Demographics, socioeconomic factors are one key. Viewpoints are another.
What makes an organization truly diverse? It’s not just what can be observed at the visible level, with inclusivity of employees from varied demographics or socioeconomic backgrounds, Maryland Smith’s Subra Tangirala writes in an article that explores his recent research. True diversity also requires a meaningful exchange of divergent perspectives and ideas in the workforce.
In recent research, Tangirala and two co-authors show that teams suffer negative consequences when they fail to encourage and leverage deeper level diversity in the thoughts and opinions of their members.
They find that in organizations where employees routinely speak up with ideas that challenge prevailing viewpoints, teams become better at uncovering and responding to problems and opportunities. On the other hand, in workplaces where employees routinely keep their opinions to themselves, organizations tend to miss out on novel ideas that otherwise might make stuff better.
The research was recently published in the Journal of Applied Psychology.
Encouraging a speak-up culture
In their study, the researchers note that although leaders can create opportunities for employees to speak up, not all employees are likely to snap up those opportunities. “Rather,” Tangirala writes, “one or two individuals in the team can usurp a disproportionate amount of ‘airtime’ while others silently stand on the sidelines.”
In fact, an unequal distribution of airtime may prevent the surfacing of diverse viewpoints, which, they write, “are crucial for teams trying to make sense of their complex environment. It can make teams excessively reliant on a subset of employees and become collectively less intelligent.”
Lessons for leaders
It’s not enough to ask team members to speak up, the authors say. Effective leaders must monitor who speaks up and who doesn’t, and make sure that no one’s perspective is stifled.
“When dominant or less reflective members are accounting for most of the voice in the team, leaders might need to redesign communication processes to reduce the role of such individuals,” says Tangirala, the Dean's Professor of Management at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. “They can, for instance, empower employees to call a ‘time-out’ when discussions are excessively pooling around certain individuals.”
But, use judgment, the authors say, because an imbalance in airtime isn’t always a problem. Teams are most likely to suffer when those who hog the microphone do so because of a need for social dominance. But when someone is taking up airtime more reflectively, that can actually be a good thing, and may even help draw out diversity of opinions and perspectives within teams.
“Ensuring that the right champions speak up can ensure that a broader set of diverse ideas are surfaced and teams can take advantage of deep-level diversity in their workforce,” they write.
Read more: “Centralization of member voice in teams: Its effects on expertise utilization and team performance,” by Maryland Smith’s Subra Tangirala, Maryland Smith PhD graduate Elad N. Sherf (now at the University of North Carolina) and the University of South Australia’s Ruchi Sinha, is published in the Journal of Applied Psychology.