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Be ants, not sheep (why diverse teams are more intelligent)

by Pamela Hamilton

When we hear about “diversity in the workplace”, most agree that it’s important to be more inclusive of women, ethnic minorities, disabled or other diverse groups because they are unfairly discriminated against.  However, diversity is not just about doing the right thing – research has proved that the more diverse a team is, the more intelligent their output.

Scientists can measure the combined intelligence of a group of people in a similar fashion to measuring the IQ of a person.  Researchers at MIT have discovered that a team works better together when they behave well, specifically taking it in turn to talk, and listening to and valuing the opinions of others in the group before making a decision together.  What they also found was that the more women in the group, the more intelligent the output. This is often because most women are naturals at taking it in turn to talk and being understanding of the views of others.  Whatever the reason for the results, the findings are clear: a gender balanced team is essential for good decision-making.

In a different study researching how to avoid market crashes, ethnically diverse teams of traders perform significantly better in the financial markets than trading teams made up of people from the same culture (in a study done in the USA and Singapore).  The theory is that if you and your team members are all from the same background or culture you are less likely to scrutinize each others ideas and decisions, leading to “group think” where everyone is agreeable but ideas aren’t challenged enough.  In mixed ethnic teams, perhaps because you don’t assume the same basis of understanding or trust, you are more likely to check your understanding and challenge each other’s ideas until you get to the right ones.

In fact, conflicting viewpoints are very important for group intelligence, as teams are more likely to make successful collective decisions if they do not agree at first and/or have access to two strong leaders with conflicting views.  Research into multi-cultural teams shows that being “too polite” with ideas was likely to leave them bland and less successful. Of course constructive argument is important, so that the conflict is based on the ideas themselves and not a conflict between personalities.

 

When an ant colony needs to move their nest, they send out individual scouts who each investigate a separate area on behalf of the colony.  The scouts then confer and are able to agree the best possible options based on the diverse explorations that each scout has made.  In business we tend to send out the same documents for everyone to read before a meeting, which means that we homogenise people’s views in advance instead of keeping them diverse.  So even if your team are not as diverse as you’d like, encourage them each to bring their individual perspectives into any decision-making session, having done their own investigation beforehand (for example each interviewing someone different, or investigating a different opportunity in advance), therefore representing, at the very least, a diversity of thinking before you start.

If you have a team who are all the same gender or background, consider inviting in guest contributors, such as your customers or people from different industries to give their perspective, or do some market research to make sure you understand the views of a wider group of people beyond your office.

No matter how diverse the team, the “good behaviour” rules still apply.  Make sure that every team member commits to taking it in turn to speak, and genuinely listens to and understands each other’s viewpoints.  Always think ants not sheep – encourage your team to be different and diverse, it will make your team more intelligent when they work together.

Pam Hamilton is author of The Workshop Book. Please email [email protected] if you would like to attend and for further details about Pam and her work, or visit paraffin.ltd.