INDIANAPOLIS, Ind.—If a group’s success depends on the achievement of all involved, one might think everyone would be willing to lend a hand when one group member clearly struggles. But a recent study found that race played a role in withholding help from a team member.
“What you might expect to happen is people who had really heavy workloads and who publicly got negative feedback about their performance would be helped by their team members,” explained Christopher O.L.H. Porter, associate professor of management and Randall L. Tobias Faculty Fellow of Leadership Excellence at the Kelley School of Business Indianapolis. “In our study, we didn’t find that. We found that people who are racially distant from their team members receive less help than people who are racially similar to their team members. And that is a pretty significant finding.”
The intersection of race and team help is explored in a paper recently accepted for publication in the Journal of Organizational Behavior. The paper is titled “We’re All in This Together…Except For You: The Effects of Workload, Performance Feedback, and Racial Distance on Helping Behavior in Teams” and is co-authored by Porter, Maria Triana of the University of Wisconsin, Mindy Bergman of Texas A&M University and Sandra DeGrassi of the University of Houston.
“A lot of companies put employees into teams because they think teams are going to be more creative or work faster and harder,” Porter explained. “But the reality is that’s not always the case.”
In the study, teams of four were put into a simulation with varying workloads and public feedback. From previous research studies, Porter already knew when people work together for short periods of time, they compartmentalize each other into social categories.
“In terms of our specific focus on racial differences, we know that when you put people together, especially when they work together for only a short period, they don’t have a whole lot of time to get to know one another,” said Porter. “People will, by default, tend to put each other into social categories. So I might take a look at you and almost size you up and figure out where you fit in to my schema of folks.”
The simulation shows that people will go so far as to not help a team member who needs help, even if the group’s overall success depends on it.
“If a team member is racially similar to the rest of the team and he or she had negative feedback and heavy workloads, the team helped the individual more than they did people who were racially distant,” said Porter. “Even though we hypothesized we’d see those effects, I think we were a little disappointed in how strong the effects were. Basically, the findings say people will withhold help from others who need it, even when there’s glaring evidence to suggest they need it, simply because they’re different.”
Porter says the findings did not rely on whether the person in the hot seat was a minority or among the majority.
“Our study was about being different, not being a minority,” he explained. “That’s one of the things that is especially important about the study; it’s not just whether you were a minority and the others in your team weren’t. It was whether or not you were different.”
The findings are particularly important in a business climate where more companies are embracing group projects to maximize creativity and productivity. At the same time, U.S. Census Bureau figures predict that minorities will be the majority by 2042. Working together across racial lines will become increasingly crucial to professional harmony.
“Here’s the good thing,” offered Porter. “Over time, we can actually get beyond some of those differences that exist between people and the social categorization process when they get together for extended periods of time.
“So if I’m an employer putting together a team, if I had the opportunity, I’d like to get that team together and interacting with one another early. What they find is that these surface level differences, things like race and sex, become less important once people get to know each other.”
While he does not suggest diversity training is without value, Porter believes the study points out its limitations.
“We don’t suggest that organizations abandon diversity training, but we just want folks to recognize that a 20 minute PowerPoint presentation on different cultures is not the same as actually having concrete experiences with people who are different.”
In addition to pre-team formation activities, Porter suggests employers take advantage of electronic communication mediums, which can introduce colleagues on a deeper level before superficial judgments are formed.
“Communications via email might make less salient who is racially different,” he explained. “Those types of technologies may allow us to mitigate some of the saliency of those differences. With email, you understand a person brings good ideas to the table. Later, when you meet him, you might think, maybe that’s not what I expected. Some of those barriers break down.”