Untangling Complex Team Dynamics

Dec. 12, 2012

In a way, much of what we know today, in 2012, about virtual collaboration in diverse teams can be traced back to the common cold circa 1991, with the line between those two points being Anita Bhappu. Bhappu is now the PetSmart Endowed Professor of Retailing & Consumer Sciences at the University of ArizonaNorton School of Family & Consumer Sciences, but it was her experience as a chemical engineer at consumer products giant Procter & Gamble that lay the foundation for her academic career.

Working around the World

Procter & Gamble hired Bhappu fresh out of college to lead product development of a soothing global remedy for the common cold. The task meant lots of meetings for a distributed team that lived and worked all around the world, and coordinating that kind of collaboration proved to be as challenging as developing the product itself.

Convening people in one location got expensive, and there were cultural differences to contend with. Looking to her seniors for guidance, Bhappu got the encouraging but not helpful response, “You’re smart, you’ll figure it out.” As it turns out, she was more than up for the challenge.

Relying on phone calls, chat rooms, email and video conferencing, she ventured into a world of virtual communications — though nobody used those terms at the time — made even more complex by the diversity of team players. Before long, the dynamics of those interactions became not the bane of her daily work but the foundation of her graduate study and research passion.

Research Pioneers

When Bhappu left Procter & Gamble to pursue a master’s and then Ph.D. in management, her research interests at first bewildered her colleagues and mentors. Like any visionary, she had to forge her way, taking anthropology and sociology classes outside the traditional path for her degree. At the same time, she designed classical experiments with control groups and manipulated variables, examining team performance in different situations: some teams homogenous, some diverse, some meetings face-to-face, some strictly virtual.

“When I started this research in ’95, people would ask me, ‘Why are you studying this?’” Bhappu recalls. But two people who never questioned her focus were her first co-authors: mentor and chair of her thesis committee, UA assistant professor Terri Griffith; and UA professor Gregory Northcraft, now at the University of Illinois.

Years before, Griffith had also found her research interest in industry, applying her industrial psychology degree at Hughes Aircraft when telecommuting was still just a tiny blip on corporate America’s radar. Griffith recalls that though Hughes was a major contractor in the early 80s, her department had a single portable computer that employees could check out if they needed to work remotely.

Her earliest research explored questions around monitoring telecommuters through their computers and led her to looking broadly at how technology impacts the ways that people interact and organizations function. Along the way, it’s met with its share of critics, most of them questioning why she’d looked at one technology and not another or the relevance of a particular gadget, interface, etc.

“People didn't understand — and many still don't — how you need to think about technology in this research. The technology is constantly changing, and if you don’t have that as your foundation, you’re going to look silly when your MySpace paper comes out,” she says, with a nod to the social media property that in 2009 surpassed Google as the most-visited U.S. website and today doesn’t even rank in the top 150. “The technology is not what's important,” Griffith explains: “What matters is how people interact with it.”

She was exploring a social topography not-yet named, and the cartography has paid off in her provocative findings that are now part of a burgeoning area of research. She’s documented, for example, that diverse groups generally do better when they collaborate virtually. She’s also shown that computer-mediated communication can help diverse teams manage conflict. Her discoveries sometimes seem counterintuitive, but the body of evidence that’s grown from her work is both consistent and strong.

Making Sense of Messy

Bhappu understood this, but like her mentor, she was exploring a social topography not-yet named, and that cartography has paid off in her provocative findings that are now part of a burgeoning area of research. She's documented, for example, that diverse groups generally do better when they collaborate virtually. She's also shown that comoputer-mediated communication can help diverse teams manage conflict.

Throughout her research, Bhappu has also found that team process outcomes are more complex when diversity — differences both real and perceived — enters the equation. Fortunately, this is an area where she feels right at home. Half Hispanic and half Asian, raised by parents of very different faiths (Catholic and Zoroastrian), Bhappu spent her early childhood in Pakistan with summers in London, her teen and young adulthood in Tucson, Ariz., and worked around the world for P&G.

“I’ve been the insider, and I’ve been the outsider,” Bhappu says, recalling events from early childhood through her first academic appointment. “Those are still very salient emotional events. I think back, and I know what that feels like. So maybe, in some ways, it has given me both the passion and the insight to do some of this work.”

That passion and insight continues to propel Bhappu’s work. Diversity and team dynamics are, as Bhappu puts it, her “heart and soul.” In contemplating future directions for her research, she says, “I would love to do a field study. I think I’m better prepared to do it now. You need deductive research to make sense of a messy environment. And it is messy.

“I’d like to get to where I can write a prescriptive model,” Bhappu says, “not for academia, but for industry. For the person I was.”

Learn more about the John & Doris Norton School of Family and Consumer Sciences.