External affirmation improves information sharing among team members

February 10, 2021

Photo: Lisa Fotios on Pexels

Members of a team are more willing to share their diverse perspectives when they receive affirmation from individuals outside their team, according to a recent research paper by Julia Lee Cunningham, Francesca Gino, Dan Cable, and Bradley Staats.

Teamwork can accomplish great things. Yet past research has shown that teams often fail to fulfill their potential when team members feel reluctant to offer their unique perspectives, notes Ross School of Business Professor Julia Lee Cunningham, the paper’s lead author.

“When you join a team, your responsibility is to make the team better by adding unique ideas or perspectives,” Lee Cunningham says. “But paradoxically, you may feel unable to do so because you are too concerned with how you are perceived, with ‘belonging.’”

Photo of Julia Lee Cunningham

Julia Lee Cunningham

Lee Cunningham and her co-authors conducted three studies examining the effects of team members receiving affirmation of their social worth from trusted individuals outside the team. The researchers concluded that such encouragement helps team members see themselves as valued contributors. That helps members overcome their reluctance to offer their perspectives, leading to better information sharing on the team.

“It’s very easy to feel comfortable within your own tight network, but when you join a new team, you may not immediately see how you’re adding value. Reminding you of your strengths and contributions can carry over into your performance on the team,” Lee Cunningham says.

Managers can take advantage of the insights in the paper, which will be published in the Academy of Management Journal, in settings like onboarding sessions and performance reviews, Lee Cunningham says. In addition, individuals can also seek out affirmation themselves by asking for positive feedback; it may feel awkward, but it tends to encourage others to do the same.

“The way that managers give feedback doesn’t always have to be finding room for improvement, or focusing on task performance; it can be about the person as well. Even in an onboarding exercise, management can help newcomers see themselves as a valued contributor as they get started with the company,” she says. “Letting someone know that we really care about them as a person, not just as somebody who contributes to the work process, can send a very powerful signal.”

Lee Cunningham is a core faculty member at the Center for Positive Organizations and an assistant professor of management and organizations at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business.

This article was originally published by Michigan Ross.