By Katrin Prager
Where do the benefits of diverse teams come from and how can those benefits be unlocked? What are the pitfalls to watch out for in constructing a team that is greater than the sum of its parts?
To boost innovation and creativity in teams I suggest we need to develop diversity science, which has 5 elements:
- identifying the right kind of diversity
- avoiding homophily
- avoiding dominance hierarchies
- fostering appropriate leadership
- building and protecting trust.
Let’s unpack each of these elements.
- Identifying the right kind of diversity
Here I build on the work of Matthew Syed (2019) who argues that teams need to be purposefully diverse, as opposed to arbitrarily diverse, in order to be successful. Syed explains that one person can only ever know part of the overall problem space. If people in a group are similar, the parts of the problem space they know overlap. This means they may be collectively blind, both to the core of the problem and to creative solutions.Instead, what is needed are people who are likely to know different parts of the problem space and have different frames of reference; people who have differences in assumptions, divergent thinking and fresh perspectives.I suggest that we need to distinguish demographic diversity (race, gender, class, etc.) and cognitive diversity (differences in thoughts, insights, perspectives, frames of reference, thinking styles, etc.) and to work with both to maximise the benefits of diversity in a team.
- Avoiding homophily
Homophily is the (unconscious) enjoyment of being surrounded by people who think in the same way and share our perspectives. It pulls teams towards homogeneity and is comforting and validating. Working in diverse groups is cognitively demanding because there are different opinions and dissent, whereas working in homogenous groups is agreeable because members ‘mirror’ each other’s views rather than disagreeing. It takes more effort to listen to and follow someone who thinks and talks differently.In their blog post on Embracing tension for energy and creativity in interdisciplinary research, Clarke and Freeth develop this argument further, illustrating not only that higher levels of heterogeneity in an interdisciplinary team bring about higher levels of tension and potential for conflicts, but also that not embracing tensions productively leads to even more tension and restricts ability to address wicked problems.
- Avoiding dominance hierarchies
Dominance hierarchies are engrained in human societies and we are generally not aware of the emotions and behaviours associated with them. Dominance dynamics mean that team members will not speak up, even if they have crucial information, for fear of provoking retaliation from leaders or others in more powerful positions who might feel undermined. Expression of diverse perspectives can be shut down in hierarchies where dissent is perceived by those in dominant positions as a threat to their status.
- Fostering appropriate leadership
Team leadership needs to be empathetic and highly attuned to what others are thinking and saying. Such leaders create a culture of psychological safety where everyone feels safe to offer suggestions and divergent or dissenting viewpoints.
- Building and protecting trust
Trust is necessary for establishing psychological safety and being open to divergent and dissenting voices. It is also required to foster a ‘giving attitude’, ie., being willing to offer one’s insights to others and to feel that they will not be abused or taken advantage of.
Some of these elements intersect with key requirements of effective team science, such as the important role of trust and effective communication. What diversity science adds is an understanding of concepts necessary to pull together purposefully diverse teams and help them collaborate effectively.
Have you experienced the detrimental effects of homophily and dominance hierarchies, or the benefits of sharing different ideas?
I hope this blog post encourages exploration and testing of these ideas, so that we can build the knowledge base for diversity science.
Syed, M. (2019). Rebel Ideas: The Power of Diverse Thinking. John Murray Publishers: London, United Kingdom.
Biography: Katrin Prager PhD is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland, UK. She is involved in inter- and transdisciplinary research on agri-environmental policy making and implementation, collaborative landscape management, and farmer decision making and behaviour. She investigates these topics through the lens of institutional analysis, knowledge management, adaptive capacity and organisational behaviour.