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The Effects of Team Diversity on Team Performance

Global warming, the refugee crisis, North Korea's nuclear ambitions and Brexit; these are all examples of complex problems currently being addressed by so-called negotiating teams. Negotiating teams represent different interests involved in a problem.

For example, Michel Barnier heads the task force representing the interests of the 27 EU member states in the Brexit deal, while UK's David Davis chairs the Exiting the EU department at the other end of the Eurotunnel. Are there any academic insights as to how these two teams might cooperate in order to promote effective negotiations?

Over half a century of research in psychology and management suggests that group composition activates group dynamics. A key focus area has been the effect of team diversity on team performance. The value-in-diversity hypothesis proposes that teams composed of members with different backgrounds review more perspectives on a topic. Higher-quality decisions are the likely result if a team is able to draw from multiple backgrounds.

Psychology's social categorization theory adds a group-dynamics aspect that radically changes the rosy view on team heterogeneity: members use interpersonal differences to decide who they feel comfortable with. Group heterogeneity may thus lead to the formation of in-groups who do not consider other subgroups' opinions as valuable as their own. While multiple opinions may exist among the members of a diverse team, they do not surface as conflicts flourish instead. When leading a heterogeneously composed team, the joint recommendation of these theories is thus to ensure that dissenting views are elicited from the members while avoiding subgroup formation.

Saraï Sapulete

In a different context, I discussed these views with Saraï Sapulete some years ago. The quality of negotiated decisions not only hinges on the composition of the two negotiating teams in isolation, but also on their ability to jointly produce an outcome. If team performance is the result of team composition, we thought, the joint composition of the two teams may well affect the extent to which they are able to work together towards a common goal.

There are at least two reasons why this is an even more challenging puzzle. First, negotiating teams are representative groups. The Exiting the EU department speaks for UK citizens, and Mr. Barnier’s task force for those of the EU. Such teams are torn between the need to negotiate, involving some give and take, and ensuring support for the outcome in their respective constituencies. The more you give in, the more likely you are to no longer be seen as the legitimate representative. Opinions polarize and negotiations get tougher when teams represent a constituency.

Second, the underlying problem is what philosopher Joshua Greene refers to as a tragedy of commonsense morality. Each negotiating team is also a solution to another problem. Individual voters are not likely to work hard towards negotiating a good deal. It is a lot of work, and the benefits would be shared with many others. The EU task force gives a voice to 'the' EU position on Brexit. One way of developing this position is to form a strong group identity. In his 2017 State of the (European) Union speech, President Juncker indeed suggested the unity of the EU to be on the rise. "Together, we showed that Europe can deliver for its citizens when and where it matters," he complimented Parliament. Perhaps he had in mind the need to confront challenges, such as Brexit, as a union rather than a collective of dispersed interests. While identity formation may solve coherence problems inside the EU, the delegated negotiating team will likely perceive its opponent, the UK team itself formed around a strong non-EU identity, as an outgroup holding unacceptable opinions about the deal-to-be-negotiated.

What to recommend to those in charge of composing negotiating teams addressing complex problems? The common answer of a researcher applies: we do not know (yet), and more research is definitely needed. Yet our initial hunch, let us call it a hypothesis, is that the joint composition of the two negotiating teams may be a focus area. If subgroups in one team identify with subgroups on another team, these subgroups may identify more with members of the other team than with members of their own. The presence of a female minority on both the UK and the EU teams is therefore hopeful, just as the presence of minorities of members not having been through elite higher education. If outcasts unite across teams, they may really be able to deliver to their constituencies when and where it matters.

Gerwin van der Laan