Work groups perform best when expertise is judged from task-relevant cues

Superficial assumptions can spell business disaster

Why do the challenges and tasks taken on by the teams on the popular reality shows “Survivor” and “The Apprentice” so often result in failure or disaster?

Perhaps these short-term work groups are assigning responsibilities based on superficial assumptions of expertise.

J. Stuart Bunderson
J. Stuart Bunderson

A recent study by J. Stuart Bunderson, Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Olin School of Business at Washington University in St. Louis, shows that work groups perform better when they rely on valid cues, such as education and experience, rather than superficial characteristics such as race and gender. Bunderson’s paper, “Recognizing and Utilizing Expertise in Work Groups: A Status Characteristics Perspective,” has been published in the journal Administrative Science Quarterly.

“When people work together in groups, one of the problems they face is figuring out who their more expert members are so that they can make use of that expertise,” said Bunderson. “This can be a challenge because expertise isn’t immediately apparent — we have to infer expertise by looking at what we know about the people in a group.”

Bunderson tested nine hypotheses relating to the recognition of work expertise by studying a sample of self-managed production teams in a Fortune 100 high-technology firm.

He based his work on status characteristics theory, which theorizes that performance expectations in task groups are derived from the status, or social meaning, that individuals assign to various personal characteristics of group members. Personal characteristics that are believed to provide information about an individual’s general aptitude include gender, ethnicity, age and attractiveness.

Bunderson’s study shows that people rely on these social cues as well as specific, task-relevant characteristics such as experience and education — which are much more valid — in inferring the expertise of fellow group members.

“People are more likely to rely on valid cues when the group has been together longer and when the group has a more democratic decision-making style,” Bunderson said, based on his study findings. “And my work confirms that groups perform better when they rely on valid cues.”

The study also looked at the issue of influence and power within work groups. Bunderson found no evidence that status cues have any affect on influence within the groups except through perceived expertise. “This finding raises important questions about the nature of influence in task groups,” the study states. The results support two routes to influence in task groups: influence through recognized expertise, and influence through legitimate authority, signaled by a formal leadership role assignment.

“Why is this important?” Bunderson said. “In an increasingly knowledge-intensive economy, organizations are becoming more and more likely to rely on groups of specialized experts to perform complex knowledge work. These groups simply can’t be effective unless they can identify and utilize the expertise of their members.”

“If we are going to crack this nut, we need to understand how and when different member characteristics will lead to expertise attributions,” Bunderson said.

Bunderson’s paper suggests several future research topics, including whether the hypotheses apply to homogenous groups such as same-sex teams or groups of one ethnicity, or to virtual teams where there is no opportunity to observe social cues.

“More work in this vein should yield important insights into the management of expertise in groups of knowledge workers,” Bunderson said