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The Dangers of Too Much Workplace Cohesion

Although personal relationships among coworkers are usually viewed as positive, excessive socialization can lead to a decline in team performance.

Bottom LineAlthough personal relationships among coworkers are usually viewed as positive, excessive socialization can lead to a decline in team performance.

It’s widely assumed that the strong social ties formed between colleagues create a happier, more productive workforce, buoyed by employees’ supportive attitudes and shared objectives. This assumption becomes especially important as teams and group work become more prevalent within companies. As the thinking goes, personal relationships forged in the workplace should help teammates be forthright with each other, share insights more efficiently, help rather than undermine one another, and improve the group’s overall performance. Who wouldn’t prefer to work with a bunch of good buddies?

However, according to a new study of more than 180 teams at a national travel agency, too much of a good thing can backfire over time. Although social ties initially improved a team’s performance, the author found that excessive cohesion among colleagues eventually caused the reverse effect. Why? It’s probably because overly friendly teams lapse into groupthink, inhibiting their pursuit of new ideas and strategies. In other words, the author suggests, there’s a distinct downside to positive social networking, and a point at which stronger interpersonal bonds among teammates begin to lead to increasingly negative performance outcomes for their group.

Overly friendly teams lapse into groupthink, inhibiting their pursuit of new ideas and strategies.

The author studied teams of sales associates, staffed by an average of five to eight employees, who handled either corporate or retail clients’ travel needs for business and leisure trips. The teams had similar goals, compensation packages, and operating structures, and had been assembled by managers who deliberately tried to vary members’ experience levels.

For example, within each team, agents must carefully price the flights, hotels, or car rentals they offer to balance their twin goals of achieving the highest possible profit margin and keeping their customers satisfied. Learning to do this well can take years, according to industry wisdom. But having young employees who befriend colleagues with experience and contacts can provide a shortcut to higher revenues for the company.

To measure employees’ social ties, the author analyzed more than 7 million company emails exchanged between team members during the course of a year. Employees were considered to have formed relationships if they had exchanged more than 10 emails with each other. The author developed a picture of each team’s internal social network based on the members’ email activity: The more teammates emailed each other, the stronger their workplace relationships were presumed to be. These overlapping ties, in turn, provided a map of each team’s social network density. The author also obtained the total sales volume for each employee and team at the company and, after controlling for group size, determined the relationship between social ties and financial performance.

Groups with little social cohesion were typically low-performing; they lacked the structural ties to efficiently pass on knowledge and opportunities from colleague to colleague. That’s hardly surprising. In contrast, high-performing teams were characterized by dense, redundant links between members—but only to a point. Like the shape of an upside-down “U,” the relationship between group performance and social cohesion peaked at a certain point, and went downhill from there. Perhaps employees who concentrate too much on establishing and maintaining social ties begin to spend more time trading emails about the big game than finding the lowest-priced travel package for a client. Likewise, innovation often requires a butting of heads, and teammates who have grown too chummy with one another may be less likely to challenge the status quo.

Previous studies have likely failed to spot the downward slope because they assumed the positive benefits of cohesion would simply continue, or the studies were conducted over too short a time period to show the big picture. Given this new finding, the author argues, managers should construct and shuffle teams in a way that balances the benefits of cohesion—such as higher levels of job satisfaction, fewer conflicts, and less turnover—against the threat of stagnation that comes from too much like-minded thinking in the workplace. Although employees should still be encouraged to develop personal ties, managers should also pay careful attention to how these bonds affect their teams’ productivity and output.

Source: “Can a Team Have Too Much Cohesion? The Dark Side to Network Density,” by Sean Wise (Ryerson University), European Management Journal, Oct. 2014, vol. 32, no. 5

Matt Palmquist

Matt Palmquist is a freelance business journalist based in Oakland, Calif.

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