Diversity comes in different forms—at the visible level, it involves inclusivity of employees from varied demographic or socio-economic backgrounds within the organization; at a deeper level, it reflects presence of divergent perspectives and ideas in the workforce. Although discussions of diversity often focus on the former, both forms are critical.
In a recent study, published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, we show that teams suffer negative consequences when they fail to encourage and leverage deeper-level diversity in the thoughts and opinions of their members.
In general, when employees speak up with ideas that challenge predominant viewpoints at the workplace, their teams become better at detecting and responding to problems and opportunities. Yet, employees often do not speak up. When employees keep their opinions to themselves, organizations miss out on novel ideas that can lead to improved performance. As a result, leaders are often counseled to encourage participation of their team members.
In our study, we note that although leaders can create opportunities for employees to speak up, not all employees equally utilize those opportunities. Rather, one or two individuals in the team can usurp a disproportionate amount of “air time” while others silently stand on the sidelines. The results of our study suggests that such unequal distribution of airtime can prevent the surfacing of diverse viewpoints, which are crucial for teams trying to make sense of their complex environment. It can make teams excessively reliant on a sub-set of employees and become collectively less intelligent.
However, we found that teams in which employees had unequal speaking times suffered especially adverse outcomes when the employees who spoke up more than their teammates also were driven by a need for social dominance, characterized by excessive assertiveness or attention seeking. Such socially dominant individuals were forcefully commandeering their team’s speaking time and expressed ideas or opinions in ways that were insensitive or demeaning to others. They crowded out contributions of other employees.
In contrast, when employees who spoke up more than their teammates were driven by a reflective mentality, characterized by self-discipline and deliberativeness, the teams escaped the worst and performed as well as teams that had egalitarian speaking patterns. When reflective individuals spoke up, they recognized differences and diversity in viewpoints among members and, via their voice included rather than squeezed out input of others.
Implications for Leaders
Our study suggests that encouraging employee participation is not enough to draw out or leverage deeper-level diversity in teams. Rather, leaders need to be cognizant of who in their team is taking up opportunities available for speaking up. Some individuals can dominate airtime in their teams to express their own ideas and concerns at the expense of the voice of their teammates. They stifle the surfacing of divergent thought within their teams.
Hence, leaders need to pay attention to the presence of assertiveness and attention-seeking in their employees, as in the context of team communication, such traits may hinder the team’s ability to process complex information. 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. They can, for instance, empower employees to call a “time-out” when discussions are excessively pooling around certain individuals. Dominant or unreflective individuals cause less harm to teams when communication processes are structured to minimize their impact.
Importantly, skewed airtime is not always problematic. Instead, teams are especially likely to suffer when individuals who account for disproportionate voice are driven by a need for social dominance rather than by reflectiveness. In fact, encouraging reflective individuals to step forward to speak up, even disproportionally, may actually help draw out diversity of opinions and perspectives within teams.
In short, 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.