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Multiple teams, multiple roles? Why it is best to wear the same hat in each team.

Date:18 January 2022
Assistant professors Joost van den Brake (photo: Reyer Boxem) and Stefan Berger
Assistant professors Joost van den Brake (photo: Reyer Boxem) and Stefan Berger

It is more and more common for employees to be a member of multiple teams at the same time. In multiple projects, committees, or medical teams, for instance. Multiple team membership (MTM) is often unavoidable, but also has considerable disadvantages. Previous research has shown that managers are increasingly frustrated by problems associated with MTM and regard it as a necessary evil. MTM causes their employees stress and exhaustion due to frequent switching between different teams. Moreover MTM is often accompanied by conflicts in agendas and affects a team’s ability to meet important deadlines. Researchers Hendrik Johan van de Brake and Stefan Berger of the Human Resource Management and Organizational Behavior department of the University of Groningen investigated ways in which multiteamers, team leaders, and organizations can deal with MTM’s challenges.

In a study, of which the results were recently published in Personnel Psychology, Van de Brake & Berger found that MTM is mainly stressful when a multiteamers role within a focal team is very different from their role in another team (role separation).  In an experiment and two field studies, the researchers discovered that it is very hard for employees to remember what is expected of them (by other team members, team leaders and customers/clients) when they have a different role in each team. This role separation causes role ambiguity and harms the performance of the individual employee and by extension that of the entire focal team. Role separation between teams arises when the tasks and working method in each team differ, for example because the multiteamer works on very different assignments in each team.

Reducing disadvantages

According to Van de Brake, who is an assistant professor in Organizational Behavior at the Faculty of Economics and Business of the University of Groningen, managers would do well to reflect on and map out what each employee does in each team. The next step would be to investigate the possibilities of minimizing the role difference between team memberships, enabling each team to profit optimally from the expertise of an employee without causing the individual employee a lot of stress. Yet, this is easier said than done. ‘In many cases, it sadly is not possible to minimize role separation between teams, if only because it is really challenging to articulate each and every role and the corresponding responsibilities clearly and completely,’ the assistant professor explains. But it also is not an option to fully abandon MTM, as few organizations can afford to have all of their employees focus on just one team at a time and sit idle between assignments. For this reason, Van de Brake and Berger also explored what teams can do themselves to reduce the disadvantages of MTM.

Teamwork quality

They found that ‘teamwork quality’, which is the extent to which a team communicates effectively and how much the team members support each other, helps in creating clarity for multiteamers. Effective teamwork enabled multiteamers to better understand their role in a team, even though this role differs strongly from a role they have in another team.  The researchers suggest that managers in MTM-based organizations could stimulate helping behaviors and foster team cohesion with team-building activities, or improve team coordination in complex work environments. These leader initiatives could be further supported by supplying collaboration tools that further facilitate team members’ communication and coordination efforts.

Potentially also positive?

In this most recent study, Van de Brake and Berger focused on the ‘dark side’ of MTM, because of repeated calls for research on factors that could help multiteamers to avoid stress and exhaustion. Yet, the researchers acknowledge it would have also been interesting to consider the potentially positive implications of MTM role separation. As they state that some multiteamers may experience their role strain as a source of stimulation and creativity. Taking this into account, more research is needed to determine if additional forms of MTM diversity come with more positive consequences. All in all, Van de Brake hopes his research can help in smoothening the complex and potentially very stressful work of multiteamers.

For more information, please contact Joost van den Brake (h.j.van.de.brake rug.nl).

Reference: Van de Brake, H. J., & Berger, S. (2022). Can I Leave My Hat On? A Cross-Level Study of Multiple Team Membership Role Separation. Personnel Psychology.


https://doi.org/10.1111/peps.12495