The Superior Intelligence of Diverse Groups

Mark Sagor


SMART-groupsIt was about an hour before I was supposed to “run” my first therapy group. The clients, ranging in age from 20 to 60, were in various stages of recovery from heroin addiction. I was 26 years old, had never run a group by myself, and was suddenly feeling a little panicky about the assignment.

Among them, the group members had hundreds of years of first hand experience about what an addict’s life was like on the streets of Detroit. I had none.

I went to my supervisor and shared my escalating anxiety, secretly hoping that he would relieve me of my assignment.

He didn’t do that.

Instead, he took advantage of that teachable moment, to impart a piece of wisdom I have relied upon (and sometimes, regrettably, forgotten) throughout a long working life filled with thousands of meetings and groups.

He told me to trust that the group could solve its own problems and to give up the erroneous idea that I, as the group leader, was responsible for solving all the complex and unpredictable problems that would inevitably arise in the group.

A penetrating insight.

It’s equally powerful corollary is: the more diverse the group, the higher the probability that it contains the knowledge, experience and creativity to solve its problems.

Diversity has been managed in many businesses primarily as a compliance and social justice issue and undervalued as an essential component of group productivity.

This focus on compliance has obscured the strategic value of diversity: by expanding the available life experience and perspective inventory (i.e. diversity) of an organization you improve the organization’s ability to solve problems.

To fully leverage this problem solving advantage, however, organizations have to manage the feelings of awkwardness and tension that often arise in groups of employees who come from different backgrounds.

Katherine Phillips, an Associate Professor at the Kellogg School of Management, recently published a paper examining how diverse groups manage to perform better:

“While homogeneous groups feel more confident in their performance and group interactions, it is the diverse groups that are more successful in completing their tasks. Although people often feel more comfortable with people like themselves, homogeneity can hamper the exchange of different ideas and stifle the intellectual workout that stems from disagreement.”

Meetings are an ubiquitous feature of organizational life and the place where groups can solve problems, work out conflicts, and coordinate individual efforts.

A skilled meeting leader knows how to dig down and make sure that the diversity of interests, perspectives and opinions in the group gets expressed.

We all know what it feels like to sit in a meeting led by someone who does not trust the group to solve a problem and who is not really interested in (or actively wanting to avoid hearing) what people have to say. Leaders who feel like it is their job to dole out answers and the group’s job to receive them.

If you want a meeting that is energizing and productive, populate it with the most heterogeneous group possible, mine that diversity and don’t be afraid of the ensuing drama.

Your trust in the group’s intelligence will be rewarded.