Three Reasons to Create Diverse Workplace Teams

Last Updated May 12, 2009 8:48 PM EDT

Here's a unique way to get better results out of your employees' group efforts: add a "socially distinct" new member to the group, according to a new study led by Katherine Phillips, associate professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.

While the topic of workplace diversity may be old hat, Phillips' study titled "Is the Pain Worth the Gain? The Advantages and Liabilities of Agreeing With Socially Distinct Newcomers," found good reasons to study this topic anew: the results of her experiments showed that groups with at least one diverse team member performed better than homogenous groups.

The article was published in last month's Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin and was co-authored by Katie Liljenquist of the Marriott School of Management at Brigham Young University and Margaret Neale of the Stanford Graduate School of Business. The benefits they reported associated with creating diverse groups:

1. Results in better decision making
Phillips and her colleagues conducted group problem solving experiments with two sample sets: one containing a diverse team member, the other made up of homogenous team members. The former set made better decisions that led to correctly solving the problem.

2. Breaks up group think
Homogenous groups tend to be comfortable around each other, which is great for camaraderie, but not so great for exploring complex solutions to problems. While one would assume that socially-distinct team members would bring new ideas to the table, the study notes that their mere presence may be enough to get people out of their comfort zones and thinking differently about the situation.

"In diverse groups, everyone is more likely to focus on the available information and to bring in new ideas, not just the people who are different," according to Phillips.

3. Improves group effectiveness
The study found that socially homogenous groups in the sample set thought they worked better together, when in reality they were less efficient at problem solving. The diverse groups came up with better solutions to the problems, even though members felt that they didn't work together very effectively. This goes to show that a degree of discomfort can ultimately improve results.

While we often think of diversity as marking big differences such as race, gender and age, Phillips found that smaller indicators of social distinctiveness were also valuable in improving group output. According to the study, adding a team member from a different department in the company or even one who grew up in a different state may add just enough of a difference to improve group output.

Penguin image courtesy of Flickr user Daveybot, CC 2.0

  • Stacy Blackman

    Stacy Sukov Blackman is president of Stacy Blackman Consulting, where she consults on MBA admissions. She earned her MBA from the Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern University and her Bachelor of Science from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. Stacy serves on the Board of Directors of AIGAC, the Association of International Graduate Admissions Consultants, and has published a guide to MBA Admissions, The MBA Application Roadmap.