Too much diversity makes agreeing easier than disagreeing

Opinion: a wide cross-section brings with it the danger of groupthink

“A few years ago a psychological science journal published research that concluded there was nothing great about diverse teams per se. They were good if you wanted to do something creative or innovative. But if you wanted to slog on with business as usual then homogenous teams did the job better.” Photograph: Getty Images

“A few years ago a psychological science journal published research that concluded there was nothing great about diverse teams per se. They were good if you wanted to do something creative or innovative. But if you wanted to slog on with business as usual then homogenous teams did the job better.” Photograph: Getty Images

Mon, Jun 23, 2014, 01:00

Not long ago I sat in on a meeting of senior people at a large, well-known company. There were 12 around the table: two Brits, an American, a South African, two Germans, a Frenchman, an Italian, an Argentine and three further people whose accents I couldn’t quite place.

All were successful, and all presumably bright or else they would not have survived in a company that does not employ slouches. All spoke goodish English and were debating a subject vital to their business.

Yet this was the most dreary, pedestrian and jargon-bound business discussion I think I’ve ever witnessed.

I can think of various reasons it was so dire. For a start, they were discussing “talent”, a subject on which it is easy to talk utter tosh. And the presence of a journalist, notebook on lap, wasn’t exactly an invitation to let their hair down.

Yet I suspect the main problem was something more worrying. The group was simply too diverse.

Diversity is supposed to be a great thing. This company does business all over the world, and so it is quite right that the top team reflects this. A third of the group was female, which is pleasingly more than the feeble norm, while even the age range – the youngest person looked barely 30 and the oldest at least 60 – was wider than usual. On the face of it this sounds like the perfect modern, global executive team.

Yet the meeting showed something else. Difference can slow things down. It can make everything bland. Instead of leading to smarter decisions, it can lead to no decisions at all.

The 12 had only one thing in common: they worked for the same organisation, and so clung like limpets to their narrow corporate way of talking. Instead of their differences making the discussion more interesting, they reduced it to the lowest common denominator of tedious corporate globish.

A few years ago a psychological science journal published research that concluded there was nothing great about diverse teams per se. They were good if you wanted to do something creative or innovative. But if you wanted to slog on with business as usual then homogenous teams did the job better.

Creative

I wonder if this is quite right. My experience suggests it may be the other way round. If you want your team to do something fairly routine, having a lot of diverse people is fine, as what they need to do is well defined. But if you want them to do something creative it is surely much better to have people who communicate well enough so that no effort is lost trying to work out whether when the English man says “that’s interesting” what he really means is “that’s boring”.

When I joined the Financial Times in the mid-1980s it was one of the least diverse organisations imaginable. Almost everyone senior was male and white and was not only from Oxbridge, but from the same Oxford college – Balliol. From such narrowness groupthink was bound to follow. Only it didn’t. They had incendiary disagreements on the issues of the day.

My colleagues might have come from the same educational tribe but they were also originals who were devoted to seeing things in their own way. Because of what they shared no time was lost explaining the basics: their arguments went back and forth, fast and furious.

Since then the world has moved on and the paper has moved on with it – but only up to a point. I suspect we are still rather less diverse than our readers, which, far from being a problem, strikes me as an advantage. Arguments still fizz because there is enough shared ground for them to do so.

I’m not saying that diversity doesn’t matter. I’ve spent seven years on a company board and know it is vital for all sorts of other reasons. But if what one really wants is to improve the quality of decisions and avoid groupthink, the best way of doing that is not to go out shopping for people of assorted nationalities and genders. Too much diversity means that agreeing becomes a lot easier than disagreeing.

Optimists and pessimists

Instead, to get better decisions what is needed is diversity of a different sort. Every creative team or corporate board should set out to have a mix of optimists and pessimists – some people who see the advantages of every new scheme and others who see the disadvantages.

But the two sides need to have just enough in common to be able to thrash out the differences between them. The Financial Times Limited 2014

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