Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
Jul 08, 2020

Are Creative Teams More Effective When Their Members Vary in Agreeableness?

by Sean T. H. Lee and Park Guihyun
Group of women discussing creative

Photo by Retha Ferguson from Pexels

Agreeableness is one of the Big Five cardinal personality traits. People who are higher in agreeableness tend to be more collegial and concerned about maintaining positive relationships with others. In contrast, those lower in agreeableness tend to voice their disagreements with other people and are less concerned about maintaining positive relationships.

In the context of work teams, team members who are higher in agreeableness tend to prioritize relational harmony and avoid disagreements with other members.  The upsides of this is that positive working relationships are maintained and member satisfaction is generally high. But the downside is that being highly agreeable may inculcate a climate in which group members are reluctant to share dissenting perspectives and opinions, which may hamper the generation of creative ideas.

On the other hand, team members who are lower in agreeableness are much less deferential and freely air their disagreements without constraint. Although this approach may provide the team with a much wider range of perspectives to work on, it risks breeding a climate of animosity and general negativity that can impact morale and people’s willingness to even work with one another.

In light of these double-edged effects, researchers have suggested that having a good mix of members across the agreeableness spectrum might address this trade-off and promote optimal functioning in creative teams. This suggestion assumes that people with different levels of agreeableness will complement each other and play to each other’s strengths. However, this idea has never been empirically tested.

Our study found that, contrary to popular belief, having a greater spread of members along the agreeableness spectrum was associated with decreases in both team creativity and team member satisfaction. This effect seemed to occur because having members of varying levels of agreeableness heightened both task and relationship conflict.  In other words, having a mix of agreeable and less agreeable members on the same team precipitated both task-oriented and interpersonal conflict, which harmed both the team’s creative performance and the working relationships among team members.

These findings suggest that, instead of playing to each other’s strengths, people with different levels of agreeableness levels may have played to each other’s weakness instead. But, why?

Studies on the social implications of agreeableness have found that agreeableness is easily perceived in other people. People are often very sensitive to how agreeable other people are, and seeing stark differences in agreeableness can engender feelings of being interpersonally incompatible. In addition, people who are higher versus lower in agreeableness differ in how they approach and resolve disagreements with other people.  Agreeable people prefer amicable negotiations, and disagreeable people prefer to dominate discussions.  In our study, such stark contrasts in how members interact and communicate may have led to interpersonal acrimony and hampered development of a shared understanding about how the team should work and function, leading to task conflict.

Our study also found evidence suggesting a vicious cycle between task and relationship conflict in teams that had a broad mix of both agreeable and disagreeable members. As other studies have shown, poor conflict management prevents team members from taking disagreements in stride.  Opposing views are perceived as interpersonal acrimony rather than constructive input, which further aggravates interpersonal discord and prevents team members from being receptive to one another’s inputs. All of this then potentially leads to even greater conflict.

Overall, our findings suggest that it may be best to compose creative teams of members who have similar levels of agreeableness. Our analyses suggest that even teams composed predominantly of lower agreeableness individuals may function more effectively than those with members of varying levels of agreeableness. Perhaps members who are all low in agreeableness may have  been aware of their similarity in being less agreeable, thereby normalizing their less agreeable ways of managing divergent viewpoints and reducing the odds that dissenting opinions would be interpreted as interpersonal acrimony. When groups are composed of people of varying levels of agreeableness, members may not understand or accept each other’s ways of dealing with disagreement, which causes  task conflict and relationship conflict to escalate.  

All-in-all, team managers might be better off focusing their efforts on managing the downsides associated with having members of generally high or generally low agreeableness rather than trying to create teams with a mix of agreeableness.  

For further reading

Lee, S. T. H., & Park, G. (2020). Does diversity in team members’ agreeableness benefit creative teams? Journal of Research in Personality, 85, 103932.

Dr. Sean T. H. Lee is a recent PhD in Psychology graduate from the Singapore Management University, School of Social Sciences. He studies creativity and innovation, as well as emotions, health, and well-being.

Dr. Park Guihyun is a senior lecturer at the Australian National University, College of Business and Economics, Research School of Management. She studies group processes and team dynamics.

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Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

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