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by Bill Snyder

The addition of outsiders may heighten a group’s performance.

Newcomers who bring a divergent point of view to the workplace may significantly enhance group performance, according to research by Margaret Neale.

There is, however, a tradeoff. Oldtimers who ally with dissenting outsiders do so at their social peril. “Allies of newcomers may experience [social] distress, but when it comes to mastering the task, the pain is worth the gain,” says Neale, the John G. McCoy-Banc One Corporation Professor of Organizations and Dispute Resolution and director of three executive education programs in negotiation and teamwork. Because of the stress, allies who side with the outsiders tend to focus more clearly on the task, back up their arguments more carefully, and generally work a little harder. As a result, they perform more successfully and are more likely to reach the correct conclusion.

In a sense, the work by Neale and colleagues Katie Liljenquist and Katherine W. Phillips of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University is an argument for diversity of opinion in the workplace.

Adding new people or shifting different staffers to an existing workplace team poses difficult choices for managers. Who will fit in the best? Who will improve the chemistry that makes a team excel? A good deal of research has explored these problems. Reactions to newcomers often depend on the way they differ from existing group members. Oldtimers look to see if newcomers agree or disagree with their opinions, and whether they share social similarities. Neale and her colleagues set out to study the impact of outsiders on performance by studying 242 active members of four sororities and fraternities at Northwestern.

Banners emblazoned with the name of the sorority or fraternity hung in the test rooms where participants, wearing nametags that included their sorority or fraternity name, sat with their “brothers” or “sisters.”

Working alone, each participant had 20 minutes to decide who was the killer in a fictional murder mystery. After telling the researchers “who done it,” participants were divided into three-person groups composed of members from a single fraternity or sorority and told they would be given another 20 minutes to compare notes and agree on a suspect.

After five minutes, a fourth person joined the “oldtimers.” The newcomers were placed in groups containing one or more “opinion allies” who agreed with them.

Here’s what the researchers learned:

Oldtimers who tended to ally with newcomers from their fraternity or sorority became more entrenched in their views and overconfident in the correctness of their opinions about the murder. They even inflated the importance of their contribution to the group’s ultimate decision.

Oldtimers who allied with out-group newcomers felt insecure; the alliance threatened their social ties. Because they felt threatened, those oldtimers were motivated to reconcile the differing opinions on the team. Simply put, they were more focused and more accurate than oldtimers who allied with in-group newcomers.

“Although agreeing with an out-group newcomer may be socially painful, the task-focus induced by the alliance ultimately yields greater accuracy, not just for the allies, but for all group members,” the researchers concluded.

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Also on Stanford Knowledgebase:

  1. Newcomers May Enhance Group Performance
  2. Diversity
  3. Diversity and Work Group Performance

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