Too Much Teamwork | Lerner
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University of Delaware - Alfred Lerner College of Business & Economics

By Ira Porter June 7, 2022

Humans have a fundamental need to belong. It is built into our DNA and importantly, the need to belong can have a significant impact on how we act in, feel about and perceive our work environment.  This is why organizations devote so much time and attention toward teamwork and helping employees identify with the team to which they are assigned. Identification with our team helps us to understand who am I? and How and where  I fit in. It makes us feel safe and valued, engenders loyalty, creates affirmation and reinforces self-esteem.

But, what happens to employees assigned to multiple temporary teams concurrently?

Might being on too many temporary teams do more harm than good for employees?

According to research from a University of Delaware professor in the Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics, having multiple team memberships (MTMs) on temporary teams and not building permanent team connections can lead to cognitive depletion, identity strain and turnover. Sal Mistry, assistant professor of management in Lerner’s Department of Business Administration, recently published a journal article in Personnel Psychology about this subject. The article, Too many teams? Examining the impact of multiple team memberships and permanent team identification on employees’ identity strain, cognitive depletion, and turnover, asserts several things as it pertains to employees working in groups.

The research was co-authored by Bradley Kirkman of North Carolina State University, Ozias Moore of Lehigh University, Andrew Hanna of University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Tammy Rapp of Ohio University.

The arrangement of  MTMs is not new and past research suggested, but not tested, that MTMs may create identity-related tensions. Mistry’s research focused on what has become more common in workplaces, which is blended MTMs, where employees are assigned to permanent teams and multiple short-term project teams, sometimes with 10 or more members.

Organizations believe assigning employees to a permanent team and temporary project teams  meet shifting work demands because doing so blends the highly specialized knowledge of someone  in a particular business function with unique combinations of others with specialized expertise.

“Employees have, are and will continue to be on several teams simultaneously before, during and after the pandemic, so I believe it is quite timely,” Mistry said of his research. “This is because businesses are continuing to move away from traditional, hierarchical structures and toward, flatter, more agile structures. MTM arrangements are widely believed to offer a host of benefits to organizations, including increased innovation, productivity, efficiency and employee utilization,” Mistry said.

But with all of those benefits, there are costs to some employees’ roles.

Mistry and his co-authors examined how they might play out.

Mistry said this is MTM identity strain, where people feel a lack of security and affirmation on who they are in their MTM arrangement. They can begin to experience feelings of not belonging, which makes them dedicate cognitive resources to trying to figure out the source of their strain, Mistry and his fellow researchers found. This can draw from a finite source of coping resources like self esteem and optimism.

“Shifting between different teams and transitioning between work roles can be stressors that impact employee outcomes, such as physical and psychological health and work-related attitudes, behaviors and performance,” Mistry said.

This paper includes two studies of over 400 participants.

For the first study, they surveyed a consortium of engineers and a group of project managers in various industries via online surveys in 2014 and 2015. They determined what participants’ permanent team was and what temporary teams they participated in. Participants answered a series of questions relating to this and then researchers followed up six months later by checking Linkedin profiles to track who had transferred to new jobs.

For the second study, they utilized an online marketplace of employees in various roles and in various industries including healthcare/social assistance, finance/insurance, manufacturing, university/adult education, government/public administration, and information services/data processing to conduct surveys and paid participants a small fee to collect data. In some cases researchers reached back out to participants four years later for check ups.

In the first study, contrary to their expectations, they found that for project managers being on multiple temporary teams does not increase MTM identity strain or turnover. Furthermore, they found that participating in a higher number of temporary teams was actually beneficial for project managers because it was associated with less MTM identity strain and permanent team identification actually thwarted (rather than augmented, as one would expect from their theorizing) this beneficial effect. They surmised that because project managers: (a) are less likely to experience opposing roles, goal, and expectations across their various team roles; (b) may play a consistent role across their teams, thus making their role transitions less distressful; and,  (c) have skills and training associated with the project manager role enabling them to better manage competing and concurrent roles and responsibilities. As a result, project managers are less likely to experience MTM strain because overlapping identities signify that multiple identities have converged into a single social or role identity or short-term temporary teams could desensitize project managers to a need to develop a sense of belongingness from their project teams.

In the second study,  composed of individuals in all types of roles and in line with their expectations, they found that participating in a higher number of temporary teams was detrimental, increasing MTM identity strain and intentions to leave. However, permanent team identification can buffer the effects of the number of temporary teams on MTM identity strain, suggesting that employees who establish a strong identity with their permanent team can offset the harmful effects of participating in a high number of temporary teams.

With reports that 50 percent of business leaders want their employees to return to the office post-pandemic, Mistry and his counterparts’ research might prove prescient.

As more employees report working on MTMs, employers might want to shift their thinking to understanding team membership and identifying strain. Mistry and co-authors wrote that in the first study they found that, “To ensure that project managers thrive in blended MTMs, organizations should also use upskilling programs and cross-pollination of expertise, which can justify assigning employees to a higher number of temporary teams. Managers should be mindful, however, that increasing an individual’s number of temporary team assignments may not always have universally desirable or productive effects.”

In the second study they suggested that organizations be aware of potential harmful effects on employees in non-project manager roles participating in a high number of temporary teams because of increased MTM identity strain, cognitive depletion, and turnover. Mistry and his co-authors said that this could be mitigated by strengthening permanent team identification and doing things like increasing member contact with each other, offering guidance and support and role modeling, and incorporating more feedback and encouragement in this process. Lastly, employees and supervisors can be trained to identify signs of tension, insecurity and uncertainty.