Organizational Behaviour

Diversity: Good and Bad

Getting ready to teach the teams and groups classes in my organizational behaviour course, I started to think about diversity and how it affects teams.

Students today are growing up with more diversity than ever in history. They are surrounded by people who are not like themselves: race, nationality, language, religion, gender.  Walk into my classroom and you will see everyone in that room.  And yet a recent study from the American Association of Colleges and Universities showed that 71% of employers want institutions to put more emphasis on is the ability to work in diverse teams.  In general, the research shows teams to be no better than individuals in terms of task efficiency and effectiveness.

So why bother with teams at all? Diverse teams appear to be better at creative problem solving and dealing with complex issues. (Guzzo, Dickinson, 1996, Annual Review of Psychology).

Why are we struggling so much with teams?  The answer may lie in the term “diversity”.  Researchers suggest that there are two types of diversity.  Surface diversity and deep diversity.  Surface diversity is that which you can see, things like race, gender or age. Typically the effects of this type of diversity wear off pretty quickly and allow a team to move through the forming and storming stages of group development effectively.  Deep diversity, however, occurs when individuals value work differently or have different attitudes about how to accomplish group goals. Too much deep diversity can badly damage group cohesiveness. (Harrison, Price and Bell, 1998, Academy of Management Journal).  I suspect that decreasing empathy among the millenial generation may be partly responsible for increasing “deep diversity”.  Afterall, if it is hard to “walk in another’s shoes”, it might be hard to collaborate, building on some else’s ideas.

Understanding the different types of diversity can help a team leader more effectively work through the first three stages of team development (forming, storming and norming).  By acknowledging issues of deep diversity early on, a team leader can manage these differences.  Often, team members bury their disagreements about project approaches in order to create group cohesiveness.  However, these disagreements linger on disrupting team efforts. By working through the conflict openly, early on, during the storming phase of team development, teams can more efficiently move to norming and performing.

As leaders, we are often tempted to ignore dissent, in order to more quickly and smoothly begin execution.  It’s easier and less painful to avoid the conflict. Don’t. Ignore. Dissent.  Take the time to come to consensus. You will be rewarded with better outcomes.


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