I Defer to Nobody!

Why We Stay Silent and Let Others Make the Call

By In Weekly Email 5 minute read time

I Defer to Nobody!

We’ve all been there.  Stuck on some cross-functional or multi-disciplinary team.  Some issue arises and something doesn’t feel quite right to us.  But we keep our mouths shut and, instead, defer to another teammate.  Professor Joshi and Professor Knight try to help us understand exactly this phenomenon—why do we defer in some cases and, not in others, during our service on teams? 

What’s the deference?

Let’s begin with the definition of deference.  When we defer to a teammate, we’re conceding or yielding to another’s opinion, judgement, or decisions.  Deference, when done properly, is valuable as it allows team members with the relevant skills to weigh in on a specific problem.  For that reason, some contend that deference is essential to building knowledge within a team.  And, for truly cross-functional teams that are solving world hunger or cancer, we want a geneticist contributing on certain issues and mathematicians and software technicians contributing on others that speak more to their expertise. 

The authors of this study suggest that we defer for two primary reasons; we either defer based on expertise and task competence of that given individual OR because of social affinity.  In other words, we’re likely to defer simply if we identify or like another individual.  And, the researchers of this study, say that we’re more likely to do that if they look like us (i.e., male, female, white, black).  To get at this answer, they surveyed 55 multi-disciplinary research teams comprising of 619 scientists. 

Here’s what they found….

Level of education and time-on-the-job, tenure, were great predictors of deference.  The master’s student would defer more regularly to the team member who owned her doctorate.  Also, team members were more likely to defer to those who could brag of a longer tenure on the job.  Essentially, when we see a Ph.D., we’re predisposed to defer because we think that they’ve got smarts.  Also, when a rookie sees a seasoned veteran, it signals wisdom through experience, although, if you read the Kimono’s Bad Bosses on Friday (you should), you’d think differently.  However, white or male partners didn’t receive any more deference than non-White, female team members.  This means that education and tenure, not your gender or skin color, exerted more influence on deference.  We’re just getting started, so buckle up……

These authors also found that something was going on in the higher ranks.  Specifically, highly educated team members were more likely to give and receive deference from other highly educated team members. They didn’t quite find this with lower educations (read here—not doctorates).  They explained this away by saying that lateral deference among the very smart protects their own status and avoids status threats from other high-status teammates.  In other words, it’s a way to consolidate power—I won’t challenge someone who can challenge me. 

Sadly, there’s more at play here than smarts; Joshi and Knight did find that team members reported higher social affinity to those team members that looked like them (same educational level, gender, and ethnicity).  And, remarkably, would defer to these individuals based on this social attraction. 


According to their study, when we give respect and are deferent towards others based on perceptions of task contributions and competence, the team performs better.  In contrast, when we base deference on social similarity and affinity (e.g., do they look like me?), team performance suffers. 

Just knowing this may cause us to think different about who and who does not deserve our fullest respect.  Next time you’re on one of these complex teams, look around and make a note to yourself on who is getting Aretha Franklin’s mad R-E-S-P-E-C-T. 

Remember, knowledge = power, here at the Kimono.

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