How to Navigate Today’s Multi-Teaming Organization

by Jennifer Warren|

In new research, SMU Cox's Sal Mistry and co-authors unpack the challenges for employees belonging to multiple teams and offer ideas for creating a better multi-teaming environment.

Across industries, in organizations large and small, statistics show that 65-95% practice multi-teaming. According to SMU Cox Management Professor Sal Mistry, most companies engage in some form of multi-teaming, where employees are on multiple teams at the same time. In new research, Mistry and co-authors unpack the challenges for employees belonging to multiple teams and offer ideas for creating a better multi-teaming environment.

In today’s workplace employees often wear many hats, whether in an academic, corporate or non-profit environment. Through multi-teaming, organizations are attempting to extract and share knowledge, says Mistry, bringing expertise to the benefit of the whole organization. Mistry references a Dallas-based tech company with 30 employees that are on multiple teams simultaneously: “In high tech, rapidly changing circumstances and a fluid environment have different requirements than say, a credit union, which has a more stable operating environment.” In a senior management team, one could be a member of an executive team and lead the marketing team, which is considered multi-team membership (MTM).

There are downsides to multi-teaming. For example, Pat is happily a member of the marketing team. When she joins the engineering team for new product development, given that her mind is more marketing driven, just switching gears and the extra workload can add strain. Mistry has seen research that supports this form of strain. So, multi-tasking can become challenging. There is a quality of life that exists in an organization associated with identification and belonging.

In their research, Mistry and his colleagues examine the effect of identification with one’s primary team as it relates to identity strain. “We show that the number of teams impacts employees’ identification,” says Mistry. “Many times people gain identity from being on a team, but the more teams you stack onto a person, they may not recognize who they are.” Mistry explains, “If an employee feels they belong on one team and derives a sense of self-worth there, if he/she is then put on several teams, then that quality lessens, infringing on their perception of organizational life.” In the example of Pat, she derives a sense of belonging from the marketing team, her primary team. “Thus Pat’s primary team identification is high on the marketing team,” says Mistry. “That’s what our paper gets at.”

The study
The authors collected field data from members of an information technology service organization and engineering professional consortium. The employees included architecture, construction, education, finance, hospitality, manufacturing, marketing, service, technology, and transportation organizations. The final sample contained 192 individuals satisfying the study criteria.

The findings show how stronger social identification with an employee’s primary team and being on fewer teams can actually decrease identity strain in a multi-teaming environment. This benefits both employees and their organizations. When employees identify more strongly with their primary team, they experience less identity strain and are less likely to leave the organization.

“Identity strain is highest, however, when an employee has low primary team identity and belongs to a low number of teams,” Mistry says about the findings. “If you lack your identity from your primary marketing team, for example, and you are on a fewer number of teams, you’ll feel identity strain due to a feeling of not knowing how you belong and fit into an organization. You’ll likely feel less valued because the organization that uses multi-teaming wants employees to be on many teams.” This can tip the scales for an employee considering leaving the firm. “When people have more strain, they tend to leave, and with less strain they don’t,” Mistry notes.
To avoid having employees with both low level of primary team identification and a lower number of multi-team memberships, an organization should strengthen employees’ primary team identification. One way is by having managers set goals, whereby members rely on one another to accomplish their work. Additionally, finding ways to develop cohesion such as relationship-building activities are an option.

One for the team
Uniquely, this research looks at both the quantity, the number of teams, and the quality, evidenced by whether there is high or low primary team identification. The findings show that the number of teams influences the effects of multi-teaming quality on employee outcomes. The quality of a multi-team experience can be gauged, at least partly, by the level of primary team identification. Hence, employees that have their identity “grounded” in a primary team should experience fewer negative outcomes.
For organizations with multi-teaming, regardless of primary team identification, the more number of teams you have, the less strain for employees. “It is counter-intuitive,” says Mistry. “The data suggests that at a point an employee understands this is a multi-teaming environment. The employee will then derive his/her identity from their profession or expertise.” For example, an engineer serves on an integration team, but has mad database skills. Rather than identify with the integration team, he identifies with his skill. Over time, with experience in a skill set, an employee identifies more with his/her skill set rather than membership to a specific team.

If a manager cannot increase belongingness on a primary team, Mistry suggests that an employee should be assigned as many teams as possible. They are less likely to experience strain and less likely to leave. Mistry offers, “Ways to accomplish this could include upskilling employees, as well as providing opportunities for employees to participate in cross-functional teams.” On multiple teams, an employee is able to share the wealth of their expertise. The study suggests more than three teams will suffice, again to avoid the low primary team identification and low number of MTMs situation.

Mistry offers some takeaways from the research and his experiences:

  • Embrace a person’s link to a team in which they derive identity. Don’t disregard that.
  • Organizations should give more weight to the force of belongingness present on primary teams. Retention will be higher.
  • Build primary team camaraderie. The more you build it as a leader, the better off the organization is.
  • Strengthen primary team identity by developing shared dependencies, where one relies on another to complete a task.
  • Promote contact within teams both inside and out of the office.
  • People often see their teams as reflections of their managers. A willing and supportive manager also builds team-level support.
  • If a manager struggles to build primary team identity, then have more teams. Employees are then integrated more into the organizational community. (Some organizations have a limited ability owing to organization-specifics.)

In summary
The research lends credence to the need for training at all levels of the organization. Given that expertise often determines team assignments, organizations should encourage upskilling programs as well as paths to cross-functional pollination of expertise. The authors suggest caution however when increasing the number of team memberships as the increased workload can lead to exhaustion and burnout. In general, managers should remain vigilant about how a greater number of team memberships impacts employee well-being.

The paper “The Downside of Belonging to Multiple Teams: Examining the Effects of Primary Team Identification and Number of Team Memberships on Identity Strain and Turnover” by Sal Mistry, Cox School of Business, Southern Methodist University, and co-authors is under review.

Summarized and written by Jennifer Warren.