When The Whole Is Greater Than The Sum Of All Parts

When people are working within a group, status can be an unseen force that often drives productivity, according to new research coauthored by Rosalind Chow, associate professor of organizational behavior and theory, who coauthored the research along with Anita Woolley, associate professor of organizational behavior and theory, and Jin Wook Chang, Ph.D. ’15. The research, which was published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes in March 2017, was Chang’s dissertation, for which Chow and Woolley served as chairs.

People who are part of a high-status group care more about where they stand relative to others in the group than do people who belong to low-status groups, the research finds. And that motivation can manifest itself in either cooperative or competitive behavior toward other teammates depending on whether the team understands how their performance affects the group’s overall standing. For example, in a study conducted with students at Carnegie Mellon University, the researchers found that when students were told that their university was a high-status institution, they were more likely to share information with one another on a team decision-making task when they also believed that the task was related to how CMU was ranked. However, when they were not told that the task was relevant to the university’s ranking, the students were more likely to withhold information from each other, ultimately undermining the performance of the team as a whole.

“So the main takeaway for us — and this is especially true for high-status companies — [is] that you need to worry about competitive infighting among your employees,” Chow said. “Managers need to make it very clear what the group’s performance means for the firm, tying it back to the larger company and where it stands vis-à-vis other competitors.” Otherwise, high-status organizations run the risk of putting together high-achieving individuals who undermine one another’s work in an effort to showcase their individual talents, but at a cost to the overall group’s output.