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Bosses need to find middle ground in treatment of all staff – or risk hurting team performance

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According to Bradley Kirkman, head of the department of management, innovation and entrepreneurship at Poole College of Management, existing research has generally shown that leaders treating team members differently can result in productive teams.

He said: “Previous research points to a linear relationship between treating team members differently and team performance. But we didn’t find that to be true.”

The findings from an international team of researchers – which included Kirkman –suggested business leaders who oversee teams often treat employees too differently from each other.

“Performance will suffer,” Kirkman said. “The relationship between ‘differentiation’ and team performance is more of a bell curve than a straight line.”

For the study, the researchers evaluated team leaders of 145 teams in three Chinese companies: a pharmaceutical company, a telecommunications company and a manufacturing company. Team performance was assessed via a survey of the team leaders, focusing on issues such as the quality and efficiency of each team’s work and the team’s ability to meet deadlines and stay on budget.

“We found an upper limit to how far leaders should go in treating their team members differently,” Kirkman said. “If leaders go too far with this behavior, leaders will end up with teams composed of basically two subgroups – the ingroup and the outgroup. The outgroup will become unhappy and will start to slack off, withdraw from participating, and even go so far as to be disruptive to the ingroup team members. But treating all team members the same also hurts performance. Leaders need to find a middle ground, or moderate level of differentiation.

“In practice, leaders should not treat all members the same – there needs to be some differentiation based on competence and ability – but they also need to avoid engaging in extreme preferential treatment,” Kirkman said.

The researchers also found two factors that influenced how much differential treatment a team could withstand before adversely affecting performance. Larger teams – such as those with ten or more members – could withstand more differentiation.

“This is because larger teams have greater needs for coordination and integration and putting more resources towards more capable members actually helps these processes get accomplished,” Kirkman said.

The second factor is the “power distance orientation” of the team. Power distance orientation is an evaluation of how accepting a given culture is of power differences between individuals and the social importance of hierarchy.

“A team whose members are in higher power distance countries, such as India, will likely react less negatively to differential treatment than a team in a lower power distance country, such as Australia or Israel,” Kirkman said. “Teams in lower power distance countries may simply reject this sort of differential treatment.”

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