On Diversity and Team Effectiveness

I’m taking a break from my some recent writing on enterprise social networks and knowledge management. Instead, I’d like to review some interesting research on diversity and team effectiveness. I had an opportunity in a recent team meeting to recap some of this research, and then led an activity and discussion around the subject of diversity and team performance.

Two studies provide some interesting insight into how team diversity can impact team performance and decision making. Expanding diversity in the workplace is seen as a good way to inject fresh ideas into the environment—but how does that work, and why?

A study by Katherine Phillips of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University found that socially different group members do more than just introduce new viewpoints or approaches. In this study, diverse groups outperformed more homogeneous groups, not because of an influx of new ideas, but because diversity triggered more careful information processing that was absent in the homogenous groups. Phillips used fraternity and sorority members for her study, creating three-member teams from the same house (“Old-Timers”), and then adding a fourth member from either the same house (to form a homogenous group) or a different house (to form a diverse group). These groups were then given a problem to solve.

The results were quite striking: the homogenous teams were confident in their work, but often failed in their task. The diverse groups, though less confident in their work, ended up more successful in solving the given problem. From this experiment, Phillips identified some key takeaways:

  • Diversity can produce new ideas: people may feel more comfortable with others like themselves, but homogeneity can hamper the exchange of different ideas, and stifles the intellectual workout that comes from disagreements.
  • The Diversity advantage: the biggest discovery of the study was the sheer advantage provided by the diverse newcomer to the teams, even when that newcomer didn’t being in new ideas.
  • Homogenous groups were more confident in their decisions, even though they were more often wrong. In non-diverse groups, disagreements can be ignored, so people don’t talk through issues.

After talking through this study and the results, the members of my team then participated in an activity to engage their thinking about the value of diverse teams. In an exercise created by S. Dunphy, everyone was given a set of picture puzzles to solve on their own under a time constraint. After scoring their results, everyone then was invited to form up into the most diverse teams that they can possibly make. One team even had a virtual member!

Team 1

After being given an opportunity to talk briefly among themselves, and speak to the whole group about what they discovered about each other, the newly-formed diverse teams are given a second set of puzzles to solve. The post puzzle-solving discussion then revolves around questions around performance, conflict, and insights gained about team problem solving. 

This was a good afternoon with the team—everyone enjoyed the exercise, and took away some new insights on the value of diversity for team effectiveness. 

References:

Dunphy, S. (2004). Demonstrating the Value of Diversity for Improved Decision Making: The “Wuzzle-Puzzle” Exercise. Journal of Business Ethics53(4), 325–331.

Phillips, K. W., Liljenquist, K. A., & Neale, M. A. (2009). Is the Pain Worth the Gain? The Advantages and Liabilities of Agreeing With Socially Distinct Newcomers. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin35(3), 336–350.

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