Working Paper | HBS Working Paper Series | 2010

Disagreement about the Team's Status Hierarchy: An Insidious Obstacle to Coordination and Performance

by Heidi K. Gardner


Hierarchies are pervasive in groups, generally providing clear guidelines for the dominance and deference behaviors that members are expected to show based on their relative ranks. But what happens when team members disagree about where each member ranks on the status hierarchy? While some research has examined overt status rivalries (Sutton & Hargadon, 1996), typically focusing on battles for the top positions (Groysbert, Polzer & Elfenbein, 2009; Overbeck, Correll, & Park, 2005), our study contributes novel findings on the effects of disagreement amongst all members' perceptions of their team's status hierarchy. This paper develops and tests a theory to explain how even small differences in members' status perceptions-differences that may not be apparent to the members themselves-can diminish coordination, generate task conflict, and weaken performance.

We identify two conditions-time pressure and intragroup familiarity-under which team members' disagreements on the status hierarchy are more likely to lead to poor coordination and increased conflict. Survey data from a longitudinal field study of 89 consulting and accounting teams from a Big Four firm allow us to examine how teams experience status disagreement over time. Independent, third-party performance data for each team demonstrates how coordination and conflict ultimately affect performance with clients.

These findings contribute both to the micro-status literature (especially to the growing body of research on the role of status in shaping team dynamics and outcomes) and more broadly to the team effectiveness literature.

Keywords: Performance Effectiveness; Groups and Teams; Behavior; Conflict and Resolution; Perception; Status and Position; Cooperation;


Gardner, Heidi K. "Disagreement about the Team's Status Hierarchy: An Insidious Obstacle to Coordination and Performance." Harvard Business School Working Paper, No. 10-113, June 2010.