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Whether in Surf Lineups or Boardrooms, It Matters How Temporary Teams Evaluate Prospective Members

Dr. Dana Sumpter is Associate Professor of Management and Human Resource Management. Below is a summary of her research published in Equality, Diversity and Inclusion: An International Journal.

You’re about to join a new project team. What can you do to start off on the right foot, to give yourself the best chance possible of immediately contributing to the team’s efforts?  Or, how should you evaluate a new member’s ability to contribute, and give them the resources they need to ramp up and get started… or not? 

These questions used to be easy to answer with teams that are longstanding, formal, and permanent.  However, today’s work teams tend to be more fleeting and temporary, with evolving membership. This team roster instability is complicated further by the trend towards organizational diversity.

Research supports that the success of diverse teams hinges upon ensuring that each member feels included enough to sufficiently participate and contribute. So mitigating bias in such settings is especially important when there are team members who are in marginalized or underrepresented demographic groups.

CSULB associate professor Dana Sumpter argues that inclusion is key, and focuses on an understudied period of time in temporary team formation: impending membership. In this novel research, Professor Sumpter explores how new members enter these dynamic groups, and how this pivotal point can make or break a new member’s ability to be treated well and have access to key resources, or be excluded and restrained.  She conducted a multi-year autoethnographic study of a particular type of temporary team:  a group of people surfing, referred to as a lineup. This unique study sheds light on how bias and discrimination can enter into this interpersonal evaluation process.

Whether a current or prospective team member, here are the five main takeaways from the study:

1.  Don’t reach beyond your grasp.  When entering a new group, it may be tempting to impress others by tackling that really challenging assignment. This study’s results suggest otherwise, so that you don’t get in over your head. Just as a surfer shouldn’t paddle out in conditions that exceed his or her ability level, recognize what you are capable of and don’t try to take on something that is out of range of your capacity. This is important because self-awareness is noticed and picked up on by others, which will influence how you are perceived.

2.  Showcase your strengths.  Prospective group members should proactively demonstrate their capabilities and strengths.  Just as surfers entering a lineup can demonstrate their proficiency by paddling the right way and abiding by the well-known surfer’s etiquette code, so too can organizational members demonstrate their competence and capabilities. Doing so actively shapes one’s reputations through impression management and signaling. Applying the findings from this study, the proactive act of signaling competence may help to reduce uncivil behaviors, increase access to initial resources, and foster inclusion.

3.  Remember that civility matters.  When people are treated with incivility or rudeness, it negatively affects their performance and productivity.  Research has consistently shown how damaging incivility is for individuals and for companies.  However, this research found one caveat: when personal safety is at risk. Sometimes being uncivil can be necessary to get someone’s attention and provide critical, timely feedback on some behavior that needs to change quickly. Feedback can be a gift in the form of information that is used to shape ongoing behavior and decisions. 

4.  Be aware of your own biases.  Of course, the labor of preventing incivility should not rest on marginalized or excluded individuals alone. Existing group members should be aware of their own stereotypes, and actively draw from that awareness in any decisions regarding impending members. In this study, women trying to break into surf lineups faced a steeper evaluation bar as compared to men, based on sex-role stereotypes of who a “typical” surfer is. Awareness of bias is a first step toward mitigating its influence.

5.   Get a little help from your friends.  This research also supported the importance of leveraging personal relationships in fostering inclusion. In surf lineups, having one key ally support and vocally include an underrepresented person made a huge difference in that person getting access. New or prospective team members can seek out allies and ask for help with onboarding. And of course, this goes both ways – as a current team member, see how you can be the one to help welcome in and include someone who is newly arriving on the scene. 

 

Sumpter, Dana M. (2019). Bro or Kook? The effect of dynamic member evaluation on incivility and resources in surf lineups. Equality, Diversity and Inclusion: An International Journal.