Flipping television stations last night after the U.S. President’s State of the Union address, listening to the commentary and reaction of political analysts, elected officials, and talk show hosts, I noticed there was a significant difference between TV stations with regards to the diversity of commentators. While not always the case, Rachel Maddow included both left and right leaning commentators, who each made observations about President Obama’s speech and subsequently asked for insights from others at the scene, including a female Senator, and a number of men and women of different ethnicities in different leadership roles.
The breadth of perspectives points to research which often goes ignored: when a task is cognitively complex or requires multiple perspectives to solve, diversity breeds better results. According to research done by Mannix and Neal (2005) entitled “What Differences Make a Difference” published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, the extent to which differences can by productively utilized depends on the amount of information exchange that actually happens. People naturally share information they already have in common, but this is not the end game. Instead, people must hear from others about information they don’t have access to. Specifically, groups get better results when they have the ability and willingness to engage in constructive task-focused conflict to integrate their divergent perspectives. (Note: no need to read “conflict” as equivalent to “argument”.) Breaking down this list further reflects just how difficult it can be to work across differences: people need to be self-aware (perhaps the #1 leadership skill of our day), open-minded (funny how no member of any group I’ve polled says they are not!), motivated, and have communication skills to effectively share knowledge and to engage in conflict (a hurdle for many). Does this happen in your leadership team? Think carefully! While on one hand those skills seem basic, I can say from years working with leaders and groups that the full combination of these skills is not easy for anyone.
I do meet leaders regularly who want to integrate diverse perspectives so that they can foster a high-performing team. The problem is they don’t know how. This is, again, where diversity improves the situation. One of the most powerful tools I’ve learned as a leadership consultant over the last 20 years is that in the role of leader, you have the unique opportunity to set the agenda about the direction and duration of discussions. So, for example, if you believe your group should be more focused on listening and exchanging information, and you don’t know HOW to do that, try asking the group! The problem I see over and over again is that leaders get stymied because they don’t know how to achieve something. So they try one thing, and then another, and then wonder why it doesn’t work. “But couldn’t you just ask the group?” I say. “Well…yes, I guess I could!” is the response. If leaders can recognize that the group has the answers, they would avoid enormous stress, learn a lot about change management, and simply achieve more.
The authors of the cited research point out that organizational culture can help promote information exchange, as well. Individuals behave more cooperatively when their business units emphasize group over individual values, which minimize competition. Because teams tend to focus on commonly held information, instead of exchanging uniquely held knowledge, leaders can help people overcome the risks in sharing their unique experiences, expertise, and points of view in the following ways:
The topic of diversity has so many implications and levels of richness that go beyond most of what hits the headlines. If your team is challenged with complex, problem solving opportunities, consider leveraging your differences by instilling a “learning and effectiveness” focus that creates a context in which people’s underlying identities and outlooks are valued. This could result in high performance and better team results.