In today's increasingly global business environment, how individuals can effectively work together in groups — especially when they are composed of people with diverse backgrounds, knowledge, experiences, and expectations — is enormously important to businesses and other enterprises.
It's so important that MIT Sloan Assistant Professor of Organization Studies Denise Lewin Loyd focuses much of her work on the interactions of teams and how differences between group members impact the processes, performance and dynamics of a group, particularly when those characteristics also indicate status differences.
“We're always going to have diverse groups working together,” observes Loyd. “Demographics, race, departmental affiliations, and gender may suggest certain status differences. Working in experimental settings tells us much about how these differences impact group interactions in the workplace and is critical to understanding how people solve problems together.”
“For instance, let's say a company's marketing group has high status and the engineering group has low status,” she explains. “The two groups' perceived status affects how they interact with each other and share information and influences who gets heard — even if the problem requires engineering expertise. Ultimately, the members' interactions determine which group's ideas get presented and promoted and how decisions are made.”
A major aspect of Loyd's work deals with the notion of avoiding the appearance of favoritism.
In an experimental setting, she looked at how the composition of a group impacts the group's evaluation of someone outside the group. In one study, individuals evaluated two candidates for a college scholarship in advance of an anticipated group decision. One candidate was male, the other, female. Other than gender, the two candidates were equally qualified and indistinguishable by any obvious characteristics.
The male and female evaluators anticipated talking about their decision in a group where they would either be in the numerical majority or minority. The only condition in which the two candidates were not evaluated equally was when the female evaluator anticipated being in the numerical minority in the group. In this condition, the male candidate was rated more favorably than the female candidate.
“Is it possible that the female group member was afraid to appear biased toward the female candidate by the other members of the group, especially because she was lower in status (due to gender) and in the numerical minority in the group? Absolutely,” says Loyd. “This dynamic is important because it raises questions about what it means to companies if you're trying to encourage diversity in teams and the expression of true feelings. If everyone isn't comfortable with it, you may have groups that appear more fair but show more subtle bias.”
According to Loyd, some scholars are currently looking at surface-level differences (immutable characteristics, such as race and gender) and deeper-level differences (such as values and beliefs) as distinguishing characteristics that impact how groups interact.
People often assume that the surface-level differences indicate a deeper level difference as well. The only woman project manager on a construction site, for example, may be assumed to have a different deep-level perspective about how to manage a particular sub-contractor. The male managers on the same construction site may be assumed to share a similar perspective on the issue that differs from the woman̵s perspective, but in fact all the men may not agree — some may even agree with the woman.
In an experimental setting, Loyd and colleagues found that group members feel more comfortable engaging in deep-level disagreement when surface-level differences existed in the group.
To use the previous example, the presence of the woman project manager would help reduce the expectation that everyone should agree and make it easier for men with a different perspective to express it.
“Now more than ever, there's a push to capitalize on the diverse talents, skills, and knowledge that groups have to accomplish complex tasks,” says Loyd. “The potential to get better results more efficiently is so great we simply can't ignore it.”