Look at your team. Are there 1 or 2 people on there who you think of as the superstars? Do these individuals tend to outperform the rest and generate most of the innovation in the group? Do they and everyone else have a sense of their place in the pecking order? What does that mean for the allocation of resources, power and praise, the sharing of information, ideas and credit, or for the dynamics of competition and cooperation on the team?
Consider this thought experiment: you pull together random groups of people to solve tough business problems--different mental capacities, skill sets, academic and social backgrounds, genders, etc. Some do better than others. Which groups do you think perform the best?
The answer, according to research cited by TED speaker Margaret Heffernan, will likely surprise you: the top performing groups were not those with the highest IQs, the individuals most likely to be the hyper-capable superstars in their own organizations. In fact, those teams characterized by both diversity and equality, as well as by the kind of social cohesion that transcends individual competitiveness, vastly outperformed the teams composed of the best and brightest.
What’s going on here? First, Heffernan notes that when we give all the power, airtime and attention to the superstars, we end up suppressing the output of the less-valued members while reinforcing an environment of aggression and dysfunction at the top. When our high potentials think they’re competing in a zero-sum game, they are less likely to work well together and more likely to devalue others’ contributions and see them as a threat.
More important, however, is the flip side: high levels of connectedness, trust and empathy produce teams whose collective excellence rises exponentially above the sum of their individual capabilities. Why? To start with, these socially-cohesive groups demonstrate a freer flow of ideas, more willingness to listen, greater sensitivity to the minds behind the words and the thoughts unspoken but implied, and a better capacity to build on each other’s suggestions—they say “yes, and…” more than “yes, but…” Conflict exists, too, as does risk-taking - members will challenge the groupthink because they aren’t personally afraid of being torn down; as Heffernan puts it “conflict is frequent because candor is safe”.
Moreover, when all members are valued equally, everyone also shares the responsibility to solve the problem, accomplish the task, contribute to the discussion. Freeloading is discouraged, as is the tendency to quietly take a backseat because you know the louder voices will dominate anyway. Many minds generate more and better solutions, just as “many hands make light work”, as the old proverb states.
Which brings us to diversity: the research Heffernan references looks at gender diversity and demonstrates clearly that teams with more women outperform the male dominated. But there is ample evidence that, beyond gender, social, cognitive and other forms of diversity in our organizations and teams lead to higher productivity - as well as smarter decisions, more innovation and better quality of work overall.
Diversity of perspective plays a role, but it’s not the full story. When groups are diverse AND have strong cohesion and equity among the members, individuals actually do a better job preparing their arguments and anticipating objectives. Consider: if you know that people you respect are going to challenge you because they think differently and have different background experiences, you will work harder to make sure your ideas are strong and will stand up to scrutiny. You won’t expect a room of yes-women and yes-men to let mediocrity slide by and you’ll be prepared for more intense and fruitful discussions to reach consensus.
So, time to look at your own team again.
Can you increase social cohesion? Productive teams need to get close and stay close. There needs to be time to get to know each other and understand each other, so everyone knows who to turn to when in need of support or a new way of looking at a problem. Time to communicate, discuss work challenges and even personal circumstances will help build the trust and connectedness that, over the long run, leads to high productivity. Take care that short term urgency—which may encourage everyone to stay isolated and only focus on their next deadline—doesn’t undercut your team’s long-term performance.
Can you foster more equity? Is everyone equally valued within their role, and do they feel that value? Are you allocating the resources everyone needs to be successful, or are there designated “superstars” who get more than their fair share? Who gets the credit and recognition when success is achieved? Whether or not you’re a leader in your organization, you have the ability to distribute praise and shout-outs to recognize colleagues and help reinforce the notion that everyone plays an important role in ensuring the organization meets its goals.
Finally, what can you do to increase your team’s diversity? Of course, diversity is largely a function of hiring and promotion decisions, which you may or may not be involved in. But diversity of voice and perspective in a team is also a function of inclusion—just having diverse individuals in the group doesn’t automatically lead to better collaboration, innovation and decision-making.
This takes us back to social cohesion and equity. Make sure everyone feels welcome and invited to contribute and ensure all voices have a chance to get heard—this could mean looking at who you are talking to on a daily or weekly basis, or who you are inviting to be part of the meeting or the project team. Whatever your sphere of influence, you can reach out to a wider range of team members, build trust and social connections with them.
Social cohesion, equity and diversity produce better, more productive teams for a final, simple reason—helpfulness. As Heffernan explains, “helpfulness sounds really anemic, but it's absolutely core to successful teams, and it routinely outperforms individual intelligence. Helpfulness means I don't have to know everything, I just have to work among people who are good at getting and giving help.” In short, we do more, better work when we do a good job at working together rather than going it alone.