How Diverse Teams Succeed Under Pressure

The Forbes Ignite team set out to understand what makes cognitively diverse teams successful. Our findings revealed so much more.

Picture it.

March, 2020.  Practically overnight, the scale of the coronavirus threat had become clear.  While most went on with their morning commutes, despite their fears, small teams of executives in businesses across America needed to make an immediate decision about how to keep their employees safe and businesses afloat.

Picture it.

March, 2020. Practically overnight, the scale of the coronavirus threat had become clear. While many went on with their morning commutes, despite their fears, small teams of executives in businesses across America needed to make an immediate decision about how to keep their employees safe and businesses afloat.

illustrations of sea foam and black speech bubbles

Many of us remember keenly the days our lives first turned upside down, when we left our offices and schools not knowing when we’d be able to return.

It was a hard call for the teams of leaders who had to make difficult decisions for a diverse set of employees who all have different needs and priorities. They had to suddenly assemble their entire staff and instruct them to go home. But right or wrong, the call had to be made.

What was it like inside those last frantic meetings before the lockdowns began? Which groups of executives made better decisions, faster?  How did they make them? And as work promises to remain at least partly virtual and remote for the foreseeable future, how might that process look different today than it did in the early days of the pandemic? Most importantly, what role does diversity — both cognitive and demographic — play in the quality of decisions and teamwork?

colleagues sit around table looking at screen

This is what a unique team of scientists and citizen scientists set out to uncover in a first-of-its-kind study.

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The Challenge

Of all the dimensions of diversity, cognitive diversity — the different ways people think and approach problems — is perhaps the most under-discussed and mysterious. We know a great deal about neurobiological differences across human beings and how physical structures in the brain can affect human behavior. We also have a deep understanding of how peoples’ lived experiences, personalities, and observed behavior differ. But there remains much we do not understand, especially in terms of what all this means for team collaboration in the workplace and beyond.

The Experiment

To deepen our understanding, we set out to conduct an observational experiment with members of the North American workforce, in the realistic setting of a Zoom meeting. The team partnered with the talent assessment firm, Pymetrics, which uses scientifically validated games to understand thinking styles and behavioral traits for large global companies.

Participants: Over 45 people, ranging from CEOs of large corporations to IT leaders, academics, and entry level employees from industries that ranged from computer science to education and from law to health.

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Pymetrics logo
Traits
Generosity
Learning
Attention
Emotion
Risk Tolerance
Decision Making
Effort
Fairness
Focus

What we found

Cognitive Diversity
One cognitive trait, as measured by Pymetrics, had a very important role in how groups’ solutions were ranked. That trait was labeled fairness.
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As Pymetrics describes it, the variable of fairness measures how quickly one makes judgments about how fair social situations are. It also looks at whether those judgments are carefully considered or based on instinct.

Interestingly, instead of groups being diverse when it came to this trait, groups performed better when they were more similar. Groups where individuals thought about fairness in different ways tended to have poorer solution rankings. This stands to reason, as fairness is the basis of trust and group cohesion. If people in a group — especially strangers meeting for the first time, as in our experiment — all have different ways of measuring fairness in social situations, it will be hard to come to a consensus about fair ways of arriving at a solution.
Building Demographic Diversity
Demographic diversity was the most critical underlying factor when assessing high quality solutions.
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The types of demographic diversity that contributed to this in our analysis included diversity of gender, race, age, sexual orientation, education, and birth country. Age and sexual orientation were more indicative of highly rated solutions.

This demonstrates that when you bring together a team that has a wide range of different backgrounds, life experiences, and identities, better solutions can be the result. Separately from the overall demographic diversity variable we considered, language diversity (whether someone in the group spoke more than one language) was the factor that explained teams’ successes better than any of the others.
Collaboration Experience
The team also learned that, in some sense, the way that a person perceives the experience of collaboration is as important as the actual work product.
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Unsurprisingly, we also saw that the solutions submitted by groups who thought they did a good job at working together and had less negative feelings about themselves during this process tended to be rated more highly by professional judges.

The takeaway from this is that it’s critical that collaborative teams have positive interactions and relationships, and that managers need to focus on this rigorously — as much as they would on the actual outcomes they’re trying to achieve.

Listening Paradox
In the unique circumstances of making a complex decision under high pressure and a short timeline, getting everyone's opinions in a traditional meeting or discussion format is incredibly difficult.
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The task that participants performed in our experiment was highly complex and had a tight deadline, so there was pressure to create a solution before the clock ran out. The more participants in a group felt that their individual opinions counted and the more the group was rated as being good listeners when disagreeing with others, the worse their solutions were rated by the judges.

In a situation where a good solution has to be delivered rapidly, obtaining everyone's opinion in an open-discussion format isn’t always practical. Different ways of sourcing opinions (e.g. surveys or forms, shared documents, creative brainstorming activities) could be valuable alternatives. But managers and members of teams have to do these things before there’s a pressing problem.

Leadership
One of the most defining features of any group dynamic is leadership. While no participant in any group was specifically appointed to a leadership position, someone in each group inevitably took on that role.

This is a phenomenon called Emergent leadership. This occurs when a group leader is not appointed or elected, but rather a person steps into that role over time as the group interacts.

