Team diversity: The art of thinking independently together

Innovation is a key to success in modern organisations – constantly refining and changing products, being ahead of the game and creating the next solution.  In order to meet this demand for innovativeness, organisations have more and more replaced individual job assignments with team structures.  The modern workforce is primarily built on work teams, with organisations relying ever more on these opportunities for synergistic information sharing to guarantee high performance and innovation.   But is the diversity picture as rosy as it seems – is it in fact, as Martin Forbes suggested – an art of thinking independently together?  Or can too much diverse thinking, prevent a group from working effectively together?

In my previous blog on team diversity (Diversity in Teams: Which difference makes the most difference?), I mentioned a study by Neale and Mannix (2005) which found that less overt differences between people including functional background, personality and education, were often more positively related with team performance than the more overt differences such as age, ethnicity and gender.  Interestingly, there is an assertion that personality has a more direct and powerful effect on group processes than other more overt variables (Moynihan & Peterson, 2001).  The aim of this blog is to focus on this non-visible team diversity that exists, arising from individual’s personalities and how beneficial this diversity is for productivity.

So do teams consisting of people with similar personality traits produce more innovative results because their effortless interpersonal functioning paves the way to effective collaboration? Or actually is it the case that, as with the effects of cognitive diversity, innovation in teams benefits from the combination of different people bringing a multitude of different points of view to the table that may originate from their diverse personalities?

In her research into teams, Neale (2006) states that “… the worst kind of group for an organization that wants to be innovative and creative is one in which everyone is alike and gets along too well,” And the key to making nearly any kind of diversity work is managing it well.  “What feels good may not always reflect the performance of the team,” Neale explains. “In fact, teams with a very stable membership deteriorate in performance over time because members become too similar in viewpoint to one another or get stuck in ruts.”

So if team diversity in relation to personality is a positive, how do we go about managing it to ensure the best results?

When we’re thinking about the roles that people occupy in teams, they tend to take on two roles: a functional one and a psychological one.  The functional one is determined by their position, title or skills or the role assigned to them.  The psychological one is an unassigned, informal role that individuals tend to gravitate towards based on their motives, preferences and general personalities.  This is a far less visible form of diversity and as a result often far harder to manage, particularly when individuals gravitate towards the same roles.

In order to function effectively a team requires a range of psychological roles to be undertaken.  A team needs a leader who inspires others and holds team members accountable; it needs a creative input; a practical and realistic mind to test the theories; an implementer and someone who takes charge of managing the emotions of the group.  With these roles fulfilled a team will be able to capitalise on the diversity of view points available and move forwards.

But do individuals always end up taking on the role that is expected of them and how easy is it to end up with a team with all of the necessary roles fulfilled?  Often individuals have fairly explicit personality traits and other team members recognise these and managers assign roles taking these into account.  Yet when placed in a team, individuals do not always play the cards that managers expect them to.  The assigned leader may not actually perform effectively to lead the team if, for example, they feel threatened by the presence of a character with very opposing views.

We’ve all watched The Apprentice and wondered why the quiet and submissive one who seems incapable of contributing in any way to the discussion/task even bothered to apply to the process in the first place.  Yet, a glance at their application video demonstrates a highly confident extravert who describes themselves of being capable of conquering the world?!!  So why the discrepancy?  Team dynamics play a huge part in the characteristics we expose in groups.  The personalities occupying the teams within The Apprentice highlight very clearly what happens when too many individuals try and take on the same role, leaving other roles vacant and tasks uncompleted.  Often previously capable leaders are simply ‘outdone’ by more dominant characters and then find themselves unsure of what role they are supposed to play, having never occupied a different role previously.

Using psychometrics to understand team diversity and dynamics

An excellent way to ensure that the personality diversity within a team delivers the creativity, productivity and innovation that is desired, is to use team psychometrics.  Carrying out psychometrics on a team will highlight an individual’s preferences for team roles, based on the way that they interact with others and approach their work.  Gaining an idea of individual’s most and least preferred roles enables psychologists to profile a whole team’s role preferences, identifying over occupation of roles and gaps that need to be filled.  This can very clearly demonstrate why a team is not performing to expectations or why conflicts may be arising.

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Lakeland Capabilities use the Saville Wave Team Roles model (illustrated above) to help organisations to focus on team role composition, maximise the benefits of team diversity and build high performance teams.  This allows us to identify what roles individuals take on and the composition of occupied roles across the whole team.

The research suggests personality diversity is a key ingredient in fostering creativity within a team, but the effective management of this diversity is vital to ensure that a team has a good balance of roles.  Ensuring that the team has a good spread of key roles and that individuals are not forced to take on their least preferred role is an important consideration.

If you would like further information on building high performance teams please see our Development page for details of our Team Effectiveness workshop.