Is diversity really going to improve your team?

It seems whether you are on social media, listening to the radio, or watching the news, it will not take long before you come across a headline referencing the need for diversity and inclusion in the workplace. It really is a hot topic these days, and for good reason. And yet, it begs the question, “Will increasing diversity on your team really lead to better outcomes?” Your immediate reaction may be “Yes!” and yet the answer to this question may not be as simple as you would expect, and some of you who are reading this may have already experienced the challenges increasing diversity can bring.

When doing my Master’s in Leadership and Management I stumbled across some interesting research comparing homogeneous teams to diverse ones. Researchers created several teams that were to complete a variety of tasks and challenges. Some of the teams were intentionally homogeneous while others were intentionally diverse. As the teams went about their tasks, the researchers noted the homogeneous teams quickly outperformed the diverse teams. However, as the research continued, some of the diverse teams were eventually able to outperform the homogeneous teams, and by a greater margin. So how do we explain these differences and what role did diversity play if any?

The answer lies in how diversity influences the factors needed for a healthy, productive team. When handled well, diversity provides a positive influence which helps a team succeed. When handled poorly, diversity provides the opposite effect. Thankfully, we have the ability to direct which type of influence diversity will have. The key to this lies in understanding the value diversity brings to a team and what is required for a team to succeed.

For a team to succeed it needs to conquer the Five Dysfunctions of a Team. These dysfunctions are:

  • Absence of Trust
  • Fear of Conflict
  • Lack of Commitment
  • Avoidance of Accountability
  • Inattention to Results

To conquer these dysfunctions a team needs to trust one another. That trust enables them to engage in healthy conflict around ideas which in turn produces great decisions as all the information is on the table. With all ideas shared and voices heard, the team is able to commit to the finale decision. With trust and commitment to the best ideas, they are able to hold one another accountable and focus on team-based results, leading them to success. With the Five Dysfunctions framework in mind, let us explore the role diversity plays and how this may explain the results of the research referenced earlier.

The homogeneous teams tended to yield quicker results early on in the research. With a homogeneous team it can be easier to assume a level of trust to get the team started. That strictly comes from the more you have in common, or think you have in common with another person, the easier it is to trust them. This allows you to open up, share ideas, and focus on the task at hand. Further, the more homogeneous the group is in their thinking, the less alternative ideas they may have around how they can go about solving the problem or task they are facing. With less ideas, and a base level of trust, a decision can be reached quickly and away they go.

For the diverse team, things may start off more slowly. The setting for the team does provide them a base level of trust, but it may not be as strong as that found in the homogeneous teams. Once these diverse teams start sharing ideas on how to proceed with their task, their varied experiences will likely lead to a broader scope of ideas and options. As these are shared and challenged, the trust level of the team is tested. If the conflict is not handled well, or even if it is not perceived to be healthy, trust could be broken. This makes it harder for the team to resolve the conflict and commit to an idea everyone will support. The team may still make a decision and complete the task, but the added turbulence at the beginning will slow the team down, allowing a more homogeneous team to complete the task more quickly.

As these teams continue to complete tasks their experience and success will vary. For the homogeneous team, the early wins build up greater trust to help keep the team united. However, even a cohesive team will run into challenges if it is unable to solve the problems it faces. And this is where the homogeneous team reaches its limits. It may succeed really well with some tasks, but once they hit a task or problem that falls outside of the collective ability to solve it, they get stuck. With a lack of breadth of experiences compared to the diverse teams, the homogeneous teams will struggle to come up with the best ideas. They may still get tasks done, but they may not find the most efficient way of doing so.

This is where the homogeneous team has a potential advantage. If the team was able to navigate the early challenges in a healthy way and build their trust level and find an effective means of getting all ideas on the table, they are set to harness their diverse experiences and come up with some amazing ideas. This is why some of the diverse teams were able to achieve greater success over the homogeneous teams as the research study went on longer. Having learned to work together, they could come up with better ideas and troubleshoot problems more successfully, allowing them to get more done in less time.

Unfortunately, not all of the diverse teams had the same success as they continued to lag behind the homogeneous teams. The reason for this could be found in those first two dysfunctions. As their diversity clashed with one another, there was a lack of trust to sustain it. Misunderstandings can occur, feelings are hurt, and the conflict goes unresolved. Rather than working through this, it begins to snowball and cripples the ability of the team to mine for the best ideas, commit to a plan, and hold one another accountable to achieve the team results. Thus, the team continues to struggle.

The results we see from this research is not confined to a lab setting. This is what occurs in the workplace all the time, especially when new people are brought onto a team. With a healthy team, and a good leader, a new person can be brought in and their diversity will be an asset to the team. However, this is not a guaranteed outcome. Considering many teams are operating in a semi-functional state of dysfunction, when a leader decides to bring new people onto the team for the sake of adding diversity, the end result is often a more dysfunctional team. With a new person and an increase in diversity, the team’s ability to trust and engage in healthy conflict is challenged. Without a sufficient ability to handle the dysfunction, the team is pushed beyond its breaking point and often it is the new person to the team that experiences the brunt of it. Thus, the noble intent of diversity and inclusion actually has the opposite effect, making it even harder for the team and those feeling rejected by it.

Fortunately, you do not have to leave this up to chance. Leaders can ovoid and mitigate many of the risks of increasing diversity on a team by ensuring their team is healthy from the start. By taking the time to understand and conquer the Five Dysfunctions of a Team, they become healthy enough to work through the challenges of a new person joining the team. In doing so, diversity can be increased, people are included and valued, and the team is able to achieve a greater level of success than before.

So, if you are thinking about increasing the diversity of your team, how about starting with a check-up to see how your team is doing? By doing a Five Dysfunctions team assessment and workshop I can help your team understand where its strengths are and get to work on helping improve the areas that need some work. Through combining a healthy team with the power of diversity your team will be able to get more done in less time with less cost.

Written by: Jeffery Schau
Leadership Development Coach & Organizational Health Consultant