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Being the Outsider: A Study on Group Dynamics, Satisfaction and Effectiveness

June 7, 2017

Group projects are notoriously late, over budget and don't meet goals. There are many reasons projects fail, and one reason is often team dynamics. If a team is acting in a dysfunctional way, then it's more likely to produce a project that is late or over budget or lacks the requirements needed.

This made Information Systems Associate Professor Stacie Petter wonder if the dynamics impacting a project's effectiveness might be whether or not the team members have worked together before.

"The anecdotal wisdom, and a little bit of research has suggested, that people who have a shared work history are more likely to be a functional team," Petter said. "That's probably true, but what if you're a newcomer? What if there's a group of people that have worked together, but you're not part of that group? How might that impact the project? That's something that hasn't really been studied before."

She, along with co-author Michelle Carter, assistant professor at Washington State University, used social identity theory to study newcomers in groups. Social identity theory suggests people naturally tend to categorize themselves and others into groups and subgroups.

"Having a work history with members of the group can create these subgroups," Petter said. "It seems logical that if a team has worked together before, that would be a reason to create this subgroup. Acknowledging that, does an outsider recognize they're an outsider? Or do they get pulled into the subgroup and feel like a part of the team, so there is a positive, healthy team dynamic?"

The duo tested their ideas with an online game. First, they divided the gamers into teams—some had worked together before and some hadn't. Then, the researchers had a mole infiltrate the teams—a confederate participant who, as a newcomer, could gauge how well he was accepted. The confederate didn't know which type of group he was entering.

Petter and Carter also manipulated if the confederate was important to the team. They asked the confederate to disrupt the team by pushing the team to work faster. When he was less important, it was more common for the subgroup to come together and either call the confederate out on the behavior or kick him out. If the confederate was in a more important role, he was less likely to get fired from the group.

Some groups were welcoming to newcomers, and some subgroups isolated themselves and pushed out the outsiders.

The article, "In a League of Their Own: Exploring the Impacts of Shared Work History for Distributed Online Project Teams," was published in Project Management Journal in February.

"What we're suggesting with this research is that we need to understand more about this," Petter said. "We just assume that for people who work together having this shared history is always a good idea, but it might not always be a good idea… especially if you're the outsider."

To have a good team, the team needs to be effective, but they should be satisfied and happy with the project too, she notes.

"We still don't fully know how to make people feel safe and secure in a team environment," Petter said. "From the project management perspective, we have to create an environment to make people feel comfortable—not too task-focused, but rather, make an effort to educate and be inclusive. For those in the team, it's important to recognize a person may feel like an outsider, so bring them up along the way and don't exclude them."

Petter's academic achievements aren't limited to her research. Currently, she is the editor-in-chief for The Data Base for Advances in Information Systems, one of the earliest academic publications in the field of information systems. She's an associate editor for Information Systems Journal, which is considered one of the top six journals in the field. In December 2016, Petter finished a four-year term as an associate editor of MIS Quarterly, the top journal in information systems. She is also a member of the editorial review board and occasionally serves as a guest senior editor for the Journal of the Association for Information Systems.

"My work on editorial boards consumes a great deal of time, but it is a tremendous honor to be selected for these roles," Petter said. "In my editorial roles, I find it rewarding to provide guidance to authors, but I have also found it has helped me become a better researcher as well."

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