Faultline Theory: Why Teams Fall Apart

Small World Solutions Group
5 min readDec 9, 2021


The concept of faultlines is typically associated with geography. A faultline occurs when there is a fracture or break in the ground that causes great shifts, often resulting in earthquakes, which of course, have the potential to cause great destruction. The same can be applied to teams. Both in group and geographical faultlines, the shifting starts on a foundational level and can be difficult to detect until the rumbling rises to the surface.

Faultlines in groups are potential areas of internal conflict that affect overall performance. When group divisions are strong, like the antagonistic “us versus them” groups have strong faultlines. When divisions are weaker amongst group members so too are the faultlines. Weaker faultline groups perform better than those with stronger faultlines, or internal divisions.

Faultlines in Sports

Keeping with sports analysis, researchers have taken the time to study how faultlines impact group performance by looking at 30 Major League Baseball (MLB) teams from 2004 to 2008. The diversity in MLB teams creates a fertile environment for faultlines to arise. Bezrukova et al explained that faultlines “occur when multiple attributes (e.g., race, age) of group members come into alignment and divide a group into relatively homogeneous subgroups.” For example, a team faultline can occur between young Latino players and older white players. Two exclusive cliques, or subgroups, form. These subgroups may have their own goals that distract from the overall team goal. They might put their own subgroup’s interest ahead of the team’s best interest.

Faultline rifts cause team cohesion to fall apart. Further, the more defined the subgroup is, the clearer the behavioral associations will be for that subgroup. On the other hand, those behaviors can be internally defined, or what each member decides to do as part of their subgroup. If a subgroup is less defined, then the faultline is weaker. For example, if there are both younger white and younger African American players in addition to older white players on the same team, then the faultline is less clear.

Teams with more internal conflict experience a sharp drop in performance as their internal subgroups, or faultlines, become more defined. We know from Q theory that it is important to have the right balance of different perspectives within a team. That is what sparks creativity and innovation. However, diverse perspectives also create the potential for internal conflict. When that internal conflict deepens faultlines, it leads to lower team performance, but this is not an impossible situation. Differences do not need to be ignored or destroyed to eliminate faultlines. The solution is quite the opposite.

Faultlines in Business

In an increasingly globalized workplace, leaders are faced with deep faultlines: “residual bitterness between historical enemies, culture clashes, turf battles and generation gaps.” Yet, an overwhelming number of the leaders in the study did not know how to build strong, diverse teams across these differences. Differences are not only demographic but also include hierarchical boundaries and separations based on areas of expertise. Additionally, people feel strongly about topics based on associations with their self-identified subgroups, including emotions such as “loyalty, pride, respect and trust.” Humans want to both be unique and belong — identity serves those needs. But identity is also “[t]he emotional force that serves both to separate and connect us…”

Mending Faultlines

Thankfully, unlike geographical faultlines there are remedies to same in business. Researchers, Ernst and Chrobot-Mason offer six strategies for leaders to bridge these intense, emotional boundaries. These practices create connections, healthy relationships, and high-performing teams.

  1. First, team members need to feel safe. Leaders can create this psychological safety for their team by shielding members from threats such as ridicule, judgment, and exclusion for example. Intense insecurity does not help the shared identity of a team.
  2. Second, differences need to be discussed openly and experienced in a way where all members feel seen, heard, and understood. Try finding common ground and building empathy.
  3. Third, connect or form one-on-one relationships. Encourage team members to interact on an individual level, away from group dynamics. Neutral zones are communal spaces, like cafeterias and libraries, where people can meet and mingle at random.
  4. Fourth, mobilize a group towards a common purpose. This could mean rallying against a rival team in sports, championing against issues of social and racial justice, or community services. This collaboration effort unites and motivates teams.
  5. Fifth is called “weaving,” which researchers Ernst and Chrobot-Mason describe as integrating different groups with unique skill sets to work together toward a common goal. This respects the identities of groups built around specific areas of expertise and builds more cross-group or bridging bonds.
  6. Sixth, is “transforming.” Ernst and Chrobot-Mason explain that leaders need to give group members time and space to “open themselves to change.” People are in the process of forming new identities that are aligned with overall group goals. This happens when team members feel safe and supported in their reinvention.

When all six of these boundary-spanning strategies are practiced, “safety, respect, trust, community, interdependence and reinvention” will result.


Consider where there might be potential faultlines on your team. Pay special attention to how and amongst whom subgroups naturally form. Encourage team members to interact with others who they would not typically associate with.

  • Teams do not fail because of their differences. They fail when those differences are used to divide people.
  • Productive conflict, the kind that creates innovation, can only arise amongst team members who trust one another.
  • People need to know that if they speak up and voice their opinions, they will not be ostracized or kicked out.
  • Trust comes from a feeling of psychological safety, a sound strategy for bridging differences.
  • We do not need to avoid conflict on our teams. Rather, we need to cultivate resilient foundations of respect and trust that can ground conflict in strong person-to-person relationships.
  • Teams with strong faultlines performed worse than teams who had weaker faultlines.
  • Faultlines Increase internal conflict lowers team performance.

See the full analysis on faultline theory in my latest book, The Click Code. Pre order it from Amazon