Do Diverse Teams Do Better or Just Get Awkward?

The future of work is diverse

Planning for the future of work has lots of companies thinking about diversity. Businesses are working globally, with 58% of small businesses saying that they had international customers as of 2016. These global connections are facilitated by more affordable and effective technology. Individuals now have more opportunities to communicate, and collaborate with people who are different from them, and we have on demand access to the ideas and expertise of people that we’ll never meet offline. Diversity isn’t just the future, it’s the present, and business leaders have agreed that’s a good thing.

Why do business leaders value diversity?

A 2015 McKinsey study found a very simple reason to build diverse teams; companies that have the most racially and ethnically diverse teams are 35% more likely to have above average financial returns in their industry. In a series of Harvard Business Review interviews, the 11 CEOs said that they valued diversity for a number of reasons, but most of them believed that “greater diversity leads to greater diversity of thought.” Companies are trying to problem solve and innovate, two processes that benefit from new ideas and divergent thinking. So when we’re looking for new ideas and perspectives, it makes sense that we look for people who we think are different than us, who we assume have different knowledge to help us solve problems and innovate.

Dr. Katherine Phillips and a team of researchers from Northwestern University and Stanford University were curious about how diversity influences how groups approach and solve problems. What are the benefits of diverse groups versus homogeneous groups?

Dr. Phillips did the obvious thing; she asked teams of students to solve a murder mystery.

Every player was given the exact same set of clues to solve the murder mystery. At first, most of the students are put into groups of 3 where everyone had a similar background and were part of the same group within the school. A few minutes later, each group of 3 was joined by a 4th person. Half of the groups were joined by someone who was like them, and half the groups were joined by someone who was different. To make this a little easier, we’ll say that half of the groups were made up of all ducks, and half of the groups had 3 ducks and a goose.

These groups then had a short amount of time to collaboratively choose a suspect and submit their answer to Dr. Phillips’ team to see if they solved the mystery. And that’s when things got interesting.

How did teams perform?

The groups that had a goose performed better than the all duck groups. A lot better.

The groups all duck groups chose the right suspect 54% of the time, while the groups with a goose got it right 75% of the time. The goose groups did 21% better.

But when Dr. Phillips asked teams how confident they were in their answer, the all duck groups were 50% more likely to say they were sure they had the right suspect. They also said they were more comfortable working in their group and enjoyed the activity more than the groups that included a goose.

What gave diverse teams their edge?

Since everyone had the exact same clues, it wasn’t about different people bringing in different information, something that CEOs cited as a common reason for diversifying teams. The diverse teams got their edge from the way their process changed as they reacted to having a new and different person on their team. The way that the goose groups worked together was different.

First, they started by giving the new member a clear overview of their process so far, assuming that a goose would approach the problem differently than a duck.

Second, they listened to the goose a lot. All groups listened to their new member, but when a goose showed up, the ducks listened for longer. They were looking for different information or ideas.

Perhaps the most interesting difference is that members of goose groups were more willing to change their minds. They challenged their assumptions, and examined their initial ideas more critically. They were also more open to exploring different solutions, and were more likely to choose a different suspect than they had initially thought of on their own.

What happened in the groups that weren’t diverse?

The all duck groups were more susceptible to a number of cognitive biases that are especially prevalent in groups with similar members. The false-consensus effect is overestimating how much other people agree with you or think in the same way. Ducks assume that the way they think and the things they know are shared by all ducks. The overconfidence effect is being more confident in your judgement or solution than the data supports. The all duck groups were more likely to think they were right, even if they were wrong. It’s also important to note that people typically gravitate to people that they think are like them when forming a group. So unless you look for geese on purpose, you’ll probably end up working with a bunch of ducks.

Set up diverse teams for success

As Dr. Phillips’ study shows, diverse teams are better at problem solving and innovating, and they thrive when you set them up for success by keeping the following things in mind.

  • Focus on collaboration and collective success.

  • Encourage team members to ask questions and spend more time listening.

  • Acknowledge that having different ideas and opinions can be uncomfortable, and point to the benefits.

  • Ask team members to look at their ideas critically.

  • Intentionally seek out geese to join your ducks.

Can you practice this with the Empathy Toy™?

There are a few different ways that the Empathy Toy™ can help you to have these conversations with your team. Here are some questions that can get you started:

  • Do you think the game is easier when you know the person you are playing with?

  • Can you build the toy faster or more accurately with someone who you don’t know?

  • What assumptions did you make about the person that you were playing with before and during the game?

  • What challenges did you face when you were coming up with a shared language to describe the pattern or the pieces?

If you’d like to dig into this topic more, you can read Dr. Phillips’ full study here, or host an Empathy Toy workshop to talk about the power of diversity and inclusion!


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