Social hierarchies define much of our world. Whether it’s in our political systems, our jobs, or even in our own families, there are clearly defined and understood differences in status and power between individuals. But what happens when the introduction of a new member upsets these clearly defined hierarchies? And what happens when group members don’t have enough information to gauge the value of a new member?
In these cases, groups often rely on physical characteristics, such as physical attractiveness and sex, to form expectations about the new member’s performance and the level of instability they will bring to the group hierarchy. Characteristics such as these have “nearly universal status implications” and can strongly affect how we evaluate and are evaluated by others.
For example, a plethora of research has highlighted the benefits of physical attractiveness in our social interactions. Physical attractiveness positively influences evaluations of our performance, as well as how we are judged and treated by those evaluating us. If they find you more attractive, people are more willing to form close bonds with you, help and be sociable with you, and assume you have unrelated positive attributes such as social skills and task competence—even when you don’t.
One’s sex also influences how they are evaluated in a group, with research finding a “high level of agreement on the traits that differentiate males from females.” Though many of these perceived differences are based upon sexist attitudes, they unfortunately persist across cultures and over time. Most notably, males are expected to be more intelligent, logical and rational than their female counterparts.
With these findings in mind, how will members of a team evaluate newcomers based upon these external characteristics? This is the question explored by Sung Won Min, Stephen E. Humphrey, Federico Aime, Oleg V. Petrenko, Matthew J. Quade and Sherry (Qiang) Fu in their article “Dealing with New Members: Team Members’ Reactions to Newcomer’s Attractiveness and Sex.”
In it, they find that existing team members mimic newcomers who are more physically attractive, especially when they are the same sex, and ingratiate toward physically attractive newcomers committed to the group’s task. Lastly, they find team members challenge physically attractive, female newcomers who are committed to the task.
Methods of Stabilization
When presented with a new member that threatens the social balance of a team, group members will employ different strategies to stabilize the imbalance. The strategies examined by the authors in this study are mimicry, ingratiation, and challenge. Each of these strategies has a unique cost, or degree of effort, associated with it. These costs influence what strategies group members use to maintain the group hierarchy.
When a new male or female member is more physically attractive, a low-cost behavior to reduce the imbalance caused by this member is to mimic them. Mimicry provides many benefits: increasing the “rapport, empathy, affiliation, and liking” between an individual and who they’re mimicking. This similarity between the two members results in the mimicking member being evaluated more highly by rest of the group. This, in turn, reduces their dependency upon the newcomer, thus attaining a greater status in the team. Because of this, the researchers hypothesize that new members judged as highly physically attractive will be mimicked more than those perceived as less physically attractive.
Another way to stabilize the imbalance caused by a new member is to ingratiate, or give praise, to them. Simply put, people are more attracted to people who seem attracted to them, making ingratiation an effective tactic in getting newcomers to like you.
While ingratiation is effective, it requires substantially more effort than mimicry, “as it involves acknowledging and praising the other person’s value and granting status recognition, which requires energy and conscious expenditure of social capital from team members.” Because of this, team members will evaluate both the physical characteristics of the newcomer (i.e., sex, attractiveness) as well as the situation, such as their commitment to the task, before deciding to be ingratiating. The authors hypothesize that existing team members will ingratiate toward new team members who are both more physically attractive and exhibit commitment to the team’s tasks, as compared to those who are either less physically attractive or are attractive but not committed to the team’s task.
The third stabilizing strategy is to challenge, or oppose, the newcomer. Challenging is considered the costliest action and comes with considerable risks, as it can lead to a lack of trust and ostracism between a member and the rest of the group if not done effectively. Therefore, it’s expected that challenging behaviors will only occur in certain circumstances. For example, the authors predict that physically attractive females will be challenged, as “this combination of characteristics signals conflicting expectations for performance. In contrast, they don’t expect highly attractive males who are committed to the team’s task to be challenged, as they will be “thought of as possessing a legitimate place in the status hierarchy.”
To test their hypotheses, the authors introduced a new member into different groups of college students that had previously worked together on a team project. On this occasion, the groups were given 45 minutes to record a 60-second commercial for a new cell phone company. The newcomers were sorted into 12 different groups based on their sex, physical attractiveness and commitment to the task, determined by how they were instructed to use an iPad given to each group for research (committed members used it to gather information, low-committed members use it to check their email or watch videos on YouTube).
The authors measured mimicry by coding the verbal and nonverbal behaviors of the team members exhibited in the recordings of each groups’ interactions. For the other strategies, group members filled out questionnaires at the end of the project asking how much each member ingratiated or challenged the newcomer, as well as how attractive they found them.
In support of their mimicking hypothesis, the authors found that new members who are considered physically attractive were mimicked more by the existing group than less attractive newcomers. Furthermore, highly committed, attractive males were mimicked more than attractive, low commitment males.
For their test of ingratiation, the authors found that team members ingratiated more frequently towards more attractive males and females when they displayed commitment to the task. Interestingly, they found newcomers low on commitment and attractiveness were ingratiated towards as well.
The authors found that challenging behavior only occurred in one specific newcomer configuration: more attractive women who displayed high commitment to the task. If they displayed low commitment, however, they were not challenged more than other members. The authors also found no relationship between challenging and the attractiveness or commitment of male newcomers.
Conclusion and Discussion
The authors’ study demonstrated that new team members’ sex and physical attractiveness led to mimicry, ingratiation and challenging behaviors. The study also made some unexpected findings that deserve further exploration. For example, team members ingratiated towards uncommitted, physically unattractive members, rather than just attractive, committed members. A possible explanation, the authors posit, is that existing members wish to engage a new member they see as lacking capability and commitment, and therefore not a threat, to make them feel more welcomed so that they start contributing to the team.
Additionally, the prevalence of sexist tendencies regarding men and women were present in the authors’ findings for challenging behavior, with “the most challenging found against higher attractiveness female members and least against higher attractiveness male members.” The authors suggest that managers take this issue seriously and develop strategies to combat these discriminatory behaviors.
With organizations increasingly bringing new members into their teams, the effects of these newcomers are increasingly important to understand. As such, “given that new members bring characteristics beyond their specific capabilities that may impact how others interact with them, a manager would be well-served to consider the implications of changes to status-order within the team.”