Diversity offers an informational resource to any group, each perspective bringing something different to the table. Yet this isn't always fully leveraged. And diversity can also disrupt team performance, due to the easier formation of in- and out-groups, where people trust information when it comes from those similar to them, and are slower to share information with those who are different. A new study suggests that one factor that can tip the balance from benefit to harm is how team members prioritise different goals. By prizing learning and acquiring new information, and avoiding focus on the risks of failure, teams can reap the benefits of diversity.
Researchers Anne Neederveen Pieterse, Daan van Knippenberg, and Dirk van Dierendonck of Erasmus University conducted two studies, of which I'll describe the second, being larger and more comprehensive. The participants were 109 teams of business school students. Each 4-person team spent three weeks on assignments relating to the running of a fictional company, but beforehand participants completed surveys allowing each team to be characterised by its degree of cultural diversity - all-Dutch homogeneity, or containing members from other backgrounds such as Indonesian - and mean levels of different 'goal orientation'. The two pertinent measures were learning approach orientation, with high scoring teams caring about opportunities to learn and acquire new information, and performance avoidance orientation, where it is important not to fail or to be seen to fail. Individuals, and hence teams, can score high on both measures. The final measure was team performance, as graded by tutors blind to the study intent.
As predicted, diversity affected team performance in different ways depending on learning approach orientation. When it was high, diverse teams did better, but when it was low, homogenous teams performed more strongly. A reverse pattern was found for performance avoidance: when the team held this goal orientation, diversity counted against them. There are a few reasons why these findings make sense.
A strong learning orientation involves seeking an in-depth understanding of things, which encourages the seeking of viewpoints even - especially - when different to our own. Meanwhile, strong performance avoidance orientation is associated with sticking to tried and tested approaches, so the soliciting of novel viewpoints may be seen as impediments that only introduce risk into the process. Additionally, performance avoiders tend to see others in terms of categories, more likely to see people as static and unchanging, and more concerned with perceptions of their competence, all of which can rack up the negative weight of diversity. Learning approachers tend to discard broad categorisation as too simplistic to describe reality, and seeing people as malleable - if you learn, you change - makes them less likely to see people different from them as fundamentally Other.
Analysis of data from a post-study survey confirmed what other studies by this research group have suggested: when diversity does pay off for team performance, it's because members are harnessing that diversity to exchange information and gather a deeper sense of the situation from it.
The authors point out that although goal orientation does have the aspect of a personal trait, it's also a state of mind that people can enter. Organisations can help achieve this through their reward systems or through using feedback to define and shape culture. They also suggest that selection based on goal orientation may be another way to leverage the benefits of diversity. As they conclude 'With today’s increasingly diverse workforce, the ability to manage the double-edged sword of cultural diversity is of ever greater importance to organizations.'
Jackson, S. E., Joshi, A., & Erhardt, N. L. 2003. Recent research on team and organizational diversity: SWOT analysis and implications. Journal of Management, 29: 801– 830.