Black Eyed Peas during Walmart Shareholders' Meeting 2011 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Ideas for Leaders #322

Diversity in Teams: Tasks, Not Relationships Drive Performance

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Key Concept

Diversity is a catalyst to creativity and better decision-making, but is considered to have a downside in terms of relationships: there is less of a ‘bond’ or a connection among members of a diverse team. Researchers now claim that this supposed downside is actually the central mechanism that improves the performance of diverse teams; focusing less time on the relationship, team members — especially in pre-meeting preparation — focus more on the task at hand. 

Idea Summary

Social category diversity — diversity of race, gender or political leanings, for example — has been shown to enhance creative thinking in groups, and leads to more effective decision-making that takes into account a wider range of perspectives. The downside, according to previous research, is that the relationships among members of diverse groups are not as strong as among members of more homogeneous groups. This is a downside because research has also shown that strong relationships enable better teamwork and collaboration.

However, new research from a team of professors from MIT’s Sloan School of Management, Oklahoma State University’s Spears School of Business, Columbia Business School and Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business shows that the supposed ‘downside’ is actually not a negative at all. According to the researchers — Denise Loyd, Cynthia Wang, Katherine Phillips and Robert Lount — social category diversity is effective precisely because relationships are not as close among members of a diverse group.

The key is in what the researchers call ‘pre-meeting elaboration’ — which is the information gathering and preparation that an individual undertakes before he or she joins the other members of the group for the task at hand. Using creative experiments based on two participants partnering to solve a fictional murder, the researchers show that prior to entering into a group working environment, individuals who expect to be working with people similar to them spend less time focused on preparing for the task than those who expect to be working with a more diverse group of colleagues.

In all three experiments, participants were asked to read a murder mystery, determine who committed the crime and explain in writing how they had arrived at their conclusion. The participants were told that once the statement was prepared, they would be meeting with another participant to discuss the solution to the mystery.

In the first experiment, participants were given their partner’s political affiliation and opinion about the murder. The researchers found that when participants anticipated working with a member of the same political affiliation, they spent less time and thought on their pre-meeting statement on the murder (e.g. they didn’t consider multiple suspects or multiple perspectives, and didn’t give multiple reasons for the murder). When anticipating working with someone of a different political affiliation, the participants wrote considerably more detailed statements.

In the second experiment, some participants were told prior to writing their statements that having a positive interpersonal relationship would be important to working with the partner to solve the murder mystery; others were told that concentrating on the task rather than interpersonal relationships would be more important. Results showed that those who believed that relationships were important produced much less elaborate pre-meeting statements.

In the first two experiments, there was no actual meeting of partners — the participants were told that the statements were all that was needed for the experiment. In the third experiments, partners did meet and work together to solve the crime. The researchers found that the more elaborate the pre-meeting statements, the greater the chance the partners correctly identified the murderer in the mystery.

Finally, post-experiments surveys showed that participants were more interested in getting along with their partners when those partners were similar to them.

The results of the experiments showed that the more participants anticipated working with someone of similar affiliation, or the more they were nudged to focus on interpersonal relationships, the less effectively they prepared for the task at hand. Thus, according to the researchers, part of the effectiveness of diverse work teams can be explained by the fact that when people anticipate going into a diverse environment (as opposed to a homogeneous environment), they process information more deeply and effectively. In other words, the current emphasis on creating great working relationships with those you work with may be misplaced. It may be better to focus more on the task, and less on ‘getting along’.

Business Application

The fact that what is considered a ‘downside’ to group diversity is actually shown to be a fundamental catalyst to the effectiveness of diverse groups means that managers must adopt a different approach to building diverse working groups.

Specifically, managers must find a balance in the workplace culture that they create between social relationships and focusing on the task at hand. Many managers believe that any initiative that fosters stronger social relationships will positively impact the effectiveness of their teams. The research shows that in fact to overemphasize the importance of close relationships among colleagues might undermine the focus on task that makes diverse groups perform better.

Of course, hostile or other dysfunctional relationships among team members will obviously impede the success of the team. Positive social relationships are still important. The bottom line that managers must keep in mind is that even with interpersonal relationships, too much of a good thing is too much.

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