Team-working benefits from an outsider on the inside

Apr 06 2009 by Nic Paton Print This Article

It might be uncomfortable, but deliberately shaking up a team by installing an outsider with a completely different take on the decision-making process can lead to improved results and better team-working.

Taking a team out of its comfort zone by introducing someone who is socially distinct will, in all likelihood, increase group discomfort, but it can also lead to better decision making and, ultimately, team performance, research by academics from Brigham Young University in Utah has concluded.

In the study, which has been published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, researchers conducted a traditional group problem-solving experiment.

But they added a twist in that a newcomer was added to each group about five minutes into their deliberations.

And when the newcomer was a social outsider, teams were more likely to solve the problem successfully, the researchers found.

"One of the most-cited benefits of diversity is the infusion of new ideas and perspectives," said study co-author Katie Liljenquist, assistant professor of organizational leadership at BYU's Marriott School of Management.

"And while that very often is true, we found the mere presence of a newcomer who is socially distinct can really shake up the group dynamic. That leads to discomfort, but also to a better process that ultimately yields superior outcomes," she added.

While the newcomers did not necessarily ask tougher questions, possess novel information or even have a conflicting point of view, just being there was enough to change the dynamic among the "old-timers" who shared a common identity, she argued.

When a member of the group discovered they agreed with the outsider, they felt alienated from their fellows, and consequently were more motivated to explain their point of view based on its merits, so their peers would not lump them in with the outsider.

What's more, a person who found themselves disagreeing with the "in-group", and instead agreeing with the outsider, tended to feel very uncomfortable.

An opinion alliance with an outsider put their social ties with other team members at risk.

"Socially, that can be very threatening," conceded Liljenquist. "These folks are driven to say, 'Wait, the fact that I disagree with this outsider doesn't make me weird. Something more is going on here; let's figure out what's at the root of our disagreement.' The group then tends to analyse differing opinions and critical information much more thoroughly, and that facilitates much better decision-making results," she argued.

Intriguingly, when the newcomer was from the same sorority or fraternity as the other team members, the group reported better team-working but was less likely to correctly solve the problem.

By contrast, when the newcomer was a member of a rival sorority or fraternity, the opposite was true – those groups felt they worked together less effectively, yet they significantly outperformed more socially homogenous groups.

"What's really distinct about this research is that, from a self-reporting perspective, what people perceive to be beneficial turns out to be dead wrong," Liljenquist said.

"The teams that felt they worked least effectively together were ironically the top performers!" she added.

Good examples of these types of "social distinctions" in a workplace setting could include having one employee from accounting within a team where everyone else was from sales, she suggested.

Similarly, you could have a situation where an employee of a company that had just been bought out found themselves on a team of people from the acquiring firm.

Or it might be the case that an out-of-stater finding themselves on a team full of natives of the company's home state.

Critically, to help employees in those situations cope, managers needed to be wise to the issue and challenges such dynamics can bring to effective team-working.

The key was simply to explain that such conflict could actually generate better results, suggested Liljenquist.

"Without that information people just assume, 'This is really uncomfortable. My team obviously must not be working effectively,'" she added.

"The experience in diverse teams may not always be a feel-good session, but if employees know that from the outset, they can better deal with inevitable conflicts and recognise the potential benefits – that the affective pains can translate to real performance gains," she added.

"Reaping the benefits of diverse workgroups doesn't necessarily require that newcomers bring unique perspectives or expertise to the table," she continued.

Shaking teams out of their comfort zone ultimately not only changed the ways teams worked and the whole team-working dynamic but also created a profoundly different decision-making dynamic, she argued.

"Simply having people around us who differ on some dimension – whether it is functional background, education, race or even a different fraternity – drives a very different decision-making process at a group level because of the social and emotional conflict we experience in their presence," Liljenquist concluded.

And, as teams become more global and culturally diverse, the chances are that managers will increasingly be faced with the challenge of getting the best from teams where at least one person is nominally an "outsider".

Research from UK think-tank Career Innovation last week, for example, argued that managers of the future were going to be managing cross-cultural, disparate and multi-lingual teams across wide geographical boundaries and timezones, yet few management teams were prepared for this or fully understood the team-working challenges this new reality was likely to bring.