Gender Impacts Virtual Work Teams

Men want clear objectives while women value communication

2001 Volume 4 Issue 4

Manage gender-based diversity to maximize team performance.

Work teams are firmly established in management theory and practice as dynamic engines of productivity and innovation. In a recent study, 68% of Fortune 1000 companies reported using self-managed teams. Around the globe, firms are mobilizing teams to create and seize market opportunities.

Diversity on teams has been shown to be positively associated with performance if process challenges are addressed. Diverse teams have been shown to generate a greater variety of ideas, draw on a greater store of tacit knowledge, make better decisions, and more effectively accomplish complex tasks than individuals. Since several recent studies have found a tendency toward homogeneity in self-formed work teams, managers may need to intervene during the formation process to encourage diversity.

Gender is among the characteristics associated with diversity and is known to influence team behaviors. For example, research suggests that women are more comfortable than men with team-based evaluations and rewards. This may be partly due to findings by gender theorists that men’s relationships tend to be defined by role and status, while women tend to value relationships based on communication and understanding.

While diversity is associated with higher task performance, it has also been linked to increased conflict, communication difficulties, and turnover on teams. In fact, even when diversity leads to better task outcomes, the experiences and perceptions of individual team members can be negative. These experiences can make employees less willing to work on teams in the future. In order for managers to balance the benefits of diversity with its potential costs, they must be aware of potential challenges.

Ask Members of Real Teams

A survey was developed to gather data from 245 members of actual work groups. The survey was designed to explore whether men and women feel differently about being part of a work team. More specifically, are there differences in the degree to which men and women are satisfied with team performance? Are there differences between what men and women see as the primary difficulties faced by a team? And if gender differences exist, how do they influence team performance?

The teams surveyed in this study were completing projects for a global information technology professional services firm employing over 6,000 people and specializing in the delivery of customized software and systems integration. Typical projects included developing billing systems, databases of customer information, accounting and budgeting systems, as well as integration of the new systems. Common functions assigned to particular work teams included gathering user requirements, performing design and development of a particular part of the system, documentation, on-site implementation, user acceptance testing, and defect fixing.

Geographical dispersion of personnel is an inescapable aspect of the work in this firm. The resources needed for a project, including the people with the right skills for the task, typically come from different locations. The clients themselves are located throughout the world and a client-site presence usually is critical during some stages of the project. The teams in this study varied in their amount of physical dispersion. Some teams worked face-to-face almost exclusively. At the other extreme, some teams had individuals spread out over nine time zones and almost never met face-to-face.

Key Survey Questions Asked

The survey was developed based on existing team research as well as exploratory interviews with company project managers and executives. Following basic demographic questions such as gender and years in the industry, respondents were asked how frequently their particular team’s members work from dispersed locations (“never”, “occasionally”, “often”, or “always”) and whether they felt the work team should meet in person “more often,” “less often,” or with “about the same” frequency. To uncover perceptions about the sources of teamwork difficulties, respondents rated the degree to which they felt problems on their work team stemmed from the following 12 factors:

  • Poor sharing of information
  • Unclear or inappropriate expectations
  • Unclear or conflicting goals
  • Unclear lines of accountability or control
  • Lack of trust
  • Lack of integrated team identity
  • Unclear or inappropriate work roles for team members
  • Different work ethics or work cultures
  • Unwillingness to reveal concerns, raise problems
  • Inappropriate or differing incentives for members
  • Geographical dispersion of team members
  • Change in, or confusion about, team membership

To gauge satisfaction with teamwork, individuals responded to the statement, “I’m glad to be a part of this work team” (from 1=”strongly disagree” to 5=”strongly agree”). Finally, individuals provided their perception of the work team’s overall performance level (from 1=”very low” to 10=”very high”).

Men and Women Positive about Team Performance

In general, respondents felt their team’s performance was quite strong, with 83% giving a score of 7 or higher. They also responded positively to the statement, “I’m glad to be a part of this work team,” with 75% stating “agree” or “strongly agree.” When reflecting on problem areas, the top three sources of problems reported by individuals were:

  1. Poor sharing of information
  2. Unclear or inappropriate expectations
  3. Unclear lines of accountability or control

These teams seemed to have some trouble managing who was responsible for what, working out differing expectations for the project, and sharing information effectively. Though they reported less difficulty with geographical dispersion itself, clearly being physically separated can exacerbate the issues they cited.

In addition to the twelve general sources of potential difficulties, respondents were asked several more specific questions relating to those twelve issues. One question that elicited a relatively strong response was, “Members of the work team work independently whenever possible.” Over two-thirds of respondents agreed or strongly agreed with this statement. This is of interest because it suggests that teams may address the interpersonal difficulties inherent in geographically dispersed teamwork by avoiding working as a team whenever possible.

To explore this possibility further, we asked respondents to indicate the level of difficulty faced by their team, and compared this to the amount of face-to-face contact they reported desiring. Predictably, those reporting less difficulty said the face-to-face frequency was fine, and those reporting moderate difficulty wanted more face-to-face meetings. Surprisingly, however, it was those reporting the greatest difficulty who wanted fewer face-to-face meetings. Perhaps struggling teams believe meeting less often and doing more independent work will reduce their burden. Alternatively, they may simply want to avoid the discomfort associated with a dysfunctional team.

