Better Decisions Through Diversity
Skip to content
Organizations Leadership Oct 1, 2010

Better Decisions Through Diversity

Heterogeneity can boost group performance.

Diversity in the workplace, especially diversity in groups, can boost performance.
Based on the research of

Katherine W. Phillips

Katie A. Liljenquist

Margaret A. Neale

Expanding diversity in the workplace is often seen as a good way to inject fresh ideas into an otherwise stagnant environment, and incorporating new perspectives can help members tackle problems from a number of different angles. But only a few have looked into exactly why or how this is so.

New research finds that socially different group members do more than simply introduce new viewpoints or approaches. In the study, diverse groups outperformed more homogeneous groups not because of an influx of new ideas, but because diversity triggered more careful information processing that is absent in homogeneous groups.

The mere presence of diversity in a group creates awkwardness, and the need to diffuse this tension leads to better group problem solving, says Katherine Phillips, an associate professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School of Management. She and her coauthors, Katie A. Liljenquist, an assistant professor at Brigham Young University, and Margaret A. Neale, a professor at Stanford University, demonstrate that while homogenous groups feel more confident in their performance and group interactions, it is the diverse groups that are more successful in completing their tasks.

Diversity in the Workplace Can Produce New Ideas

Though people often feel more comfortable with others like themselves, homogeneity can hamper the exchange of different ideas and stifle the intellectual workout that stems from disagreements. “Generally speaking, people would prefer to spend time with others who agree with them rather than disagree with them,” Phillips explains. But this unbridled affirmation does not always produce the best results. “When you think about diversity, it often comes with more cognitive processing and more exchange of information and more perceptions of conflict,” Phillips says. In diverse settings, people tend to view conversations as a potential source of conflict that can breed negative emotions, and it is these emotions that can blind people to diversity’s upsides: new ideas can emerge, individuals can learn from one another, and they may discover the solution to a problem in the process. “It’s kind of surprising how difficult it is for people to actually see the benefit of the conversations they are having in a diverse setting,” observes Phillips.

“Generally speaking, people would prefer to spend time with others who agree with them rather than disagree with them.”

Phillips says the study is one of the first to look beyond the newcomer’s impact on a group and to focus instead on how the newcomer shifts alliances, thereby enlivening group interaction. “A lot of the research on newcomers has really specifically focused on the effect of newcomers as a source of new information,” Phillips says. “We know though that not all new ideas come from newcomers. Sometimes new ideas are sitting in the group already, just waiting for the right moment to come up.”

In their study, the researchers focus on whether the newcomer to the group agreed or disagreed with established group members, or “oldtimers” as Phillips refers to them. Sometimes a newcomer’s perspective aligned with one held by one or more of the current oldtimers (these agreeing oldtimers were called allies). By identifying allies, Phillips and her colleagues could determine if the benefits of having a newcomer only occurred when they brought in a new idea.

In the experiment, participants from fraternities and sororities were divided into fifty same-gender four-person groups. Each group performed the same task: read a set of interviews conducted by a detective investigating a murder. Participants decided on the most likely suspect individually before entering the groups to discuss his or her decision. In each four-person group, three individuals were always members of the same fraternity or sorority (the oldtimers) and the fourth individual (the newcomer) was either from that same fraternity or sorority (an “in-group”) or from a different one (an “out-group”).

After completing an unrelated task, the oldtimers were brought together and were given twenty minutes to come to a consensus on the most likely murder suspect. Five minutes into the discussion, a newcomer joined the group. Their task remained the same, but now they had to take the newcomer’s views into consideration. After the discussions were finished, each member rated their confidence in the group’s decision on the murder suspect, their feelings on how effective the group discussion went, how each person felt they fit into the group, and who they believed really committed the murder.

The Out-group Advantage

Unsurprisingly, oldtimers felt more comfortable with newcomers who belonged to their sorority or fraternity. But the biggest discovery was the sheer advantage an out-group newcomer gave a group—and this advantage was even more pronounced when the newcomer did not bring in a new idea. Diverse groups with out-group newcomers guessed the correct murder suspect with far greater frequency, while in-group newcomers hindered the groups’ accuracy (Figure 1). And though out-group newcomers increased group accuracy and performance, these groups reported much lower confidence in their decisions.

“When these diverse groups perform well, they don’t recognize their improved performance,” Phillips points out. “When people have visceral feelings and emotions,” she says, “it’s really hard to explain them away as “good” when they are feeling really bad.” Regardless of the outcome, a diverse group’s members will typically feel less confident about their progress largely due to the lack of homogeneity.

