Sizing up coworkers and colleagues is a normal, fairly automatic, and sometimes unconscious part of working. According to new research from Professor Katherine Phillips, that everyday act — and in particular, whether you view yourself as mostly similar to or mostly different from your colleagues — can have major implications for how well you each prepare for and tackle the work you share.
Phillips’s past research hinted that people might be less worried about getting along with those different from them and more preoccupied with preserving relationships with those most like them. “We started with the idea that diversity impacts individual cognition — before we enter a meeting, we anticipate by asking ourselves, ’Will these other people be like me or will they be different?‘” she explains. Phillips and her co-researchers, Denise Lewin Loyd of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, Cynthia S. Wang of Oklahoma State University, and Robert Lount Jr. of Ohio State University, wanted to understand the mental processes that occur before individuals enter a group environment as a way to explain what happens later when they then sit down to work together. The researchers found that, in fact, when individuals anticipate going in to a homogeneous environment, they don’t process information as deeply or effectively as when they anticipate going into a diverse environment.
Over the course of three experiments, the researchers told participants they were part of a study about group decision making. Participants filled out a survey about their political attitudes, and were told that they would be writing, and that they would then be speaking face-to-face with another participant. All the participants were asked to read a murder mystery and decide who they thought committed the crime, and how confident they were about their solution. Before the face-to-face meeting, each participant learned his or her partner’s political affiliation and opinion about the murder, and was asked to write a statement supporting their own opinion in preparation for the face-to-face meeting. (The researchers made sure that partners’ opinions differed, regardless of political affiliation.)
In the first of these studies, once participants wrote their statements they were told the experiment was over, without actually meeting their partner. Why lead people to anticipate a meeting that would never happen? Because the researchers needed participants to believe — and act — as if they really were about to meet, as they would at work. The researchers assessed participants’ statements to determine pre-meeting elaboration, a measure of how deeply a participant was thinking about the problem at hand: Are they considering multiple perspectives? Are they giving multiple reasons? Are they considering multiple suspects? How much thought goes into preparing for the meeting? The researchers found that both Democrats and Republicans wrote considerably less detailed statements when they anticipated meeting with someone of their own political party than when they anticipated meeting someone of a different party. This finding was striking partially because the murder mystery task had nothing to do with political perspective, so one might not expect political affiliation to matter at all for this situation. This is one of the powers of similarity and difference — it usually matters for good or for bad.
In the second study, prior to the writing exercise the researchers told some participants that having a positive interpersonal relationship with their partner would help smooth interactions and be helpful in solving the murder mystery. They told other participants that concentrating more on the task than on interpersonal relationships was most important for a productive meeting. As the researchers hypothesized, participants who focused more on relationships wrote less detailed and thoughtful statements, while those who focused on the task wrote more detailed and thoughtful statements. This shows that individuals in both diverse and homogeneous settings can be nudged to focus more and less on the task or the relationship. It also confirmed for the researchers that relationship focus explains why similar people weren’t elaborating much.
In the third variation of the study, the pairs really did meet after writing their statements, combining efforts in an attempt to solve the murder mystery. The more the team members had individually elaborated in their essays prior to the meeting — the more evidence they’d laid out — the more likely their team was to solve the crime.
Phillips acknowledges the irony of these findings in a world where so often questions about diversity and diversity training center on the assumption that organizations should foster strong relationships among diverse staff. “But even in a post-study survey people told us they really were more concerned about getting along with the other person when the person was similar to them than when the person was different,” Phillips explains. “Those in a homogeneous group put much less effort into the task at hand in part because they were more interested in avoiding conflict. Diverse environments allowed people to focus on the task instead of their social relationship.”
These insights matter for group outcomes — if people aren’t preparing before they go into a meeting, their ability to be effective is hindered, Phillips points out. And, even when people are in the same social category, they can have different perspectives but — as the researchers found in the study — similar people are not as effective in using their differing knowledge to benefit the team. Phillips’s message for managers: diversity can make your team more effective in its work, both because that diversity brings multiple perspectives but also because individuals in a diverse group are more effective at processing the task at hand.
That also means managers need to attune themselves as much as ever to the workplace culture they create, and in particular the balance they strike between social relationships and focusing on work. “Many organizations just assume that creating wonderful social relationships among staff is a boon,” Phillips says. “But that’s shortsighted. It’s better to consider how much fostering social relationships will help or hurt. What is really the optimal level of connection? Perhaps what is naturally fostered in homogeneous environments is too much — it gets in the way of task focus.”
Race, gender, and political affiliation are among the clearest signals of social category difference. Do other, less historically charged social categories offer a similar opportunity to focus teams on task? “It’s tricky, but I think it’s malleable,” Phillips says. “While people in an organization may look the same, they may not share the same perspectives. Plus, people do vary in their perceptions of how diverse or homogeneous any given group is — which means it is possible to shape how a group perceives itself — diversity welcomes more diversity. That suggests we can try to get the benefits of diversity out of all contexts because there are always some important differences amongst us.”
Listen to Katherine Phillips talk more about this research in this Columbia Ideas at Work podcast.
Katherine Phillips is the Paul Calello Professor of Leadership and Ethics in the Management Division at Columbia Business School.
Read the Research
"Social category diversity promotes pre-meeting elaboration: The role of relationship focus"