Effectiveness of diverse work groups depends upon recognition of individual personalities

Sept. 3, 2003

AUSTIN, Texas—Diversity in work groups can undermine performance unless specific emphasis is placed on individual personality differences, new research shows.

“In theory, diversity should contribute to better performance in groups,” said Dr. William Swann, professor of psychology at The University of Texas at Austin. “When you have a group of diverse people in a group, they will have different viewpoints and experiences they will bring to bear to the task at hand. By having a wide selection of diverse perspectives work group members will be in a better position to generate creative solutions.

“In practice, that doesn’t happen—or at least it doesn’t happen more often than the opposite, which is that diversity actually undermines performance,” he said. “It’s fairly clear that people in diverse groups don’t get along as well as people in non-diverse groups. There’s greater animosity toward each other, there’s more turnover and in general, the personal component of working in a group is weakened. The solution that has been championed is the idea that people should align themselves to the goals of the group and downplay their personal identities. Our argument was that if you are going to give up personal identities, it defeats the purpose of diversity. You can’t benefit from diversity if everyone pretends to be the same.”

Swann and his colleagues observed more than 400 first-year MBA students who were divided into study groups of four to six members each. The groups were required to work together on various class projects throughout their first semester in the program. The groups’ effectiveness was measured through their performance in classes with creative tasks.

“We were interested in looking at the consequences of the natural tendency for people to externalize their personal identities,” Swann said. “Our thought was that if people were to externalize their personal identities, they would feel more comfortable because they would have a sense that other people knew them and understood them, and that sharing their perceptions of themselves would lead to greater group harmony and higher performance.”

The researchers measured people’s perceptions of themselves and of one another within the group at two different points during the semester.

“Over the semester we found a tendency for some people to externalize their self-views—that is, to bring other group members to see them as they see themselves,” Swann said. “Interestingly, we found that this tendency to self-verify was associated with feelings of connectedness to the group and also with productivity. In groups in which you have high levels of self-verification, diversity actually promoted performance and groups in which there are low levels of self-verification, diversity undermined performance. So the amount of self-verification occurring in groups may be what determines whether diversity helps or hurts productivity.”

Swann noted that the practical application of this research indicates that identification of personal identity needs to go beyond basic demographics to be effective.

“It’s not enough for people to know who you are demographically,” he said. “A lot of that is either obvious or just isn’t terribly important. You need to provide people with an opportunity to offer personal information about who they are to other group members. It’s important to provide a structured way for people to do this rather than leaving it to chance.

“What you really need to do is see group members as individuals,” Swann continued. “By recognizing people for who they are, we communicate that we appreciate them as individuals and that may increase their willingness to come forward with creative ideas. If you feel that your fellow group members have an understanding of who you are, it may give you more license to take risks and generate creative ideas that increase workplace productivity.”

For more information contact: Dr. William Swann, 512-471-3859.