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Decision-making in Global/Diverse Teams: What People Hear Depends on Who You Are

Posted on February 07, 2014 by: Lisa Koss

In my last post, I wrote about research that found for diverse teams to be successful they must be able to exchange “uniquely possessed information” (Mannix and Neale, “What Differences Make a Difference?  The Promise and Reality of Diverse Teams in Organizations”, 2005).  While this seems simple to do, the topic is fraught with issues such as members’ willingness to share, ability to share, ability to handle conflict, group dynamics, and so on.   Members of diverse teams often end up having private opinions and, if this is the case, how can a team make good decisions without all the information on the table?

The authors go on to say that private opinions and the kind of conversations that ensue depend on who is doing the talking and who is doing the listening: whether the member is in the “majority” or the “minority”.  Which individuals are perceived “majority” or “minority” depends on context.  Minority or majority is used in reference to diversity which was defined as “any attribute that another person may use to detect individual differences.” (Williams and O’Reilly, 1998)  Think about differences in function, seniority, country of origin, gender, corporate/field, etc.

If you sit in a diverse or global team, consider your own experience in light of these findings:

  • It was “consistently shown that individuals exposed to opposing minority views elicit more cognitive effort, attend to more aspects of a situation, think in a divergent way and are more likely to detect novel solutions or come to new decisions.” (Nemeth and Kwan, 1985, 1987; Nemeth & Wachtler, 1983)
  • When a minority individual were seen as an expert, other minority members were less reserved in stating their opinion, and this resulted in livelier debate and divergent thinking.
  • When someone from the majority exerted their influence, the person in the minority interpreted the conflict as interpersonal (or about the relationship). Minority influence typically generated cognitive (or task) conflict.
  • Minority influence was less powerful when it was direct (i.e. face-to-face) than when it was indirect (written, audiotaped, etc.) (Moscovici and Neve, 1971)
  • Majority groups were found to be bent on convergence – they wanted a single outcome or agreement more urgently than minority groups and so were more likely to change their opinions for the sake of agreement when the minority was seen as the expert.
  • Double minorities (for example, a non-majority with regards to gender and national origin) were more easily dismissed and their perspectives were seen as based on self-interest.

Many of the implications of these findings can be taken directly from the list itself.  For example, majority and minority opinion holders can consider these findings and ask why, how and when this is the case for themselves.  Why, for example, would a majority opinion holder be more influenced by a minority opinion holder when they receive it in writing?  Why would a minority opinion holder expect that a disagreement from a majority opinion holder be a personal affront?  Exploring your assumptions and biases by thinking through the implications of these findings for yourself and your team can be a useful way to move beyond our very human tendencies to operate on auto-pilot.

Quality decisions, then, requires that we watch our own patterns when in a group.  Leaders may consider that their support may be the most critical element if a minority opinion holder is to be heard.   Setting a norm of openness and learning, listening and inquiring can help.  Minority opinion holders who are considered experts may benefit from being consistent, in which case they can be seen as especially influential.

The leadership literature and our own consulting experience indicate that the abilities to be open to differing views and to navigate conflict are among the top attributes of successful leaders.  How can you stay aware of majority and minority dynamics in the moment and recognize that you are deciding who you hear?

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