Clues to Creating Productive Teams


A photograph of a boat with rowers stroking in synch across calm waters under the headline “Teamwork” makes it look easy. In reality, teamwork is complex. In a longitudinal study of multidisciplinary R&D lab teams, Andrew Knight and his coauthor set out to discover what drives interpersonal influence in teams and connects patterns of influence to team performance.


The first aim of the research was to understand why members of a team defer to each other. In multidisciplinary teams performing knowledge work, a fundamental process by which team members access and capitalize on one another’s diverse expertise is deference—yielding to one another’s opinions, beliefs, and decisions. When one team member defers to another who possesses the right knowledge or skills for a given problem, the team is apt to combine diverse knowledge bases in effective ways.

A team of experts may not function as an expert team if the members defer to one another for the wrong reasons.

Existing explanations for why team members defer to one another have been highly rational, presuming that a collective desire to excel as a team leads people to defer to those whom they expect will contribute most to the team’s work. These explanations have ignored, however, the possibility that people might also tend to defer to people they like, in other words, to their friends.

Using fine-grained data on the interpersonal relationships among the members of 55 R&D teams with a total of 619 scientists—gathered from evaluations and ratings that each team member provided for every other team member—the researchers found that people defer to others not just when they respect others’ task competence (“task-based deference”), but also when they feel a close social affinity (“affinity-based deference”)—a positive liking—for others. The study also identifies the demographic attributes—education, tenure on a team, gender, and race—that contribute to each of the two types of deference.

Why people defer to others matters for team performance.

A second goal of the research was to understand how the reasons underlying people’s deference behavior—that is, whether deference is task based or affinity based—might influence team performance. To do so, the researchers collected information about the productivity of the R&D teams studied over the course of 18 months. Specifically, they tracked how frequently the teams patented their work, published their work in scientific outlets, and presented their work at professional meetings.


Why people defer to one another in multidisciplinary teams shapes how effectively teams can leverage the diverse expertise of team members in order to produce innovative outputs.

  • Reliance on task-based deference—deferring to others based on expectations about their competence—increased productivity by a factor of 1.34.
  • Reliance on affinity-based deference—deferring to others based on liking—decreased productivity by a factor of 0.76.

Takeaways for Managers

This research suggests a number of practical steps that leaders can take to increase the productivity of multidisciplinary teams engaged in knowledge work:

  • Leaders of multidisciplinary teams should remain mindful of dysfunctional processes that emerge after the team has been assembled. A team of experts may not function as an expert team if the members defer to one another for the wrong reasons.
  • In assembling teams, leaders should strive to select members based on specific indicators of their task expertise (e.g., education, experience) and decrease emphasis on less-relevant and less-productive demographic characteristics (e.g., race, gender). Demographic characteristics can form the basis of suboptimal deference patterns grounded in liking, rather than accurate assessments of task expertise.
  • The findings underscore the importance of separating task-relevant decision-making in teams from the informal friendship structure that emerges over time. Deference based in friendship hinders team performance; in contrast, deference based in perceptions of expertise enhances team performance.

“Who defers to whom and why? Implications of demographic differences and dyadic deference for team effectiveness”


Andrew Knight, assistant professor of organizational behavior, Olin Business School, Washington University


Aparna Joshi, Smeal College of Business, Pennsylvania State University


Academy of Management Journal, 2015, 1, 59-84