Exploring hidden icebergs in teams: managing diversity of team emotions

Difference can be a great thing for teams, but diversity management is not always so straightforward.

The similarities and differences of team members has shown to influence nearly all aspects of work. A wider range of skills, backgrounds and ages in teams have all shown to enhance problem solving, creativity and innovation. On the other hand, for teams that are increasingly diverse and cross-functional, social integration can sometimes be a challenge, accompanied by difficult emotions and conflict.

In both cases, if we are only using explicit demographic characteristics of team members to guide diversity management, it may be that the similarities and differences we see are only the tip of the iceberg.

Team research has historically focused on ‘surface-level’ diversity of teams to understand what makes a successful team dynamic. This is only one piece of the puzzle. Surface level diversity often acts as a proxy for cognitive or value-based differences between team members which could conceal important factors within a demographic category.

So, what kinds of diversity might lie beneath the surface?

‘Deep-level’ diversity refers to diversity of personalities, values and emotional dispositions of group members. Over time, we learn more about these qualities of our team members and decide if their personalities are similar to ours, if their values reinforce our own, or if their energy and emotions make us feel good. These similarities and differences are important for team relationships in the longer term, as these characteristics are more likely to be the basis of similarity-attraction.

Are there certain people in your team who you feel are always very happy and enthusiastic? Are you drawn to these people? Does their upbeat nature make you feel good or does their relentless enthusiasm annoy you? How much time do you spend with these people? What conclusions do you make about why these people are happy?

Emotional diversity is one form of deep-level diversity which increasing evidence suggests could provide important clues to understand cohesion and conflict within teams. Emotional diversity is generally measured in terms of team members’ trait positive emotion i.e. enthusiasm, mental alertness, confidence and energy. These have shown to be stable characteristics over time and have a stronger link to social processes in groups than trait negative emotion (it is possible to be high in both trait positive emotion and trait negative emotion).

The emotional similarity, or fit, among team members’ trait positive emotion has shown to lead to greater satisfaction with relationships. Importantly, both the average emotional level of a team, AND the diversity of emotional levels of individuals are important.

Teams with higher trait positive emotion (on average) have demonstrated lower levels of emotional conflict and cooperativeness regardless of emotional diversity in the group. However, teams with low positive emotions but low diversity show similar levels of cooperativeness and conflict to ‘happier’ teams (similarity helps!). Whereas teams with both low positive affect and high diversity have shown to be significantly lower in cooperativeness and higher in conflict than the other groups.

What does this mean for teams?

These findings do not necessarily suggest that all teams should be designed with individuals with similar levels of positive emotions or that only people of a ‘higher’ positive emotional disposition should be recruited! That would be nearly impossible, and potentially undesirable.

Instead, enhancing Emotional Intelligence (EI) within teams could be the best way to navigate the icebergs of emotional diversity. A very recent study by Kaufmann and Wagner, found EI significantly reduced the negative impact of emotional diversity on team cohesion.

EI is now widely recognised as a key factor for cultivating positive team environments and offers a tangible starting point to manage diversity in teams by focusing on the conflict-mitigating and self-awareness trait of emotional intelligence. EI can be built and sustained, to manage the inevitable emotional differences in teams.

Understanding deep-level diversity is an important design element of teams, but we can acknowledge the existence of emotional difference in a proactive way. By investing in emotional intelligence training of teams, we can foster self-awareness, increase individuals’ ability to cope with difference and embrace the creative opportunities that come with a range of personalities, values and emotions. Within organisations we can be open about emotional diversity, rather than marginalising those we feel don’t ‘fit’, encouraging an accepting and positive work culture that values diversity at all levels.


Barsade, S.G., Ward, A.J., Turner, J.D. and Sonnenfeld, J.A., 2000. To your heart’s content: A model of affective diversity in top management teams. Administrative Science Quarterly, 45(4), pp.802–836.

Kaufmann, L. and Wagner, C.M., 2017. Affective diversity and emotional intelligence in cross-functional sourcing teams. Journal of Purchasing and Supply Management, 23(1), pp.5–16.

Kelly, J.R. and Barsade, S.G., 2001. Mood and emotions in small groups and work teams. Organizational behavior and human decision processes, 86(1), pp.99–130.

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