Why You Should Diversify Your Team

To enhance team creativity, you must diversify your team. This is the secret. Teams with diverse background and perspective “outperform teams with homogeneous members on tasks requiring creative problem solving and innovation.”[1] The American Bar Association or ABA supports this idea. “For mundane, repetitive tasks, homogenous teams outperform heterogeneous teams; but for non-repetitive tasks, the kind that require fresh ideas and different points of view, diverse teams are the hands down winners.”[2] In order for such creativity to happen, team leaders and/or organizations must promote contextual influences such as team member interactions[3]. Toby Egan, who authored a juried article entitled “Creativity in the Context of Team Diversity: Team Leader Perspectives,” added that by “developing a deeper appreciation of the interactions between individuals motivated toward creative team processes and creative outcomes, we can better understand teaming, the role of diversity in teamwork, and creativity in general.”[4] Creativity may either be difficult to understand or to foster if there are fewer opportunities for team members to interact, pick on each other’s brains, and to have discussions. Meetings can sometimes be a one-man show or a one-way conversation when meeting participants are not encouraged to share their thoughts. There are different ways for team to interact, such as during brainstorming sessions. Team leaders must also have “sensitivity to the importance of a mixture of individual team characteristics.”[5] Team leaders possessing sensitivity and value to diversity report successes in their leadership experiences[6].

In addition to team member interaction, team members must also be confident in challenging the “majority opinions, forcing members to rethink old beliefs and solve problems more imaginatively.”[7] This is rather uncomfortable to do especially when there are tenured, multi-awarded team members who might intimidate the rest of the team. However, team creativity can really reach greater heights should free flow of ideas are observed and encouraged with the full participation of the entire team[8].

Research also points to this general direction of team interaction. I discovered that creativity in teams can be influenced or affected by the following:

  •  The “Knowledge of Who Knows What” (KWKW). “Shared KWKW allows team members to access and use information and expertise that they do not possess individually by being able to locate it in and solicit it from other team members.”[9] My previous job at the Navy Federal Credit Union implements universal position. A Member Service Representative can expect to learn and execute cross-functions within branch operations, to include teller responsibilities, account servicing, loan processing, ATM balancing, vault operations, and eventually mortgage loan processing. However, team members still have their own expertise. One tenured team member can have a mastery of mortgage loan origination while another team member can troubleshoot ATM issues and problems with ease. This shared KWKW can help the entire team enhance its creativity as everyone can bring in to the table something that could benefit the rest of the team.
  •  Perspective taking. Perspective taking can be defined as a “cognitive process that entails trying to understand or considering another’s viewpoint” or when “an observer tries to understand, in a nonjudgmental way, the thoughts, motives, and/or feelings of a target, as well as why they think and/or feel the way they do.”[10]  Perspective taking is seeing the ideas and concepts through the eyes of the proponent to better understand not only the benefits of a proposal, but also the contextual emotions, passion, or even the intellectual background of the person proposing an idea. By using this technique, teams can “capitalize on their diversity on creative tasks by fostering the sharing, discussion, and integration of diverse viewpoints and information.”[11] One summer camp at Wesley-Rankin Community Center, we chose the theme “Looking through the Eyes of Others” to help the young people have a better understanding of diversity and multiculturalism. The youth from the mostly Hispanic community of West Dallas were not keen on interacting with youth groups from other ethnic backgrounds. Through this program, they had a better understanding and appreciation of diversity through experiential learning and perspective taking from other ethnic or racial backgrounds.
  •  Multicultural experience. Leung, Maddux, Galinsky, and Chiu (2008) discovered in their research that multicultural experience is “positively related to performance in solving a problem that requires insight and to producing creative ideas without being confined to the widely known.”[12] Creativity is enhanced as team members access unconventional knowledge from memory, recruit ideas from foreign cultures, when people adapt to new experiences, and when the creative context does not really seek firm answers or mortality concerns[13]. Many experiences from different cultures can be useful in creative processes. Team members can draw from this soiree of experiences.
  •  Task conflict. J. Farh, Lee, and Farh (2010) suggest that team members should not avoid conflict. Their research has discovered that “moderate levels of task conflict-if occurring at early phases of the project-can yield the highest levels of team creativity.”[14] The “novel ideas generated by task conflict will only translate into creativity when the project team possesses the resources, openness, and time to integrate these ideas.”[15] Team members who engage in passionate arguments or conflicts can bring up the best ideas as long as they observe rules of engagement. Discussions must be surrounding issues and not personalities, with the relationship grounded on mutual trust, and team members committed to a decision and holding everyone to the same performance standards.[16]
  • Transformational leadership as a moderator. Of course, a heavy bulk of the burden can go back to the team leader who must proactively and intentionally establish, promote, and encourage team interaction and creativity. Shin and Zhou (2007) demonstrated in their research that “transformational leadership moderated the relation between educational specialization heterogeneity and team creativity.”[17] While their research was focused on educational specialization heterogeneity as the main diversity variable, Shin and Zhou presented the importance of transformational leadership and how it enables team members to “utilize cognitive resources associated with team heterogeneity.”[18] Team leaders can make this happen and can empower the team to effectively interact and to use all the resources mentioned above to promote and intensify creativity and problem solving.

The benefits of diversity are invaluable. Teams that are diverse in experiences, ethnic backgrounds, education, race, age, gender, expertise, and even passions in life can certainly add value to the group.

[1] Thompson, L. (2011). Making the team: A guide for managers (4th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall. [2] Diversity equals creativity. (1996). ABA Journal, 82, 53. [3] Toby, M. E. (2005). Creativity in the context of team diversity: Team leader perspectives. Advances in Developing Human Resources, 7(2), 207-225. [4] Toby (2005), p. 208. [5] Toby (2005), p. 218. [6] Toby (2005). [7] Pearsall, M. J., Ellis, A. P. J., & Evans, J. M. (2008). Unlocking the effects of gender faultlines on team creativity: Is activation the key? Journal of Applied Psychology, 93(1), 227. doi:10.1037/0021-9010.93.1.225 [8] Pearsall et al. (2008). [9] Richter, A. W., Hirst, G., van Knippenberg, D., & Baer, M. (2012). Creative self-efficacy and individual creativity in team contexts: Cross-level interactions with team informational resources. Journal of Applied Psychology, 97(6), 1284. doi:10.1037/a0029359 [10] Hoever, I. J., van Knippenberg, D., van Ginkel, W. P., & Barkema, H. G. (2012). Fostering team creativity: Perspective taking as key to unlocking diversity’s potential. Journal of Applied Psychology, 97(5), 984. doi:10.1037/a0029159 [11] Hoever et al (2012), p. 984. [12] Leung, A. K., Maddux, W. W., Galinsky, A. D., & Chiu, C. (2008). Multicultural experience enhances creativity: The when and how. American Psychologist, 63(3), 177. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.63.3.169 [13] Leung et al. (2008), p. 177. [14] Farh, J., Lee, C., & Farh, C. I. C. (2010). Task conflict and team creativity: A question of how much and when. Journal of Applied Psychology, 95(6), 1173-1180. doi:10.1037/a0020015 [15] J. Farh et al. (2010), p. 1178. [16] Lencioni, P. (2002). The five dysfunctions of a team: A leadership fable. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. [17] Shin, S. J., & Zhou, J. (2007). When is educational specialization heterogeneity related to creativity in research and development teams? transformational leadership as a moderator. Journal of Applied Psychology, 92(6), 1709-1721. doi:10.1037/0021-9010.92.6.1709 [18] Shin & Zhou (2007), p. 1717.

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