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Group Member Diversity: Costs and Benefits

3 February, 2016 - 16:52

As we have seen, most groups tend to be made up of individuals who are similar to each other. This isn’t particularly surprising because groups frequently come together as a result of common interests, values, and beliefs. Groups also tend to recruit new members who are similar to the current members, in the sense that they have personalities, beliefs, and goals that match those of the existing members (Graves & Powell, 1995).

There are some potential advantages for groups in which the members share personalities, beliefs, and values. Similarity among group members will likely help the group reach consensus on the best approaches to performing a task and may lead it to make decisions more quickly and effectively. Groups whose members are similar in terms of their personality characteristics work better and have less conflict, probably at least in part because the members are able to communicate well and to effectively coordinate their efforts (Bond & Shiu, 1997). In some cases, a group may even ostracize or expel members who are dissimilar, and this is particularly likely when it is important that the group make a decision or finish a task quickly and the dissimilarity prevents achieving these goals (Kruglanski & Webster, 1991).

Although similarity among group members may be useful in some cases, groups that are characterized by diversity among members—for instance, in terms of personalities, experiences, and abilities—might have some potential advantages (Crisp & Turner, 2011; Jackson & Joshi, 2011; van Knippenberg & Schippers, 2007). For one, assuming that people are willing to express them, diverse interests, opinions, and goals among the group members may reduce tendencies toward conformity and groupthink. Diverse groups may also be able to take advantage of the wider range of resources, ideas, and viewpoints that diversity provides, perhaps by increasing discussion of the issues and therefore improving creative thinking. Bantel and Jackson (1989) appraised the diversity of top management teams in 199 banks and found that the greater the diversity of the team in terms of age, education, and length of time on the team, the greater the number of administrative innovations. Diversity has also been found to increase positive attitudes among the group members and may increase group performance and creativity (Gurin, Peng, Lopez, & Nagda, 1999; McLeod, Lobel, & Cox, 1996; Nemeth, Brown, & Rogers, 2001).

Thinking about our chapter case study of gender diversity in corporate board performance and decision making, men and women can often bring different perspectives to the group, and this diversity may help group performance. In a meta-analysis of gender diversity, Wendy Wood (1987) found that there was some evidence that groups composed of both men and women tended to outperform same-sex groups (either all males or all females) at least in part because they brought different, complementary skills to the group. However, she also found that groups made up only of men performed well on tasks that involved task-oriented activities, whereas groups of women did better on tasks that involved social interaction. Thus, and again supporting the importance of the person-by-situation interaction, the congruency of members and tasks seems more important than either member characteristics or group characteristics alone.

However, although gender and ethnic diversity may have at least some benefits for groups, there are also some potential costs to diversity. Tsui, Egan, and O’Reilly (1992) found that highly diverse groups had lower cohesion and lower social identity in comparison with groups that were more homogeneous. Furthermore, if there are differences in perceived status between the members of the different ethnic or gender groups, members of the group with lower perceived status may feel that they are being treated unfairly, particularly if they feel that they do not have equal opportunities for advancement, and this may produce intergroup conflict. Problems may also result if the number of individuals from one group is particularly small. When there are only a few (perhaps viewed by majority members as token) members of one group, these individuals may be seen and treated stereotypically by the members of the larger group (Kanter, 1977).

Extreme levels of diversity can also be problematic for group process. One difficulty is that it may be harder for diverse groups to get past the formation stage and begin to work on the task, and once they get started, it may take more time for them to make a decision. More diverse groups may also show more turnover over time (Wagner, Pfeffer, & O’Reilly, 1984), and group diversity may produce increased conflict within the group (Kim, 1988).

In sum, group diversity may produce either process losses or process gains, but it is difficult to predict which will occur in any given group. Nevertheless, depending on the type and extent of the diversities in a group, the nature of the task, and on the skills of the group leaders and group members to embrace diversity as a strength, it can often promote greater tolerance and result in a range of positive performance and decision making outcomes (Crisp & Turner, 2011; Nishii & Mayer, 2009).

Key Takeaways

  • A variety of approaches may be taken to help groups avoid group process losses and to increase the likelihood of process gains.
  • It is important to help group members avoid the illusion of group effectivity and to monitor group performance.
  • Providing rewards for performance may increase the effort of the individual group members, but if the rewards are not perceived as equitable, they may also lead to upward social comparison and a reduction in effort by other members.
  • People will work harder in groups when they feel that they are contributing to the group and that their work is visible to and valued by the other group members. This is particularly likely in smaller groups.
  • Adequate information sharing is more likely when the group has plenty of time to make its decision and is not rushed in doing so. The group leader is extremely important in fostering norms of open discussion.
  • Groups that set specific, difficult, and yet attainable goals have been found to be more effective than groups that are given goals that are not very clear.
  • Group diversity may produce either process losses or process gains, but it is difficult to predict which will occur in any given group.

Exercises and Critical Thinking

  1. Analyze each of the following in terms of the principles discussed in this chapter.
  2. In 1986, the scientists at NASA launched the space shuttle Challenger in weather that was too cold, which led to an explosion on liftoff and the death of the seven astronauts aboard. Although the scientists had debated whether or not to launch the shuttle, analyses of the decision-making process in this case found that rather than obtaining unbiased information from all the relevant individuals, many of those in the know were pressured to give a yes response for the launch. Furthermore, the decision to launch was made as the result of a yes vote from only four of the responsible decision-makers, while the opinions of the others were ignored. In January 2003, a very similar event occurred when the space shuttle Columbia burned and crashed on re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere. Analysis of the decision making leading to this decision suggests that the NASA team members again acted in isolation, again without fully considering the knowledge and opinions of all the team members, and again with disastrous consequences.
  3. John, Sarah, Billy, and Warren were assigned to work on a group project for their psychology class. However, they never really made much progress on it. It seemed as if each of them was waiting for the other person to call a meeting. They finally met a couple of days before the paper was due, but nobody seemed to do much work on it. In the end, they didn’t get a very good grade. They realized that they might have done better if they had each worked alone on the project.
  4. Think of a time when you were working on a group project that did not seem to be going very well. Based on the research covered in this section, what techniques might you use to motivate the group to do better?
  5. Consider a time when you experienced a process gain in a group. To what extent do you think that the gain was real, versus an illusion of group effectivity and why?
  6. What advantages and challenges have you noticed when working in diverse groups? Based on the research outlined in this section, why do you think that some groups are better able to harness the benefits of diversity and to achieve higher performance?


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