How Class Affects How We Collaborate

Having a diverse workforce has numerous benefits to an organization, with MIT research highlighting that the most diverse workplaces tend to be the most profitable. A lot of conversations around diversity focus on identity-based factors such as race and gender, but there is a growing appreciation for the importance of thought diversity to a team.

A study from the University of Virginia Darden School of Business took this a step further and explored the impact of class diversity on the success of a team. The study focused particular attention on what the authors refer to as ‘social class transitioners’, who are people that have managed to progress between socioeconomic classes during their life, and it emerged that those who were able to do that brought particular value to the workplace.

“People who transition between classes can learn to relate to people in a more skilled way, and they are incredibly helpful in groups, as they can understand people from all walks of life,” the researchers say. “However, it can also be an exhausting and even isolating experience for that person.”

How we collaborate

Research from Emory University also shows that class affects how we collaborate with one another. The study suggests that people from a lower social background tend to focus more on interdependent teamwork, which leverages the collective skills and expertise of the group. This allows these teams to reach their full potential, and sometimes even exceed that of their more advantaged peers.

Participants were put into various teamwork scenarios whereby an interdependent approach was encouraged. Each of the volunteers was assessed to understand their socio-economic backgrounds with the idea of understanding whether such an environment boosted those from poorer backgrounds or not.


The results suggest that this approach does very much boost the performance of working-class teams, with further analysis revealing this is often because such teams take more conversational turns when working collectively than their middle-class peers. These discussions also tended to be more balanced and active, which supported the functioning of the team.

Frozen out

Of course, as I illustrated in a recent article, many organizations fail to capitalize on these capabilities, whether due to having a clear “class ceiling” or indeed because collaborative work, in general, is diminished in importance next to focusing on individual performances.

Worryingly, this, in turn, tends to result in people from lower-class backgrounds performing worse on the individual tasks that are rated so highly in the workplace. The researchers are at pains to point out that this is in no way related to any lack of ability on the part of those from lower social-class backgrounds, but rather structural factors, including how we want people to work, that work against them.

If employers want to encourage the kind of class diversity that is so clearly linked to greater success and profitability, then it’s clear that the way we work has to change so that teams are working more interdependently with one another than the divide and conquer approach that is so harmful to performance.

A good start point would be to ensure that more working-class people are present in teams and throughout the organization, as they are far more likely to have a facilitative approach to teamwork.

A focus on class diversity

Research from Columbia University also urges organizations to prioritize class diversity by actually ensuring that it’s included in any diversity and inclusion initiatives they run.

The authors highlight how rare it is for social class to be included in an organization’s diversity goals, with many treating the issue almost as a form of taboo. The disadvantages are considerable, however, not least in terms of understanding how businesses and universities work.

“The social class disadvantage comes mostly from lower cultural capital: not knowing how to do well in school and how to climb the career ladder,” the researchers say. “Individuals from lower social class origins can often get in the door, but don’t have the knowledge to succeed in college and on the managerial career ladder. They don’t have the mentors who can help them make the transition.”

The study found that the chances of gaining a managerial role were around 32% lower for people from lower classes than they were for people from higher classes. This chasm is even greater than the gap between men and women (28%) and African-Americans and white (25%).

It’s a situation that is clearly depriving organizations of many capable managers, not least as the authors argue that managers from lower classes are less likely to be arrogant and get too caught up in messy office politics.

“If we are better at using managerial talent, we grow as an economy, and there are more opportunities for everyone,” the researchers say. “It doesn’t have to come at the cost of the people who are advantaged.”

The Tycoon Herald