Flat structure is better for team performance

Flat Structure Is Better for Team Performance

Huimin Xu

Our recent paper, “Team power dynamics and team impact: New perspectives on scientific collaboration using career age as a proxy for team power” ( has been published in JASIST.

Any understanding of teamwork is imperfect if the notion of power is ignored. Power is manifested through cooperation and influences every step of collaboration. As collaboration becomes common, power dynamics are consistently presented in team activities. By analyzing over 7.7 million teams from Science (e.g., Computer Science, Physics), Social Sciences (e.g., Sociology, Library & Information Science), and Arts & Humanities (e.g., Art), we find that flat team structure is associated with higher team impact. These findings have been repeated in all five disciplines except Art, and are consistent in various types of teams from Computer Science including teams from industry or academia, teams with different gender groups, teams with geographical contrast, and teams with distinct size.

—Any understanding of teamwork is imperfect if the notion of power is ignored.—

Setting up a flat team structure provides practical insights for researchers. The first step for a researcher who starts a career is to choose an advisor. Keep in mind the idea that a flat structure is better. For a newcomer, choosing a junior advisor is better than selecting a senior one. In a relatively flat environment, students can get more direct supervision in methods and get more chances to express ideas. By contrast, following a senior advisor is more suitable for a student with some research experience. Because senior advisors focus more on high-level concepts and have a big picture of projects. Another way to keep the team structure between a newcomer and a senior advisor flat is to have a broker who can bridge the gap between them, like a postdoc. Choosing an advisor is just the first step during the career stage. When you continue to do research, you need to keep thinking about how to seek collaborators and form teams. Keep the team flat rather than hierarchical.

The benefits of flat team structure include: (1) Adapting to unpredicted and creative tasks. Flat structure is crucial to success when tasks are changing, complex, ambiguous and require much creativity, whereas hierarchical structure can benefit teams when tasks are relatively stable, simple, predictable and require little creativity. Faced with such kind of tasks, egalitarian teams enable more people to participate in making decisions, aggregate the wisdom across individuals, and increase the heterogeneity of opinions. Scientific research is non-routine and complicated, and it requires demonstrating novelty by advancing the state of the art. (2) Creating a psychological satisfaction. Psychologically, flat structure can boost the satisfaction of group members, thus reducing the possibility of turnover. Flat structure can increase levels of motivation for the whole group rather than the minority. In the hierarchical structure, the inequality might make low-ranking members feel unfair, but they lack the ability to change their status and thus become less motivated. It is crucial to retain and motivate new researchers in science. (3) Supporting coordination. Flat structure can boost communication and cooperation. Equal turn-taking communication in the flat structure can achieve better team performance.

Cite this article in APA as: Xu, H. (2022, June 28). Flat structure is better for team performance. Information Matters, Vol. 2, Issue 6.

Huimin Xu

I am a PHD student in information studies at UT Austin. My research interests are data science.