A study last year by Stewart & Barrick indicates that team cohesion is related to the nature and difficulty of the task. The study lists four task types: Generating ideas and plans, choosing between alternatives, negotiating conflicts of interest, and executing work. These task types form a continuum from conceptual (“thinking”) to behavioral (“doing”) – with work execution representing the behavioral end of the scale. Members of teams dealing with relatively conceptual tasks tended to be more collaborative than those on teams assigned to more behavioral ones. The teams in the current study were at the behavioral end of this continuum (involved in actively completing tasks), so some difficulties with collaboration are not surprising.

Stewart & Barrick also found a U-shaped relationship between team cohesion and the difficulty faced by the team. Teams under little stress appear cohesive while members of teams under moderate stress tended to work more independently. Members of teams facing the greatest stress resume interdependent and cohesive behavior. The authors suggest that team norms crystallize under pressure prompting greater communication and collaboration. This is not necessarily inconsistent with the present study since our “struggling” teams reported moderate rather than extreme difficulty. However, differences in task types and difficulty, and the fact that many of our teams were geographically dispersed, make inter-study comparisons tenuous.

Women Report Higher Performance and Satisfaction

Of the 245 respondents, 43% were female and 57% were male. Examining responses by gender yields some interesting differences. Overall, women reported higher levels of perceived team performance than the men: 77% of women gave a score of at least 8 versus only 55% of men. Women also gave stronger support to the statement, “I’m glad to be a part of this work team.” 80% percent of women agreed or strongly agreed compared with 72% of men.

It is striking that, for all but one of the twelve major problem areas queried, women perceived less severe team problems than did their male counterparts. The one exception was sharing information, which women perceived to be a significantly greater issue than did the men. In fact, “poor sharing of information” was the top reported problem for females, while for males the top problem was “unclear or inappropriate expectations.” These findings seem consistent with gender theorists’ claim that women value relationships based on communication and understanding, and men’s roles tend to be defined by role and status. Similarly, work by Deborah Tannen suggests that men are problem solution oriented, while women focus more on the problem solving process.

Difference Not Explained by Years of Experience or Level of Dispersion

Despite the large sample, this study cannot determine precisely why women perceived stronger team performance, indicated fewer problems, and reported greater satisfaction. The apparent gender differences could be due to other characteristics of these employees such as level of experience. Of those who reported years of industry experience, the women in this sample did have more experience (7.2 years vs. 5.7 years, on average). This could have afforded female respondents more realistic expectations about both team performance and potential areas of difficulty. But regression analysis reveals that, while gender was indeed an important factor in explaining the differences in perceived performance, years of experience was not. Similarly, while gender helped explain the differences in satisfaction, years of experience did not.

Part of our respondents’ different perceptions about team performance and satisfaction could arise from the fact that male respondents were on slightly more dispersed teams. Being more spread out could have contributed to men’s lower team performance ratings and greater perceived problems. But, despite this somewhat greater dispersion experienced by men, it was the women who reported stronger interest in more face-to-face meetings. 33% of female respondents wanted more face-to-face meetings, compared to only 27% of males.

Do you want more face-to-face contact?
(Respondents in the most highly dispersed teams)

The pattern is even more striking if we look at the most highly dispersed teams – those who report “rarely” meeting in person. Of these, two-thirds of the women wanted more face-to-face contact versus only about one-third of men. Only about one-third of women reported the current amount of face-to-face sufficient, while nearly two-thirds of the men found it sufficient. Perhaps the men were more comfortable solving problems on their own than as a team.

Implications for Managers

Clearly, gender is just one of many factors associated with team performance and cohesion. These include the longevity of the team, whether or not it is a cross-functional team with diverse skill sets, the nature and difficulty of the task, the nature of the reward system, the cultural characteristics of the parent organization, and more. But the impact of gender diversity on team performance is one key factor to consider when forming or managing a team.

This study suggests that in response to conflict and stress, a male team member might cope by separating himself from teammates. Avoiding additional interpersonal conflict with the team, he may choose to work independently or collaborate with male colleagues outside of the team. Though well-intentioned, such behavior may be perceived as counterproductive by female teammates. Women, on the other hand, appear more likely to seek improved communication in the face of conflict and to support cohesion through team maintenance behaviors. Unfortunately, this effort to communicate more fully may further alienate male teammates.

Managing the pros and cons of team diversity poses a managerial challenge. This study indicates, however, that male participants will tend to be most comfortable when a team’s objectives are clarified to the greatest extent possible and the individual roles of team members are defined. Women, on the other hand, appear to be most comfortable when communication and other group maintenance activities are clearly valued along with task activities.

These findings are important cues to effective team management. Managers might choose to discuss common gender differences with their teams to raise awareness and understanding, much as teambuilding exercises often include discussions of differences in personality types or in conflict resolution styles. Moreover, managers could emphasize that both clear objectives and effective maintenance activities are linked to successful teams and valuable. Heterogeneous teams that are developed to maximize both are likely to be most successful.

About the Author(s)

Lindsley G. Boiney, PhD