence of those types of conflicts."
Results showed that status conflicts are clearly distinguishable from other types of conflicts. While status conflicts sometimes occured independently, diverting attention from a group's real tasks, they more commonly co-occured with other types of conflict.
"Interestingly, when a task, relationship or process conflict had a status element, it seemed to function differently," says Bendersky. "Task conflicts appeared more detrimental to the group's process, relationship conflicts seemed more intense and process conflicts extended well beyond logistical discussions when they co-occurred with a status conflict." Clearly, status conflicts provide a useful new lens for observing group performance.
"Our findings will be of interest to anyone who works with student teams," she says. "When the students come together, everyone begins with equal status but some kind of hierarchy inevitably emerges. There are some things that you might expect, like men tend to assert their status more than women. But then it's really a process of trying to figure out who has more expertise. Who has more commitment and dedication to working hard and contributing to the group? And who can be more influential?"
Strong leaders emerged early in some of the groups, according to Bendersky. Other groups needed time to negotiate a social hierarchy. In one group, two members aspired to the position of highest status. "They butted heads on everything," recalls Bendersky. "Every discussion became an opportunity for them to challenge each other's status." Eventually, these students became co-leaders, and friends, but a good-natured rivalry persisted to the end.
Looking at these interactions through a status conflict lens, says Bendersky, it was clear that these individuals were vying for the esteem of fellow group members. "It was about trying to claim more legitimacy with the team.
"Status identities tend to be constructed based on what are called diffuse status characteristics, which are essentially demographic characteristics," explains Bendersky. "If someone is male versus female, white versus non-white, older versus younger ... those things tend to confer status expectations." Status characteristics can also be based on qualities such as experience, intelligence or particular skills that increase expectations that a person will be successful in a task.
"If a group is working on a finance assignment, for example, and a member has a strong finance background, that's a specific status characteristic that's particularly relevant to this task," according to Bendersky. "It is beneficial to the group if they acknowledge this characteristic and provide this member with influence in relation to the finance work.
"What can be disfunctional is if a person's relevant specific characteristics are overlooked because they happen to have low status on demographic characteristics. Or the group gets into a dynamic where one individual is high status on everything and other people's superior experience or skills are devalued because their overall status is lower."
During the study, students frequently tried to maintain or improve their status positions by asserting their opinions, challenging the views of others and seeking to get the last word regardless of the assignment and the relative skills of other group members. "Discussions often came down to challenging the legitimacy of somebody's viewpoint as opposed to trying to understand what they were trying to say," says Bendersky.
Bendersky recommends that groups face status conflicts directly. "I don't think you can avoid them or suppress them," she says. "Status conflicts are a really fundamental human dynamic. Groups have to deal with them and discuss them. One way to handle them is to partition them off from task-related discussions and resolve them separately. This is easier said than done but, with heightened awareness, it's possible."
The best groups anticipate conflicts and consider how to address them, she says. "Groups should encourage open discussion and debate about task-specific things. Challenge each other's assumptions about problems. Introduce new information. Task-related conflicts should be encouraged - even to the point of assigning someone the role of devil's advocate to ensure there is a lot of task-related debate.
"But groups need to be aware that conflicts can devolve into relationship disputes over preferences, values or personal chemistry," she continues. "Or they can become status disputes, which are about relative standing in the social hierarchy. Groups need to be cautious if they find members using task-related discussions as a forum for challenging each other's status."
The communication style of a group's leader can mitigate status conflicts. "I think the leader should focus less on being the most influential voice in all discussions and take on a facilitator role," says Bendersky. "An effective leader will encourage group members to share their task-related knowledge and make sure this information is appreciated regardless of the status position of the person providing it. A leader should use his or her status position and credibility to equalize the opportunity for other members to participate according to their skills and expertise."
According to Bendersky, status conflicts should be thought of as dynamically evolving factors in group behavior that can be manipulated through the efforts of the parties involved. Status conflicts clearly have negative direct effects on group performance, and can combine with the other types of conflicts to have further detrimental effects. This new dimension in task group theory promises to help real groups manage conflicts better and perform more effectively.