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The Differences in Your Team Make the Difference

It is widely recognized that diverse teams outperform homogeneous teams. A 2015 McKinsey report on 366 public companies found that those organizations in the top 25% for ethnic and racial diversity in management were 35% more likely to have above average financial returns.

Below are three reasons why having a team with visible and invisible differences positively impacts the results that team can produce.

  1. Innovation is more likely when the team has divergent thinking and divergent life experiences.
  2. Teams are more apt to carefully process information when an outsider is present.
  3. Diverse teams focus more on facts than less diverse teams.

While all of these reasons make sense, we know that not all diverse teams perform consistently at a high level. Google wanted to discover if there was a magic ingredient that created the “secret sauce” of a perfect team. Did some teams have a trait, a characteristic, or a minimum composite IQ that made them better than at solving problems and producing high quality results when compared to similar teams?

Google has the resources to discern what the perfect mix of personalities, IQ scores, cultural backgrounds, and religious preferences of a team might be – and luckily the rest of us can benefit from learning from these efforts. Remarkably, the results of Google’s Project Aristotle found that success had less to do with individual attributes and more to do with social norms and mutual respect.

Social Sensitivity and Equal Time When Speaking Are Key Traits of Successful Teams

The way Project Aristotle summed up its findings were that: (1) the most successful teams had a high average on a “social sensitivity” score; and (2) the team members all got turns speaking and roughly the same amount of time speaking when the group convened.

Social sensitivity is evaluated by showing individuals photos of people’s eyes and gauging the emotions of the person in the photograph based on the expression in the photo. The most high performing teams had individual team members who scored above average on these tests. Presumably, this means these same individuals are proficient at understanding how their teammates feel based on non-verbal cues such at facial expression, tone of voice, or other non-verbal mannerisms. I might place the term “social sensitivity” under the umbrella of emotional intelligence (an oft-referenced organizational behavior term that refers to the ability to understand one’s own emotions and the emotions of someone else.) Importantly, Google did not make this same generalization.

The second trait of a high performing team turned out to be respectful listening and turn-taking when it came to conversations. Anita Woolley, Project Aristotle’s lead author, found that when one person or a small group dominated the discussion of the team, the collective intelligence of the team declined. The face validity of this result is high. Who hasn’t felt reluctant to participate in a group’s discussion when one or more people in the group seem to dominate or control the topic of the conversation with their perspective?

So, yes, it is the differences in your team that make the difference. But it is also the ability of your team to understand the emotions of team members and encourage equal participation in discussions that allow those differences to enhance the group’s decision making and problem solving.

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