The Smartest Teams Embrace the ‘Diversity Paradox’

Practicing allyship and inclusion can unlock the potential of diverse talent at your organization.

Authored by

NLI Staff

Business leaders can learn a lot about diversity from college kids solving fake murders.

It was 2009. Northwestern University researchers had just given groups of fraternity and sorority members mock murder cases to solve. Suddenly, each group learned they were getting a new member. Half of the groups welcomed someone from within their frat or sorority, an “insider”; the other half got a rival member, an “outsider.”

When the researchers tallied the results, they found the teams that solved the most murders were those with rival members, not people with whom participants already identified. As in, teams with members from rival frats and sororities outperformed those that were all from the same group.

Remarkably, this was despite team members in the diverse condition feeling less positive about their interactions, and less confident in their final conclusion, than the homogenous group.

Why diverse teams are smarter

The business wisdom we can glean from this study is profound, and it holds great importance as teamwork and collaboration become more essential to working life. Let’s call it the “diversity paradox.” It states that diverse teams often make smarter decisions than non-diverse teams, but — crucially — at the expense of having confidence in that decision. The smartest teams embrace this paradox, putting faith in diversity-driven outputs above comfort in consensus.

Diverse teams are smarter teams because they rid the air of groupthink, a term coined in 1971 to describe the possible psychological mechanisms that led to the Bay of Pigs Invasion 10 years prior, an event widely seen as a failure of decision-making. Groupthink, in other words, is what causes groups of “smart” people to go along with “dumb” choices.

As NLI recently presented in “How Diversity Defeats Groupthink,” having a mixture of backgrounds and experiences is critical for organizations to avoid groupthink. And the 2009 Northwestern study puts an even finer point on the matter. It suggests that leaders must set the right expectations  — for themselves and their team members — for how interactions will feel, in order for people to stay motivated when things get tough.

Trust the process, not the feeling

When teams are more diverse, instead of feeling fluent or smooth, they will often feel disjointed and even a little tense. That’s because diverse teams don’t (and can’t) settle into familiar ways of thinking; people’s ideas and assumptions are inherently at odds, even if in small doses. Every decision requires thought and effort, a collection of point-counterpoint moments until what emerges is a fuller, more bulletproof idea.

However, as we’ve found in our research and work with clients, that friction is essential for arriving at the best solutions. When people feel overly comfortable with one another, they may defer to hierarchy, make dangerous assumptions, use illogical thinking, or succumb to pressures of group conformity.

Outsiders, meanwhile, shake things up. They put people on their toes and raise everyone’s level of sensitivity, reducing the chances of what Princeton economist Roland Benabou calls “acting colorblind in a sea of red flags.”

Decision-making may never be perfect — so long as teams are composed of bias-laden and error-prone humans — but embracing the discomfort of diversity yields far greater rewards than playing it safe ever will.

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