Status Inequality Within Teams? Could Be Trouble

Topic: Teams, Performance
Publication: Journal of Applied Psychology (SEP 2010)
Article: Beyond Status: Relating Status Inequality to Performance and Health in Teams
Authors: A.M. Christie, J. Barling
Reviewed By: Ben Sher

Okay everyone, who’s excited about the new basketball season?  I/O Psychologists are!  In fact, Christie and Barling (2010) did a recent study that analyzed NBA players to determine if “status inequality” is related to lower performance.  They found a relationship if the low status players also exhibit uncooperative behavior.

Wait a second, so how did they figure that out?  They started with the argument that sports is a natural setting for the observation of team dynamics.  They first assessed each player’s individual status (using factors such as salary, awards, and tenure) to determine how much players’ statuses varied within a given team.  When there was a lot of variation between high status players and lower status players, that team could be said to suffer from status inequality

Then, they evaluated uncooperative behavior by measuring number of suspensions and ejections from games for unsportsmanlike conduct.  To assess how these factors relate to performance, the authors used established formulas for calculating players’ on court effectiveness, and they also looked at absenteeism, or the number of games players missed due to injury or illness.

What they found is that when teams with high levels of status inequality also have low status players who display uncooperative behavior (ejections or suspensions), then those low status players will also have poorer performance. 

If the team did not have low status players displaying uncooperative behavior, then status inequality was not related to poorer performance by low status players.

Another finding of the study was that teams with high levels of status inequality saw lower status players miss fewer games due to injury or illness, while the high status players on the team began missing more games.  The authors explain that this may be due to low status players feeling more pressure to perform.  After all, they remain low status due to past shortcomings which they may try hard to improve upon.  For this, the authors cite Caverly, Cunningham, and MacGregor (2007) who similarly found that job insecurity is related to employees taking fewer sick days. 

Practically speaking, these findings stress the importance of cooperation within teams that have high levels of status inequality.  Without cooperation, the status inequality could negatively affect performance. 

Another implication of this study is that sports can be a goldmine of information on teamwork.  Clearly, caution the authors, there are some difference in the study of multi-million dollar athletes and the study of ordinary people in a routine workplace.  However, they do believe that sports presents researchers with an opportunity to use preexisting data to study well-defined teams in situations where both individual performance and team performance are factors.

In other words, next time you see a group of professors watching the big game, try not to bother them.  They are probably doing research. 

Christie, A.M., & Barling, J. (2010).  Beyond Status: Relating Status Inequality to Performance and Health in Teams.  Journal of Applied Psychology, 95(5), 920-934.