How Diverse Should Your Team Be?
Skip to content
Leadership Feb 2, 2015

How Diverse Should Your Team Be?

NBA data point to a sweet spot in bal­anc­ing diver­si­ty and sim­i­lar­i­ty of skills.

Yevgenia Nayberg

Based on the research of

Edward (Ned) Smith

Yuan Hou

From busi­ness to acad­e­mia to sports, how to build effec­tive teams is a cru­cial ques­tion. What orga­niz­ing prin­ci­ples best enhance indi­vid­u­als’ per­for­mance and are most con­ducive to creativity?

One pop­u­lar the­o­ry holds that diver­si­ty is key. Assem­ble a het­ero­ge­neous group of peo­ple, and, as Ned Smith puts it, some mag­ic hap­pens because those peo­ple will begin to recom­bine their knowl­edge and skillsets in unique ways.” It’s a nice sto­ry, says Smith, an asso­ciate pro­fes­sor of man­age­ment and orga­ni­za­tions at the Kel­logg School.

The prob­lem, though, is that it is not entire­ly true. Research from a vari­ety of dis­ci­plines shows that teams and orga­ni­za­tions com­posed of diverse peo­ple often per­form poorly.

We had an intu­ition that you want­ed in some way to bal­ance diver­si­ty and similarity.”

There are at least three main rea­sons for this. First, het­ero­gene­ity often erodes over time. The more team mem­bers inter­act, the more alike they become. Then there is the prob­lem of fragili­ty. Teams that tru­ly ben­e­fit from their diver­si­ty are also high­ly depen­dent on each ele­ment of that diver­si­ty. Should one per­son leave, the mag­ic” may leave, too. Final­ly, a lack of com­mon ground can cause frag­men­ta­tion into homoge­nous sub­sets, where sim­i­lar peo­ple in the group seek each oth­er out, and con­flicts between team mem­bers can arise. Ulti­mate­ly, the whole group can break down.

So how can orga­ni­za­tions ben­e­fit from diver­si­ty with­out being dragged down by its inher­ent hand­i­caps? We had an intu­ition that you want­ed in some way to bal­ance diver­si­ty and sim­i­lar­i­ty,” Smith says. Too much diver­si­ty can under­mine itself, but too lit­tle diver­si­ty and you’re not like­ly to get any unique view­points. There’s no novelty.”

In his research, which uses data from the Nation­al Bas­ket­ball Asso­ci­a­tion, he demon­strates a solu­tion that gets at this sweet spot between diver­si­ty and similarity.

Add Insight
to your inbox.

We’ll send you one email a week with content you actually want to read, curated by the Insight team.

Get­ting the Right Balance

Smith and Yuan Hou of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Penn­syl­va­nia pro­pose an idea called redun­dant het­ero­gene­ity (RH).

Imag­ine an orga­ni­za­tion made up of two tiers of work­ers — e.g., law-firm part­ners and asso­ciates, attend­ing physi­cians and res­i­dents, top- and mid­dle-lev­el man­age­ment — with three peo­ple each. If the top tier includes peo­ple with skill sets A, B, and C, then redun­dant het­ero­gene­ity would mean the sec­ond tier would include peo­ple with those same three skill sets. That way, the orga­ni­za­tion presents both diver­si­ty with­in a tier and sim­i­lar­i­ty between tiers, thus the term redun­dant heterogeneity

Rebekka Takamizu and Melissa Roadman

Smith and Hou arrived at the idea of RH after study­ing data from the NBA, which pro­vides a com­pelling con­text for under­stand­ing how peo­ple with unique skill sets can work togeth­er effectively.

In many tra­di­tion­al orga­ni­za­tions, the num­ber of dimen­sions on which peo­ple can be dif­fer­ent becomes a bit unwieldy,” Smith says. But in the NBA, every­one is the same gen­der and rough­ly the same age, and many play­ers come from sim­i­lar back­grounds. This meant the researchers could focus their atten­tion on one spe­cif­ic aspect of diver­si­ty: the col­lege con­fer­ence that NBA play­ers were part of before enter­ing the league.

The researchers ana­lyzed NBA data from 1986 through 2008 (exclud­ing the 1998 sea­son cut short by labor nego­ti­a­tions), using play­ers’ col­lege con­fer­ences to con­struct mea­sures of diver­si­ty. The think­ing, cor­rob­o­rat­ed by col­lege coach­es with whom the researchers con­sult­ed, is that dif­fer­ent con­fer­ences — say, the Big Ten ver­sus Pac Ten — have dif­fer­ent styles of play. For exam­ple, the ACC is known for its pres­sure defense and the Big East is known for its physicality.

The authors argue that even if an indi­vid­ual play­er does not adopt the play­ing style asso­ci­at­ed with his con­fer­ence, his expe­ri­ence play­ing in the con­fer­ence allows him to devel­op a knowl­edge base con­sis­tent with that style. The authors con­firmed this effect by ana­lyz­ing the dif­fer­ence between play­ers who spent short­er and longer amounts of time (typ­i­cal­ly one to four years) play­ing col­lege bas­ket­ball before join­ing the NBA.

