There is clear evidence that cognitive, gender and racial diversity in teams can lead to better decision making, innovation, and performance. However, according to research from Meir Shemla
of the Rotterdam School of Management and Jürgen Wegge
of Dresden University of Technology, this is only the case if diversity is well managed.
Unless leaders take steps to disarm negative perceptions of diversity as an initiative that destroys unity and cohesion, rather than contributing important new perspectives and insight it will fail to yield higher performance.
In the business literature, diversity is often painted as a magic elixir that brings different perceptions and knowledge to a team or an organization, which then effortlessly leads to greater innovation and better results. The truth is more complicated. The study, from professors Shemla and Wegge, based on a survey of 326 individuals working on a total of more than 60 educationally diverse teams in four German organizations, concludes that diversity can undermine team unity and decrease performance unless it is carefully managed.
Specifically, the study demonstrates how different factors interact to determine the success or failure of diversity. Although based on educational diversity—the different levels and subject matter of the educational degrees on the team—the results of the study can be applied to other types of diversity, according to the researchers.
In general terms, the success of diversity is based on team members with diverse backgrounds contributing a broader pool of information, knowledge, opinions and ideas to the team. However, organizations mistakenly believe that simply putting diverse team members together in a room will automatically result in what the researchers call ‘information elaboration’. Information elaboration is the sharing and integration of team members’ diverse knowledge and ideas into team discussions and decisions.
Contrary to assumptions, information elaboration may or may not take place depending on certain factors.
The first factor is team identification—that is, whether team members identify with the team as a whole. Are team members invested in the goals and objectives of the team? Do they consider a team win to be an individual win for themselves? Are they emotionally attached to the group?
If on average, the team members identify with the team, they are more likely to share and accept the diverse knowledge, information and opinions of team members—and as a result, diversity will lead to higher performance. If, on the contrary, the team members on average don’t identify with the team, don’t feel part of the group, don’t consider a team win to be an individual win, information elaboration will not take place and diversity will have a negative rather than positive impact on performance.
In sum, greater identification with the team leads to greater information elaboration, which leads to higher performance. However, the research does not stop with this insight. A further question is why is team identification so important to information elaboration and thus the success of the team?
The answer that emerges from the research is that diversity can be perceived as either a positive influence that allows very different people to come together as a team and contribute their diverse knowledge, or as a negative imposition that destroys cohesiveness and unity as the team members with shared backgrounds clump together in separate cliques.
Those who identify with the team as a whole will subjectively perceive diversity as a positive influence and will consequently actively seek to share and integrate the team’s diverse knowledge and perspectives, thus paving the path to team success. Those who don’t identify with the team as a whole will subjectively perceive diversity as a negative imposition and will ignore the diverse knowledge and perspectives that build success.
Thus, these two opposing perceptions of diversity explain why whether or not team members identify with the team as a whole is vital to the team’s ultimate performance.
Leading a diverse team
By identifying the role of team identification to the success of a diverse team, the study provides some guidelines for leaders.
First, leaders must start with an awareness that diversity is more likely to break apart a team than strengthen it. Believing that once you have gathered a diverse team, all that’s left is to wait for diversity to work its magic is a trap.
Instead, once a diverse team is gathered, leaders must take action to disarm any negative perceptions within the team that diversity is an initiative that shatters unity and cohesion. The study highlights the key to such vital disarmament: strengthening the team identification of team members.
One important step to strengthen this team identification is to put the diversity on the table: in other words, to emphasize the differences among team members. Leaders should highlight the fact that the team members are different, that they will be working from different assumptions, and that they will perceive reality in a different way.
Once these differences are clearly surfaced, the next step is to emphasize the positive impact and contribution of these differences. Leaders must help team members realize that being a group of unique individuals makes their team great.
Leaders who fail to deliberately enhance team identification will be left wondering why diversity did not yield the higher performance touted so frequently in the business press.
Access the original research paper ‘Managing diverse teams by enhancing team identification: The mediating role of perceived diversity’, Meir Shemla and Jürgen Wegge