Maryland Smith Research / May 13, 2021

How To Keep Teams From Crumbling in Times of Disruption

Teams That Are Encouraged To Speak Up Are More Resilient, Research Finds

How To Keep Teams From Crumbling in Times of Disruption

In March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic brought sudden, highly disruptive change to the way many teams worked. When a team experiences any big disruption, having an environment where people feel welcome to speak up can help everyone to process shocks and to recover, finds new research from Maryland Smith’s Subra Tangirala.

“It’s not just COVID kinds of change,” says Tangirala, the Dean’s Professor of Management. “It could be change because of some new regulation, change because of a merger or acquisition, changes in software, changes in technology – anything that changes the way a team does its job.”

Tangirala worked with Smith PhD graduate Alex Ning Li, now at Texas Christian University. “We looked at teams going through a shock to the system – a disruption to the way they operate – and how they coped with it,” says Tangirala.

Tangirala and Li say “voice” is critical for demonstrating resilience when teams have to cope with change. When employees have voice they feel comfortable speaking up to express their ideas or concerns within the team. With any disruption, teams typically go through a V-shaped recovery, says Tangirala. Initially there is a dip in performance because they are still processing the shock, then they adapt and recover.

“When people do speak up, this not only stops the freefall, but also always allows the teams to bounce back. We showed that voice can actually do that,” Tangirala says.

Tangirala and Li ran a field study with 172 production teams, examining team performance over time, and running a field behavioral intervention with 88 teams.

“We told managers to tell people on the team how to speak up, we asked managers to provide specific opportunities for people to speak up, and we asked managers to reward people who speak up,” says Tangirala. “When all these three happened, we saw that teams that implemented this intervention – compared to control groups – performed better by not only stemming the freefall, but also bouncing back quicker after a disruption or big change.”

They looked specifically at how both prohibitive and promotive forms of voice help teams to bounce back faster. Prohibitive voice deals with expressing concern about detrimental practices or behaviors. Promotive voice is about bringing up new ideas for ways to improve how the team functions. The researchers say both are important, but for different reasons and at different points in the process.

Prohibitive voice helps teams stem performance losses in the immediate aftermath of change by allowing them to manage errors better, and promotive voice leads to better performance in the later phases of change by enhancing process innovation, says Tangirala. Both are critical to getting back to productivity after a change.

“Voice can separate resilient teams from brittle ones,” write the researchers.

Read the full research, “How Employees’ Voice Helps Teams Remain Resilient in the Face of Exogenous Change,” in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

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