Work teams that break off into smaller subgroups are less likely to want to work together on future projects shows a recent report from researchers at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. The study, conducted with more than 1,000 real project teams at 65 colleges or universities, has implications for workplace productivity.

Team members in the study answered questions about whether they sensed tension and conflict within their group. Subgroups appeared in more than one in eight of the teams that were studied. 

Even among teams that reported low levels of conflict, those that split off into smaller subgroups were less likely to want to work together in the future. The sentiment was even more pronounced when the subgroups held their own, separate opinions about how the broader group was getting along. 

"What this shows us is that it's not enough to know how much disagreement is occurring in a project team—it matters more about whether the team is divided and how those subgroups feel about the group as a whole," said Andrew Loignon, a member of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP) and a coauthor of the report. "Managers should be especially mindful of fault lines that emerge based on conflict or satisfaction, because they can have implications for the long-term productivity of their teams."

The study authors recommend managers find out whether their team really is uniformly satisfied or in conflict, or if there are smaller subgroups formed within the team. This is especially critical for managers to know before they try to use conflict management strategies, they said.

“If you find yourself in a team where half of the team members believe that the group is experiencing conflict while the other half thinks things are going great, the long-term viability of the group is more likely to suffer,” said SIOP Fellow David Woehr, coauthor of the study.