Smith and Hou found that hav­ing core play­ers with a large amount of diver­si­ty in terms of col­lege con­fer­ences yield­ed pos­i­tive results — but hav­ing too much diver­si­ty among the team as a whole was detrimental.

So where is the sweet spot? Ulti­mate­ly, they arrived at the idea of redun­dant het­ero­gene­ity. Teams are at an advan­tage when both the line­up of core play­ers and of sec­ondary play­ers has the same pro­file of het­ero­gene­ity” — mean­ing each tier has play­ers from dif­fer­ent con­fer­ences, but the same com­bi­na­tion of con­fer­ences are rep­re­sent­ed at both levels.

(To see how redun­dant het­ero­gene­ity might help your favorite teams, check out our inter­ac­tive info­graph­ic here.)

The Impor­tance of Redundancy

In ana­lyz­ing the con­cept fur­ther, Smith and Hou dis­cov­ered that redun­dant het­ero­gene­ity solved all three of the main prob­lems that too much diver­si­ty can cre­ate. First, they found that while diverse teams can fall apart if an impor­tant play­er leaves, those with redun­dan­cy fared much bet­ter. This holds true even if those two play­ers — the depart­ing top-tier play­er and the sec­ond-tier one from the same col­lege con­fer­ence — play dif­fer­ent positions.

Next, they dis­cov­ered that teams with the redun­dant struc­ture avoid the prob­lem of diver­si­ty erod­ing over time. The pos­i­tive effect of diver­si­ty among core play­ers tends to erode after about four and a half sea­sons togeth­er — except in the teams that have RH. With­out redun­dan­cy, peo­ple can for­get or begin to not think about their own unique skills and focus on things they have in com­mon,” Smith explains. With RH, we think when teams have redun­dant per­son­nel, it allows peo­ple to remem­ber and pre­serve their uniqueness.”

Final­ly, they found that teams with redun­dant het­ero­gene­ity played bet­ter togeth­er — that this struc­ture pre­served rather than under­mined team cohe­sion. The researchers were able to iden­ti­fy an opti­mal team com­po­si­tion that com­bined diver­si­ty at the top lev­el with redun­dan­cy between lev­els. This led to a 10.7 per­cent increase in the num­ber of games won dur­ing a sea­son — or 4.4 addi­tion­al wins for the aver­age team. In a sport where one game can lead to a team advanc­ing to the play­offs, with a chance to com­pete for the cham­pi­onship,” they wrote, these team-com­po­si­tion effects are sig­nif­i­cant, sta­tis­ti­cal­ly and practically.”

The research has impli­ca­tions beyond just sports. By build­ing teams and work groups accord­ing to the prin­ci­ples of redun­dant het­ero­gene­ity, all sorts of busi­ness­es and orga­ni­za­tions might be able to reap the ben­e­fits of diver­si­ty with­out suf­fer­ing from its poten­tial neg­a­tive impacts. In the mean­time, though, at least one NBA gen­er­al man­ag­er is inter­est­ed in meet­ing with Smith.

Featured Faculty

Edward (Ned) Smith

Associate Professor of Management & Organizations, Associate Professor of Sociology (Weinberg College, courtesy)

About the Writer

Hillary Rosner is a freelance journalist based in Boulder, Colorado.

About the Research

Smith, Edward (Ned), and Yuan Hou. “Redundant Heterogeneity and Group Performance.” Organization Science. In press.

Read the original

Suggested For You

Most Popular

Organizations

How Are Black – White Bira­cial Peo­ple Per­ceived in Terms of Race?

Under­stand­ing the answer — and why black and white Amer­i­cans’ respons­es may dif­fer — is increas­ing­ly impor­tant in a mul­tira­cial society.

Careers

Pod­cast: Our Most Pop­u­lar Advice on Advanc­ing Your Career

Here’s how to con­nect with head­hunters, deliv­er with data, and ensure you don’t plateau professionally.

Most Popular Podcasts

Careers

Pod­cast: Our Most Pop­u­lar Advice on Improv­ing Rela­tion­ships with Colleagues

Cowork­ers can make us crazy. Here’s how to han­dle tough situations.

Social Impact

Pod­cast: How You and Your Com­pa­ny Can Lend Exper­tise to a Non­prof­it in Need

Plus: Four ques­tions to con­sid­er before becom­ing a social-impact entrepreneur.

Careers

Pod­cast: Attract Rock­star Employ­ees — or Devel­op Your Own

Find­ing and nur­tur­ing high per­form­ers isn’t easy, but it pays off.

Marketing

Pod­cast: How Music Can Change Our Mood

A Broad­way song­writer and a mar­ket­ing pro­fes­sor dis­cuss the con­nec­tion between our favorite tunes and how they make us feel.