Flipping television stations between news programs to get a better understanding of a complex current news story, I noticed the significant differences between each station with respect to the diversity of commentators. The breadth of perspectives points to research that often goes ignored: when a task is cognitively complex or requires multiple perspectives to solve, diversity breeds better results.
According to research done by E. Mannix and M. Neal 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. Interestingly, people more naturally share information they already have in common. Instead, people must hear from others about information they don’t have access to. More granularly, groups get better results when they have the (1) ability and (2) willingness to engage in (3) constructive task-focused conflict to integrate their divergent perspectives. (Note: no need to read “conflict” as equivalent to “argument”.)
I meet leaders who want to integrate diverse perspectives in order to foster a high-performing team. The problem is that once the diverse team is assembled, they lead as if the group is homogeneous or have similar backgrounds. But diversity without effective integration has been shown in research to produce below average results. In sum, leaders of diverse teams don’t produce average results but instead low or high results, depending on how the leader leads that team. Homogeneous teams tend to yield mid-range results.
Now add to the mix a simple, but powerful, leadership insight I’ve learned as a leadership consultant: Leaders must realize their role privilege. This may sound obvious, but it’s the leader’s ability to set the agenda and manage the direction and duration of discussions that is unique to the leader’s role. If leaders know the elements of integration of diverse teams they can be strategic about accelerating teams to be high-performing. How?
The authors of the research point out that leaders can set expectations that promote information exchange, as well. Individuals behave more cooperatively when their business units emphasize group over individual values. 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:
Having a diverse team is not the same as leveraging a diverse team. A skilled leader knows how to use the diversity for a competitive advantage in the marketplace. Leaders can develop a robust skill set and orientation that can help them create a team that outperforms homogeneous teams.