How to Overcome the Danger of Work Team Faultlines

Topic(s): diversity, performance, teams
Publication: Journal of Applied Psychology (2012)
Article: Bridging Team Faultlines by Combining Task Role Assignment and Goal Structure Strategies
Authors: R. Rico, M. Sanchez-Manzanares, M. Antino, D. Lau
Reviewed by: Ben Sher

Group faultlines occur when different categories of people exist within a group. This causes team members to lose cohesiveness. Similar to fault lines that lie in the ground, group fault lines can be the source of great upheaval. What can organizations do to make sure faultlines don’t wreak havoc on groups? New research (Rico et al., 2012) has provided an interesting and practical solution to this problem.


When do group faultlines occur? There are three necessary conditions. First, there must be actual differences between group members, for example, people of different ethnic backgrounds. Second, a reason for identifying these categories needs to make sense in the particular context, for example, tall and short players on a basketball team. Finally, the categories need to be easily identifiable, for example, males and females. Group faultlines make communication harder and make overall group performance suffer.


So what can we do about it? The authors experimentally tested two different strategies on a sample of groups. The first strategy is called crosscutting. This is when groups are formed so that all members are different in at least some way. For example, say the authors, a group of two engineers and two accountants may be subject to a faultline based on profession. The group is said to be crosscut when the two engineers consist of one male and one female, and the two accountants also consist of one male and one female. The natural divisions of profession and gender combine to ensure that each member is different from the rest in at least some primary way. This helps faultlines from forming.

A second strategy for combating faultlines involves creating superordinate goals. This is when all group members must work together to achieve a common goal. This helps form group identity and increases cooperation. These goals are different than subgroup goals, which can be achieved by the efforts of only some people in the group.


So which of these two strategies actually works to eliminate faultlines? Interestingly, the authors found that both strategies need to be used together to see any noticeable improvement in team performance. Managers and team leaders should utilize crosscutting in order to integrate the group, and create superordinate, group goals in order to build cohesiveness. If only one strategy is used by itself, faultlines can still thrive, and performance can still suffer. While it may seem challenging to consider both of these strategies at once, this research is helpful in identifying a clear, practical roadmap toward team success.


Rico, R., Sanchez-Manzanares, Antino, M., & Lau, D., (2012). Bridging team faultlines by combining task role assignment and goal structure strategies. Journal of Applied Psychology, 97(2), 407-420.