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By Bill Snyder

STANFORD GRADUATE SCHOOL OF BUSINESS—A recently-published study argues that newcomers who bring a divergent point of view to the workplace may significantly enhance group performance.

There is, however, a tradeoff. Old-timers 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 Margaret A. Neale, the John G. McCoy-Banc One Corporation Professor of Organizations and Dispute Resolution and a co-author of the study. Because of the stress, allies of the outsiders tended to focus more clearly on the task, back up their arguments more carefully, and generally work a little harder. The result was they performed more successfully and were more likely to reach the correct conclusion.

In a sense, the work by Neale and colleagues Katie Liljenquist of Brigham Young University, and Katherine W. Phillips of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University is an argument for diversity in the workplace. But not necessarily the kind of diversity that has been the center of so much debate. “People get confused by the term ‘diversity.’ Diversity of race and gender are imperfect signals of differences of perspective,” says Neale.

Adding new 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. Old-timers 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 University.

To control for gender, men interacted only with other fraternity members; similarly, women only interacted with women. Social identity was highlighted by hanging large banners emblazoned with the name of the sorority or fraternity in the test rooms, making participants sit with their “brothers” or “sisters,” and using nametags that included the name of the sorority or fraternity.

Working alone, each participant had 20 minutes to decide who was the killer in a fictional murder mystery. After making a decision and 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 discussion. The newcomers were placed in groups containing one or more “opinion allies” who agreed with them.

Here’s what the researchers learned:

Old-timers found it more comfortable to ally with newcomers from their fraternity or sorority than with “out-group” newcomers from a different house. The old-timers 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.

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

Or as Neale puts it, “The pain is worth the gain.”

Related Information

The Effects of Categorically Based Expectations on Minority Influence: The Importance of Congruence, K. W. Phillips, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 2003

Forty Years of Diversity Research: A Review, K.Y. Williams and C.A. O’Reilly, in Research in Organizational Behavior, JAI Press, 1998

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Also on Stanford Knowledgebase:

  1. Gains Worth Pains of Diversity
  2. Diversity and Work Group Performance
  3. Diverse Backgrounds and Personalities Can Strengthen Groups

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