Do diverse teams perform better?

A recent study compared the performance of culturally-diverse teams with those that lack diversity – the results might surprise you

Do diverse teams perform better?
Employees who have a multicultural background can play a pivotal role in diverse teams by acting as ‘cultural brokers’, according to a new article published in Organisation Science.

This means their more nuanced understanding of culture can facilitate interactions between individuals across cultural boundaries, within diverse teams.

The business school INSEAD claims cultural diversity in business provides many advantages, allowing organisations and teams to benefit from multiple perspectives, knowledge and ideas.
However, they also say that differing cultural norms and beliefs can also lead to misunderstanding or conflict, standing in the way of effective collaboration.

Using archival data from a global business student competition, Assistant Professor of Organisational Behaviour Sujin Jang analysed data from 2,117 teams over five years.
Participants were from more than 40 countries and they had eight weeks to come up with a business plan proposing the “next big idea” for a company of their choice.

The data showed that within diverse teams, the presence of multicultural members significantly enhanced the teams’ creative performance.

Moreover, multicultural members enhanced the creative performance of the team irrespective of whether they shared the same cultural background with other team members.

‘Cultural outsiders’, who shared no common background with the rest of the team, were just as effective as ‘cultural insiders’, who shared a cultural background with one or more other members, at facilitating greater creativity in their team.

In short, teams with one or more multicultural members, regardless of whether those multiculturals were cultural insiders or outsiders, were found to outperform teams devoid of multicultural individuals.

Assistant Professor Sujin Jang said: “These results show how multiculturals can enable teams to capitalise on the strengths of cultural diversity to generate creative outcomes, while avoiding the pitfalls associated with cross-cultural collaboration.”

A second experimental study was constructed to assess the actual processes involved in cultural brokerage.

In this experiment, 83 teams, comprised of two monoculture members and one multicultural individual – either a cultural insider or outsider – were asked to propose creative ideas for a multicultural wedding involving a special ritual, musical performance and food dish that incorporated elements of two different cultures.

Results showed that cultural insiders and outsiders enact cultural brokerage in different ways. Cultural insiders primarily brokered by integrating ideas from different cultures, directly combining or synthesising ideas from varying perspectives into a novel whole. Meanwhile, cultural outsiders tended to broker by eliciting ideas from different cultures, drawing out cultural information, ideas or knowledge by asking pertinent questions.

Both types of cultural brokerage enhanced creative performance of the team as a whole. In fact, integrating and eliciting jointly explained 28 percent of the variance in team creative performance.

Even though every company has a different cultural context, the research suggests that all firms stand to gain by leveraging the diverse knowledge and perspectives of their increasingly multicultural teams.

Jang added that organisations would do well to think about the conditions they could put in place to facilitate cultural brokerage.

“For example, it may be helpful to give recognition to potential cultural brokers or provide opportunities for them to enact this role, as they are not always the most senior person in their team,” said Jang.

“It is also important to keep in mind that cultural outsiders, multicultural individuals who have no overlap with the cultures of other individuals in a team, can be effective cultural brokers.

“These individuals are often overlooked, because we tend to assume that one needs to have knowledge of the specific cultures represented in a team to engage in cultural brokerage.

“However, the findings of this research highlight the important role that cultural outsiders can play in enhancing team creativity.”  

Related stories:
The danger of unconscious bias in HR decisions and how to overcome it
Inside Intact Group’s gender diversity program
‘Discerning new age workers’ are leading workplace innovation

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