Research: How Our Class Background Affects the Way We Collaborate

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Research shows that interdependent teamwork — focusing on a group’s collective expertise and skills — enables Americans from lower social class backgrounds to shine. But organizations tend to prioritize, value, and reward independent work, which can prevent these employees (and the teams they work on) from truly flourishing. To realize the benefits of interdependent team work for all employees, focus on three areas: ensuring teams are working on interdependent tasks; training all team members to work interdependently; and to outwardly value interdependent teamwork.

Early in his life, William McNabb, the former CEO of Vanguard, recounted an insight he had about the power of teamwork — and teamwork done right. Growing up, he had a newspaper route with a friend. Their typical approach to this joint venture was to “divide and conquer” — to split the route and each complete half of it individually. It took them each 35 minutes to complete their half of the route when they worked together in this way. This approach probably sounds reasonable, and unsurprisingly so – the divide-and-conquer approach to teamwork reflects both the dominant approach to teamwork in many U.S. organizations and the broader culture of individualism in the United States.

But this approach is not the only way, as McNabb discovered when his usual paper route partner went out of town, and he had to recruit his younger brothers to help him instead. Instead of dividing and conquering, the brothers developed a truly interdependent system to complete the route. “We’d put the papers in a wheelbarrow,” McNabb said, “which I’d push up the street as fast as I could. They’d grab the papers and run them to people’s doorsteps.”

This strategy yielded drastically different results: The brothers were able to finish the entire route in just 20 minutes, instead of 35. Interestingly, this interdependent approach to teamwork aligns better with the relatively interdependent, relational culture of Americans from lower social-class backgrounds.

In fact, our research shows that interdependent teamwork, focusing on leveraging the group’s collective expertise and skills, enables Americans from lower social-class backgrounds to perform up to their full potential — and, in some cases, even outperform their typically more advantaged counterparts from higher social-class backgrounds.

In our research, we put people in teamwork situations that were styled like the interdependent approach used by McNabb and his brothers. We measured whether people who came from lower-class backgrounds would perform better, and why. For example, a lab experiment showed that groups of students from lower-class backgrounds outperformed their more advantaged higher-class peers when they were working together on a problem-solving task. Next, by coding the videos of their interactions, we discovered one key reason for their enhanced performance: Groups from lower social-class backgrounds took more conversational turns while working together than groups from middle-class backgrounds, and had more active and balanced discussions, a crucial ingredient to high-performing teams. Indeed, our work suggests that people from lower social-class backgrounds are likely to bring unique, collaborative skills to organizations that help teams perform well.

However, despite the potential upsides to harnessing the collaborative skills of employees from lower-class backgrounds, most U.S. organizations are not structured in ways that let these strengths shine through. Many modern organizations fail to reward skilled collaborators, and instead focus all their energy and resources on individual star performers.

This is particularly troubling in light of another finding that has emerged from our work: that the divide-and-conquer–style approach systematically disadvantages Americans who come from lower-class backgrounds. For example, in an archival study of undergraduate grades in an organizational behavior course, we examined how social-class background shaped students’ grades on the portion of their assignments that were completed individually. Reproducing the typical social-class achievement gaps we see in academic performance, we found that students from lower-class backgrounds earned lower grades compared to their middle-class counterparts. In another part of our research, an online experiment, we found that people from lower-class backgrounds performed worse than people from middle-class backgrounds on a problem-solving task when they were working individually.

Taken together, our research demonstrates that people from lower social-class backgrounds are not lacking in skills relative to their higher-class counterparts. Instead, the big challenge they face is structural: How they are asked to work — interdependently or by dividing and conquering — powerfully shapes whether they have an equal opportunity to succeed. Importantly, these insights also point to some potential high-impact strategies that organizations and managers can adopt to not only help all employees learn to work together more effectively but also to ensure that employees from lower-class backgrounds have the opportunity to showcase their interdependent strengths.

Make sure teams are working on interdependent tasks.

Are your teams really working together interdependently, like McNabb and his brothers, or are they just dividing and conquering, like McNabb and his friend? Not all forms of working together are uniformly beneficial. To obtain the benefits for people from lower-class contexts, the team task must actually require coordinating, synchronizing, and integrating one another’s inputs.

Applied to organizations, if you want your teams to more actively engage in interdependent processes, like coordinating inputs and coming up with joint solutions, you may want to ensure that your employees from lower-class origins are well-represented in these teams, as they may be more skilled at facilitating team performance. If teams instead simply divide and conquer, this is less likely to draw upon the interdependent strengths of employees from lower-class origins. (To learn about your employees’ class backgrounds in the first place, it is important to create a psychologically safe work environment where all employees feel comfortable disclosing information about their upbringing.)

Train all team members to work together interdependently.

Do all of your employees have a consistent idea of what it means to be an effective teammate? To ensure that highly interdependent teams have the chance to thrive, you must also ensure that all team members are willing and able to engage in effective group processes like turn-taking, coordinating, and integrating one another’s inputs.

To do so, make sure all your team members are trained on how to collaborate effectively. In a 2016 HBR article, Rob Cross, Reb Rebele, and Adam Grant reported the results of a study where they found that 20-35% of value-add collaboration was contributed by just 3-5% of employees. While they didn’t look at employee social-class background in their study, we would bet that those value-add collaborators are disproportionately people from underrepresented working-class backgrounds. This speaks to the importance of bringing in multiple voices from lower-class origins and training all employees on the value of collaboration, regardless of class. This way you can ensure you have team members who are able to leverage interdependent skills, and that you’re not burning out your star collaborators by over-relying on them for value-add collaboration.

Value interdependent teamwork.

Is interdependent teamwork valued equally to individual contributions at your organization? If not, there are a few ways you might be able to shift your culture. For example, beyond individual performance metrics, our research suggests that incorporating assessments of being an effective team member into employees’ evaluations might help.

In fact, in other ongoing research we are conducting, we interviewed people from different social-class backgrounds about their college-to-career transitions. One of our interviewees from a working-class background, William, explained how having evaluations that are based in part on teamwork abilities enabled him to truly shine at work: “At my most recent job, one of the buckets that they evaluated you on was the ability to connect with people. I think my upbringing helped me to easily connect with people who are different from me. It’s something that’s very attuned for me having grown up in a diverse area, speaking to very different people. I feel like that definitely is a strength of my background.”

Including team-based evaluation metrics will not only signal the value of being a good collaborator to all employees, it will also ensure that employees from lower-class backgrounds, who are more likely to display these skills, have an equal opportunity to earn high marks and rise through the ranks in organizations, ultimately leveling the playing field. Ensuring that teamwork is not only a required behavior but is also valued by all employees is critical to creating a work environment that is inclusive of employees from lower-class backgrounds.

As William and McNabb both realized, the specific behaviors that teams engage in and are rewarded for can yield drastically different outcomes compared to the dominant “divide and conquer” approach. And our findings shed light on one powerful thing organizations can do to begin to address the issues at the heart of the divisions in our increasingly unequal society: Institute structural changes that make their cultures more inclusive of underrepresented groups, including employees who come from lower-class backgrounds. The good news is that this not only is the right thing but will also benefit organizations, which will learn how to “do teamwork” in ways that are more aligned with the interdependent, lower-class approach. Indeed, as McNabb himself observed, “a company can accomplish so much more if everyone works together.”

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