Homogeneous groups, on the other hand, were more confident in their decisions, even though they were more often wrong in their conclusions. In non-diverse groups, Phillips says, “often times the disagreements are just squelched so people don’t really talk about the issue. They come out of these groups really confident that everybody agreed when in fact not everybody agreed. There were new ideas and different opinions that never got discussed in the group.”

Phillips believes understanding the relationship between oldtimers who ally themselves with both in-group and out-group newcomers is important, because these relationships allow for disagreements to occur as well as newcomers’ opinions to be heard. “It is important to remember that these group members did not know each other for very long before identifying strongly with the group,” she says.

“When a newcomer comes in, it interrupts the group. It changes the flow of the process and makes people stop and pay attention to the person,” Phillips says. Whether they stop and pay attention to the newcomer is up to the group. But if they do, the pain will probably be worth the gain.

Featured Faculty

Member of the Department of Management & Organizations faculty until 2011

About the Writer
Bunkhuon Chhun is a freelance science and legal writer based in Longmont, Colorado.
About the Research

Phillips, Katherine W., Katie A. Liljenquist and Margaret A. Neale. 2009. Is the pain worth the gain? The advantages and liabilities of agreeing with socially distinct newcomers. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 35: 336-350.

Read the original

Most Popular This Week
  1. How Are Black–White Biracial People Perceived in Terms of Race?
    Understanding the answer—and why black and white Americans may percieve biracial people differently—is increasingly important in a multiracial society.
    How are biracial people perceived in terms of race
  2. Don’t Wait to Be Asked: Lead
    A roadmap for increasing your influence at work.
    An employee leads by jumping from the bleachers and joining the action.
  3. How (Not) to Change Someone’s Mind
    Psychologists have found two persuasion tactics that work. But put them together and the magic is lost.
    A woman on a street talks through a large megaphone.
  4. Which Form of Government Is Best?
    Democracies may not outlast dictatorships, but they adapt better.
    Is democracy the best form of government?
  5. How Autocracies Unravel
    Over time, leaders grow more repressive and cling to yes-men—a cycle that’s playing out today in Putin’s Russia.
    autocrat leaning over battle map surrounded by yes-men.
  6. Knowing Your Boss’s Salary Can Make You Work Harder—or Slack Off
    Your level of motivation depends on whether you have a fair shot at getting promoted yourself.
    person climbin ladder with missing rungs toward rich boss surrounded by money bags on platform
  7. Will AI Eventually Replace Doctors?
    Maybe not entirely. But the doctor–patient relationship is likely to change dramatically.
    doctors offices in small nodules
  8. Sitting Near a High-Performer Can Make You Better at Your Job
    “Spillover” from certain coworkers can boost our productivity—or jeopardize our employment.
    The spillover effect in offices impacts workers in close physical proximity.
  9. It’s Performance Review Time. Which Ranking System Is Best for Your Team?
    A look at the benefits and downsides of two different approaches.
    An employee builds a staircase for his boss.
  10. Why Do Some People Succeed after Failing, While Others Continue to Flounder?
    A new study dispels some of the mystery behind success after failure.
    Scientists build a staircase from paper
  11. Four Strategies for Cultivating Strong Leaders Internally
    A retired brigadier general explains how companies can prioritize talent development.
    Companies should adopt intentional leadership strategies since developing leaders internally is critical to success.
  12. Entrepreneurship Through Acquisition Is Still Entrepreneurship
    ETA is one of the fastest-growing paths to entrepreneurship. Here's how to think about it.
    An entrepreneur strides toward a business for sale.
  13. Take 5: Not So Fast!
    A little patience can lead to better ideas, stronger organizations, and more-ethical conduct at work.
  14. Too Much Cross Talk. Too Little Creativity. How to Fix the Worst Parts of a Virtual Meeting.
    Six tools from an unlikely place—improv comedy—to use on your next Zoom call.
    meeting participants improv
  15. Take 5: How to Be Prepared for Important Career Moments
    Expert advice on getting ready to network, negotiate, or make your case to the CEO.
    How to be prepared
  16. Why Do Long Wars Happen?
    War is a highly inefficient way of dividing contested resources—yet conflicts endure when there are powerful incentives to feign strength.
    long line of soldiers marching single file through a field
  17. 2 Factors Will Determine How Much AI Transforms Our Economy
    They’ll also dictate how workers stand to fare.
    robot waiter serves couple in restaurant
  18. What Went Wrong at AIG?
    Unpacking the insurance giant's collapse during the 2008 financial crisis.
    What went wrong during the AIG financial crisis?
  19. 5 Tips for Growing as a Leader without Burning Yourself Out
    A leadership coach and former CEO on how to take a holistic approach to your career.
    father picking up kids from school
More in Leadership & Careers Leadership