Ideas for Leaders #042

Leadership to Reconcile Team Diversity or Conflict

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Key Concept

A diverse team can achieve great things. But diversity can sometimes lead to conflict too. The effects of team diversity on team outcomes vary considerably from study to study. This Idea digs deeper, investigating the effects of ‘values diversity’ on team effectiveness – and how leaders can play a significant controlling role in the relationship between values diversity and conflict within a team. 

Idea Summary

Both conflict and leadership influence the way ‘values diversity’ moderates team effectiveness. Leaders who are more oriented toward task-focused leadership create a strong situation that restricts team members from expressing their individual values, and lessens the extent to which values diversity might lead to team conflict. On the other hand, leaders who are more person-focused in their leadership style legitimize individual team members’ perspectives, creating a weaker team situation that frees the expression of team members’ values and increases the likelihood that team values diversity will lead to conflict.

Data from a residential, team-based, 10-month long American national service program was collected here, where members worked closely and interdependently with one another on a variety of projects, and measured their beliefs about the extent to which they should work hard and stay busy on the job:

As predicted in the hypotheses, task-focused leadership attenuated the effects of values diversity (specifically, work ethic diversity) on team conflict. Person-focused leadership, in contrast, exacerbated the effects of values diversity (specifically, traditionalism diversity) on team conflict. And, team conflict mediated the effects of these interactions on team effectiveness.

These findings suggest that values diversity may indeed be a disruptive force within teams. As a result, it is of great importance to move beyond demographic diversity to consider the effects of deep-level diversity in future studies.

Business Application

Leader behaviours can either strengthen or lessen the relationship between values diversity and conflict. Specifically:

  • Highly task-focused leadership can significantly weaken the relationship between ethic diversity and team conflict. In other words, teams led by highly task-focused leaders experience less conflict when team members vary in their work ethic than when they do not; and
  • Person-focused leadership exacerbates the relationship between traditionalism diversity and team conflict; and
  • Person-focused rather than task-focused leadership moderated and, more specifically, exacerbated the effects of traditionalism diversity on conflict.

“Good leadership” then, may not be enough to suppress the negative consequences of values diversity, as both task-focused and person-focused leader behaviours are clearly ‘‘good” in many circumstances.

Leaders play a key role in shaping the consequences of team diversity for team processes and outcomes. Leaders should take caution when leading teams high in values diversity, especially work ethic diversity, to practice task-focused leadership and hold back, especially in teams high in traditionalism diversity, in offering person-focused leadership.

Teammates’ open expression of their differing values may foster unproductive and damaging conflict within the team. When, however, values and expert knowledge are tightly linked, teammates’ open expression of their differing values may be necessary for team effectiveness, as failure to express distinctive values may cause them to withhold their distinctive perspectives and expertise as well.

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