Organisations depend on multifunctional teams to get complex tasks done. Think manufacturing teams integrating module-based processes, healthcare teams engaged in a multi-specialty operation, or top management teams making a strategic decision. The diversity of views, knowledge, beliefs, and capabilities of these teams are often an essential feature to resolve the multi-faceted nature of problems they work on.
Although teams benefit from this diversity, do individual team members learn from interacting with fellow team members in such contexts? Do they come away more confused by being pulled in different directions, or do they feel enriched with new knowledge that they can bring to another similar task in the future? Our research sought to answer this “What’s in it for me?” question for individual team members in complex and diverse teams.
Individuals who were in teams that had a higher level of cross-understanding, felt more included, and learned more about the task, than those in teams with lower cross-understanding.
Diversity in backgrounds of individual members of teams gives rise to differences in task knowledge, sensitivities to various aspects of the task system, as well as beliefs and preferences about how to best approach or solve a problem. In other words, every individual’s approach to addressing the same problem is likely to be unique. Thanks to these underlying differences in how they each approach the problem, achieving ‘common ground’ is often challenging. Professor George Huber from the University of Texas at Austin, and Professor Kyle Lewis, at the University of California, Santa Barbara, introduced the concept of team ‘cross-understanding’. Cross-understanding is said to be high when team members realise and comprehend these differences.
In our paper published in Organization Science,  Professor Kyle Lewis, Professor Rhonda Reger, at the University of North Texas, Professor Cynthia Stevens, at the University of Maryland, and I first demonstrate that team cross-understanding, rather than achieving common ground, improves team performance. In other words, the more individual team members comprehend the bases for the divergence in arguments that are made, the more they are likely to work towards identifying ways to resolve them, rather than fight it out. These arguments and discussions enhance the quality of decision-making rather than impede it. Beyond team performance, we also find that cross-understanding improves individual learning and performance on a similar subsequent task. In other words, individuals who were in teams that had a higher level of cross-understanding, felt more included, and learned more about the task, than those in teams with lower cross-understanding.
Having established that cross-understanding is beneficial for both teams as well as its constituent members, we also aimed to establish the motivational antecedents that bring about cross-understanding in teams. We examined team goal orientation which pertains to the emphasis on mastery or performance pursuits in complex situations. There are broadly two types of goal orientation. We found that team learning orientation—the propensity of team members to use complex situations to develop new capabilities—fosters higher cross-understanding, and that team performance orientation—the propensity of team members to demonstrate existing capabilities in complex situations—dampens this relationship. Our findings show that “managers might enable their teams to achieve better performance by reducing pressure to demonstrate capabilities and manage impressions, enhancing the safety of sharing diverse perspectives, and promoting a climate of helpful feedback and support.” 
Our research establishes that in situations where common ground is unlikely, understanding the bases of someone’s views will help get to the real reasons behind differences in opinion, and therefore help to achieve mutually agreeable solutions… much like peeling an onion, where team members may realise that their fears or preconceptions are baseless.
 Huber GP, & Lewis K (2010) Cross-understanding: Implications for group cognition and performance. Academy of Management Review, 35(1): 6–26.
 Janardhanan NS, Lewis K, Reger RR, & Stevens CK (2020) Getting to know you: Motivating cross-understanding for improved team and individual performance. Organization Science.
 Dweck CS, & Leggett EL (1988) A social-cognitive approach to motivation and personality. Psychological Review, 95: 256–273.
Learn more about the authors and get in touch:
- Niranjan S. Janardhanan – firstname.lastname@example.org
- Kyle Lewis – email@example.com
- Rhonda R. Reger – Rhonda.Reger@unt.edu
- Cynthia K. Stevens – firstname.lastname@example.org