SILLA CORONA – DR. SHERRY THATCHER. FAULTLINES, CONFLICTS AND PERFORMANCE IN ORGANIZATIONS

October 26, 2016

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Published in 2016

Faultlines are the structures of diversity that cause strong subgroups, within organizations. The knowledge about those patterns of diversity can teach us how people with different demographic characteristics can influence the way conflict and interactions are perceived and engaged in.

When there's a composition of diversity that causes subgroups, and one subgroup may have a higher status, then it causes decreased performance. In order to counteract this it is necessary to have a clear knowledge of the structure of the team: who's the leader and who holds an specific role. This can reduce the level of status conflict and it will help in terms of performance.

What is your most recent research about? Who does it affect and how does it apply to organizations?

Today we see many organizations that are made of teams, of groups that must work together in order to get something done. But we know that people are very different. So, when they come together to work in teams, oftentimes there are´s misunderstandings. There are different views about how to do things and this results in conflict and a lot of the conflict comes from just different experiences. People are diverse and they have different backgrounds, different views and different educations. And when you put them together and ask them to work together, it doesn't just automatically happen well. The result, as we see, is that there's a lot of conflict.

There are a lot of good things, a lot of new ideas, a lot of breakthroughs, but a lot of conflict. So, my specific area is looking at how different structures of diversity, sometimes called fault lines, really influence the types of conflicts that occur and how those conflicts can influence performance. Ideally, we would like to find out that we understand that process and how it works, so we can figure out ways to reduce the conflict. An example of how this works: a manager can decide that if there are two factions, two subgroups that are kind of fighting with one another, they can bring in another person who can speak between the subgroups, that's like a bridge, that would help to reduce some of the conflict. That is the kind of tools this research is heading to.

Does the perception of the existence of the subgroup have anything to do with the behavior and the performance of the team?

That makes the effects even stronger. So, even if there's no perception, we see that they're still in effect. But if there's perception, it makes the effects stronger. If you think there are divided subgroups based on things like gender or age, then, the interaction between fault lines, the subgroup division and performance is going to be stronger.

Do the results of your research show that strategies such as having a manager in the role of the mediator actually work?

Yes. There are many different ways that research has shown in this area, that can help the situation. One is this bridge, the other is to try to get the two subgroups, the two sides, to have a common goal. Another is to accept that there are going to be these different perspectives and to just encourage them, have the manager mediate in the interactions.

It’s ok to have some conflict, because conflict is good. But when it gets past a certain point, then the manager steps in and says stop, enough of this conversation, let's go back to our initial issue that we're dealing with.

In fact, I think that having a good leader, who understands the effects externally, is one of the best things an organization can do. So, if a leader just doesn't want to deal with the conflict and says "work it out", that's not going to be an effective leader. The managers that the organizations hire to deal with these situations need to have an understanding of this necessary mediation. That's one thing. The other thing is, if an organization decides that it wants to be very flat, so it doesn´t have a lot of managers, if it´s saying that it has a self-managed team, it needs to give skills to the team members to be able to deal with these conflicts. They need to study what's happening when they start breaking into subgroups and interactions. If the teams don't have the skills, it's not going to work well. So, two ways: hire good managers who understand this and to train team members to have the skills to be able to deal with conflict on their own.

Is it possible to say that, ultimately, a hierarchy is necessary to resolve these conflicts?

I don't think it's necessary, but I do think it's very helpful. Nonetheless, a hierarchy just to have a hierarchy isn't going to help much. It has to be a hierarchy that people understand the value of. So, if you believe, "yes, there's this hierarchy and it's based on some fairness: you've been here for ten years and you have the skills to be a manager or to be an upper-level”, there's an agreement of believe that is fair. The hierarchy can work very well and help that situation.

How do you measure fairness more specifically?

Well, I believe fairness is in reality a perception. So, the only way that you can know whether or not people think it is fair is to ask them. Certainly, the organization can have policies and procedures to promote fairness, there has to be consistent communication across the different levels about the policies and procedures. I think consistency is one of the main ways that we can see fairness. If it's inconsistent, if you're treated differently than someone else, people are going to perceive it to be unfair.

Do you have an example of how an organization has implemented the research you've done?

There are many organizations that have used the tools that we suggest. They're not difficult tools. One of the most important things is to train the managers to see that diversity is important, diversity matters. You have to make sure that organizations are aware of the different types of conflict and how to manage them because you might handle the different types differently.

One organization in which we did training in, they had some team members that were really frustrated with one another and they had a lot of conflict around individual things. For example: "you're always like that, you always put things off to the last minute, and it drives me crazy". As the training develops, as soon as someone raises that issue, someone else will step in and say "let's talk about something task related". But if it is quite different if the discussion is about a task conflict. Then, they’d go "ok, you can continue to have that conversation”, because that's a good type of conflict and has an impact on performance.

Has your visit to Colombia given you any new insights related to your research?

One of the things that is really interesting and hasn't been explored a lot is how identity really plays a role in terms of diversity. So, I think that it is important, especially when you come to somewhere like Bogotá, not to just say what we understand in some areas fit automatically in other contexts. For example, there may be issues of race that are really important in North America and they may not be so important here. Then we need to think, what is important here? Is it issues of gender? Or is it issues of class? Or is it issues of something else that plays a more important role? That's why it's important to understand theory. Not just race, because race doesn't matter here. If we know that the differences caused by race could be applied to another areas, then we have a head start to study them. Travelling has helped me to really understand that each context has its own questions.

 

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