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In Team Building, Being Friendly and Trustworthy Get Top Marks

Want to be selected for a team? These qualities matter most.

Key points

  • Team assembly decisions are influenced by someone’s “human capital” (skills, know-how) and “social capital” (friendliness, trustworthiness).
  • Communicating in a “challenging voice” signals robust human capital; using a “supportive voice” signals higher levels of social capital.
  • People who can flip between using a challenging voice and a supportive voice are the most sought-after teammates.
  • Those who primarily use a supportive voice are more likely to be selected for a team than those who use a challenging voice too often.
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“The quality of strength lined with tenderness is an unbeatable combination.” —Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

Teamwork relies on a healthy balance of trustworthiness, loyalty, and “all for one, one for all” camaraderie combined with having some teammates who shine brighter based on their skills, competency, and leadership qualities.

New organizational behavior findings from Binghamton University’s School of Management show how the tone of a potential teammate’s voice signals human and social capital in ways that influence team assembly decisions. This paper (Newton et al., 2021) was recently published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Management.

When MBA students who participated in this study were asked to create a dream team of classmates to work on a collaborative assignment, Daniel Newton et al. found that the tone of voice used by a possible teammate was a deciding factor.

For example, a challenging voice signaled a potential teammate’s degree of human capital (e.g., skills, know-how, freethinking). In contrast, a supportive voice signaled someone’s degree of social capital (e.g., friendly, trustworthy, team-player).

  • Challenging voice. Outspoken in a way that shows know-how and a willingness to disrupt the status quo by voicing divergent ideas that can rub people the wrong way but also make someone a trailblazer.
  • Supportive voice. Communicating in a way that signals friendliness and robust social capital by acting like a team player who brings people together, builds trust, and makes teammates feel comfortable.

For this study, the researchers randomly assigned a cohort of MBA students to different teams at the beginning of the semester and had them work on various class projects. As the semester was drawing to a close, the original teams were dissolved, and students were asked to choose who they’d like to be members of a self-selected team.

After choosing a new dream team, each student was asked to assess their decision-making process based on how often a potential teammate had used a challenging or supportive voice during previous group efforts.

Assertiveness mixed with agreeableness is a winning combo.

The most sought-after teammates signaled robust amounts of human and social capital as reflected by their ability to fluctuate between seeming assertive and knowledgeable by using a challenging voice while also showing agreeableness and warmth by using a supportive voice.

Few of us possess a quintessential mix of human and social capital. Being a people-pleasing team player who’s got a supportive voice while simultaneously signaling that you’re an outspoken freethinker by using a challenging voice is a high-wire act that can be tricky to navigate.

Ultimately, if a team builder had to choose between someone who primarily used a challenging voice versus a supportive voice, coming across as friendly and trustworthy mattered most. This suggests that social capital may be more valuable than human capital during team assembly decisions.

“We assume that people are selected for important task forces and teams because of the knowledge, skills, and abilities they bring to the table. However, this research suggests that people may often get picked because team members feel comfortable with them,” co-author Cynthia Maupin said in a news release. “People may be willing to sacrifice a bit in terms of performance in order to have a really positive team experience.”

Signaling one’s ability to get along with others matters during team selection.

The final analysis of these assessments showed that potential teammates who exhibited competence—by occasionally using a challenging voice—while also signaling that they were friendly and trustworthy—by using a supportive voice—got the most requests to join a new team.

However, when ranking the top traits that made someone likely to be selected to join a team, friendliness and trustworthiness ultimately reigned supreme. “Potential team members appear to prioritize the social capital signaled by supportive voice more so than the human capital signaled by challenging voice,” the authors conclude.


Daniel W. Newton, Melissa Chamberlin, Cynthia K. Maupin, Jennifer D. Nahrgang, Dorothy R. Carter. "Voice as a Signal of Human and Social Capital in Team Assembly Decisions." Journal of Management (First published online: September 04, 2021) DOI: 10.1177/01492063211031303