Friendship, Not Diversity, More Critical to Team Performance

Release Date: October 29, 2008 This content is archived.


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Contrary to popular belief, having a diverse group of people working together is not always the best way to get the job done. What’s really important is the level of friendship among the team members—as long as it’s the right level, say researchers who study work teams.

Team performance is affected more by gaps between various friendships on the team than it is by the amount of ethnic or gender diversity of the team, contends Prasad Balkundi, assistant professor of organization and human resources in the University at Buffalo School of Management.

Balkundi studied 19 work teams at a Fortune 100 manufacturer with co-researchers Martin Kilduff, Kelburg-King Ranch Centennial Professor of Management at the University of Texas at Austin; Zoe I. Barsness, associate professor of management at the University of Washington Tacoma; and Judd J. Michael, associate professor of sustainable enterprises at The Pennsylvania State University.

The researchers found that teams with a moderate number of structural holes (or gaps in the network of friends) perform better than teams with either very large or very small structural holes among the members.

Most major companies organize managers into teams according to the skill set of employees or on a project-by-project basis.

Gaps between friend relationships occur when, for example, John is friends with Mary, and Mary is friends with Bill, but John is not friends with Bill. The technical term for this in is “structural hole,” Balkundi explains.

In moderation, structural holes are beneficial because they allow for the teams to access the various members’ distinct knowledge and also use that knowledge to their advantage because of good communication among the members.

Structural holes suggest the presence of different social worlds and diverse pools of knowledge and by acting as a broker between these different social worlds, a person is able to transfer information across the cleavages.

“Fewer structural holes, such as in cliques, may have better communication, but can drive out creativity,” Balkundi explains. “On the other hand, completely fragmented groups with large gaps between members cannot even get together to function. This is why moderate levels of structural holes are best.”

Balkundi says they also found that diversity in age does not inhibit friendships among team members and can actually protect a team from fragmenting, even if a team has a significant amount of ethnic or gender diversity. This led researchers to conclude that managers who desire more cohesive teams may seek to include both older and younger members.

The study, published this year in the Journal of Organizational Behavior, was supported by a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Research Initiative.

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