On Teams:  A Blog About Team Effectiveness

Faultlines can divide your team. Be aware and be smart!

Written by Scott Tannenbaum on .

Imagine a six-person team. Three team members are in their early twenties and possess strong technical backgrounds. Two others are in early forties and trained as finance MBAs. Can you see a potential "faultline" in this team?

Crack in white iStock 000019390460XSmall

Researchers define a faultline as a hypothetical dividing line that splits a group into two or more subgroups. When team members identify more closely with some members of their team due to shared characteristics -- age, gender, ethnicity, education, occupation, physical location – the stage is set for the formation of subgroups.

Here's the bad news. Research shows that teams with faultlines are prone to problems. And in my experience, most teams have some potential faultlines. So, what do you need to know about faultlines and what can you do about them?

Let's face it; in-groups and out-groups have existed for as long as there have been groups. The people in cave A probably drew derogatory cave paintings about the people in cave B. But the faultlines I'm discussing occur within what is supposed to be a single, unified team.

A faultline can be active (perceived by team members) or dormant (not perceived yet). Dormant faultlines can be triggered by an event that makes it more visible and activates it. The opening example involved age and functional expertise. Here are a few other examples that I've observed:

The team members were... Faultline based on... The trigger that made it active...
Doctors and other staff on a medical team Education A case where a nurse needed to speak up to the attending physician
Senior and junior officers on a military team Authority Who is allowed to sit on the chairs that have wheels during meetings
Members of the company's founding family and others Family A promotion that was made
Younger and older members of a work team Age How technology should be used to communicate with one another
Project team members in the US and Europe Geography Deciding when to hold weekly phone meeting (time zone issue)

What Research Tells Us
Researchers Sherry Thatcher and Pankaj Patel have conducted two meta-analyses, one in the Journal of Applied Psychology and one in the Journal of Management. Their analyses combine the results from prior studies on over 4000 teams and yield some very useful insights about faultlines. The primary finding is that stronger faultlines lead to greater conflict and lower team cohesion. They reduce team performance and team member satisfaction.

Faultlines are more likely to create problems when:

  • There are strong perceived similarities among members within each subgroup and greater perceived differences between the subgroups
  • When the team is neither very large nor very small
  • When there are fewer sub-groups (e.g., having two sub-groups is usually more detrimental than having three)
  • When team members are less open to experience and diversity of perspectives

Advice for Team Leaders
If you are concerned about potential fault lines in your team, what can you do as a team leader? Here are a few tips to consider based on the research and my experiences.

  • Consider the composition of your team. Is a faultline likely to create a problem? What is the level of risk? If it is high, be vigilant for early signs of divisiveness.
  • When launching a team, start by focusing on what the team collectively needs to do. An early focus on the task tends to emphasize commonalities and de-emphasize demographic differences.
  • After task requirements and roles have been established, you can shift towards more relationship-focused leadership.
  • Establish and emphasize shared goals that all team members can embrace.
  • Use "connectors." In this context a connector is someone who shares something in common with both groups (e.g., the sales person who used to be an engineer). Research shows that having even one connector can help reduce the detrimental effects of a faultline.

Almost all teams have some potential faultlines. The goal is not to form homogenous teams – that stifles creativity and leads to groupthink. Rather the goal is to ensure that a diverse group of people don't splinter into "in" and "out" subgroups but instead operate as a unified team.