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Diversity on teams leads to positive outcomes, but not for all

Teams of diverse people can have better outcomes than those with similar backgrounds or outlooks, as a ton of research has shown. But a new study has found that the very individuals who add diversity to their science teams, surprisingly, do not experience positive outcomes.

Researchers examined diversity in two categories: demographic (race, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, nationality) and scientific (career stage, academic discipline, tenure on team).

A sample of 266 participants from 105 National Science Foundation-funded environmental science teams completed questionnaires about individual and team diversity, their satisfaction with their teams and authorship practices, and perceptions of the frequency of data sharing.

They also disclosed perceptions of their team climate, including team collaboration, inclusion and procedural justice, which focused on influencing team policies related to research.

What the researchers say

Participants with more underrepresented demographic characteristics (e.g. black women, gay men not born in the US) perceived their team climate – or attitudes and expectations on the team – to be more negative. This was associated with lower team satisfaction and more negative perceptions of authorship and data sharing on their teams, said the lead author.

However, regardless of their own demographic characteristics, individuals on diverse teams perceived their climate more positively than individuals on more homogeneous teams.

Creating successful teams that are demographically and scientifically diverse is not a simple matter of recruiting more individuals from underrepresented groups and combining team members from a variety of backgrounds, she said. Diverse teams can struggle with allocation of credit, differences in perspectives, and unequal power dynamics.

What must happen – as the findings indicate – is improved outcomes in procedural justice, collaboration and inclusion. Team policies must be clear and openly discussed, and transparent policies and procedures must be followed to alleviate power imbalances, the authors said.

They added that teams must be mindful of the experiences of all members, especially those who contribute to demographic diversity.

“It is critical to provide these individuals with adequate support and recognition,” they said.

“Increasing the number of underrepresented team members can also reduce ‘token effects’,” said the lead researcher, noting that individuals can feel stress and social isolation because they have characteristics unique to the group.

So, what?

This study reaffirms something that Alicia and I have been banging on about for a long time. Diverse teams are better performers. However, efforts must be made to create a sense of deep commonality within the team. Human beings collaborate best with those that they have most in common with.

In a sense, each successful team forms a unique culture. In fact, the stronger the culture, the better the team. The culture of a team is fluid and each person who joins it, alters it, to some extent. A good team manager welcomes this and strives to combine strong commonality with sufficient diversity.

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“Kindness is the language that the deaf can hear and the blind can see.” – Mark Twain