Often, that person tended to speak more than other members of the group, and when group members believed that the dominant speaker held the same values as they did, they were more likely to create a solution that judges rated highly. This speaks to the fact that having and adhering to a set of bedrock values as a leader isn’t a theoretical management practice, it’s essential to achieving the results companies need.

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Ideation
When trying to find a creative solution, it’s important to bring as many ideas to the table as possible.

Groups that outperformed tended to consider more ideas for a solution before settling on a final decision. That means it’s important to build a climate of psychological safety so team members feel comfortable and empowered to share ideas, even if they may be a bit unconventional or impractical. This basic understanding that “the best way to find a good idea is to look at a lot of ideas,” or ideation, is one of the foundational elements of design thinking.

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Explore the Data

It's deja vu all over again

Just as leaders acted quickly under pressure at the beginning of the pandemic and made tough decisions, similar meetings are happening across the US today. At the time of publication, January 31st, 2022, the Omicron Variant of the coronavirus is spiking around the world and has made plans for a return to the office difficult to predict. The same kinds of meetings are happening again.

What do we do?

When can we expect to return?  How do we plan for the future? All of these are questions that will have to be answered quickly and under pressure. What we’ve learned is that if the people in these virtual meeting rooms are more diverse along many demographic dimensions, have a shared sense of what’s fair, and can implement creative methods of integrating many ideas into a quickly conceived solution, those teams will likely perform better.

standing person presents sticky notes on a board to a group sitting around a table

This unique experiment not only supports the value of diversity in creativity and teamwork, but it provides useful guidance on managing a diverse team in times of crisis and uncertainty.

Perhaps one of the most vital things any leader can take away from this research is that diversity takes work, and takes time. If it’s impossible to have everyone weigh in on every decision, all the time, especially in emergencies, then the work of knowing team members, building psychological safety, and ensuring that diverse decision makers are around the table has to be planned well in advance.

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Legend for chart. Participants in cognitive style A in blue, in style B in purple, and in style C in yellow.

Our methods

Cognitive assessment

Participants filled out a brief survey. Then they took a cognitive style assessment from Pymetrics that evaluated their thinking style on sliding scales across 9 dimensions. Participants were then grouped into three cognitive styles based on their results.

The distribution of all participants' results is displayed in the graph.

Group assignment

Everyone was assigned to groups that were either cognitively diverse or homogenous, based on the Pymetrics test.  Participants didn’t know which kind of group they were in, or that there was any difference between the groups.

Experiment

Groups of 2-3 participants collaborated in a Zoom room for 1.5 hours to solve a brain puzzle (the nine dot problem) and create a strategy to convince America to get vaccinated against COVID19.

Exit survey

Participants took an exit survey so we could understand their impressions of the experience and others in their group.

Champion scoring

The one-page concept posters of each group’s idea to convince America to get vaccinated were ranked by professional judges carefully selected for their relevant expertise across different sectors: healthcare, diversity & inclusion, corporate strategy and more.

Analysis

We used the judges rankings, the qualitative exit survey and trained coders’ notes on the recordings of the experiment to statistically and qualitatively compare the performance of cognitively homogeneous and cognitively diverse groups.

Limitations & Opportunities for Future Study



Like any work, there are some limits inherent in the design and conducting of the experiment that may have affected the outcome in ways we’re not sure of, or which might suggest avenues for future study:

  • We had to tell participants that cognitive diversity was part of the focus of our experiment in order to give them enough information to decide whether to participate. This may have resulted in inadvertent priming.
  • While participants exhibited diversity across the pymetrics cognitive traits, there were more similarities across participants than expected. This may be an artifact of sampling bias, where people with certain cognitive styles are more likely to respond to an open call over email.
  • Rarely in the real world would someone be thrown into a situation where they must make an immediate decision together with people who they’ve never met before and where they don’t even have time to introduce themselves. This means that our findings are mostly applicable to managing difficult and nebulous tasks under a tight deadline. An area for future study could be to see if our findings hold among individuals who already work together and/or have a level of pre-existing familiarity, or in an environment where decisions don’t need to be made as rapidly.
  • Due to the complex nature of the divergent task — convincing America to get vaccinated — we had to rely on qualitative expert reviews of solutions the team created rather than objective, quantitative measures. The validity of the experiment would be improved by either finding such measures and/or by increasing the number and diversity of experts who participated in the review process.
  • Due to the multiple steps required to confirm participants involvement and to collect the necessary data, we had a lower sample size than would be ideal. The power of the finding could be increased, or new ones uncovered, if the experiment had a larger sample size.

Meet the team

We're a diverse group of researchers, business leaders, and creatives. Along the way, we learned many lessons about our own about collaboration with diverse teams and how divergent thinking yields better outcomes — even if it’s not always an easy or comfortable process.

Daniel Almeida headshot
Daniel Almeida, PhD

Forbes 30 Under 30 Listmaker, and Ph.D. Neuroscientist at McGill University.

Linda Charmaraman headshot
Linda Charmaraman, PhD

Senior research scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women, Director of the Youth, Media, & Wellbeing Research Lab, and Scientific Advisor at Forbes Ignite.

Falisha Karpati headshot
Falisha Karpati, PhD

Inclusion consultant with a PhD in Neuroscience from McGill University.

Chaveso Cook headshot
Chaveso Cook, PhD

Executive Director and Co-Founder of Military Mentors, and a speechwriter for the U.S. Secretary of the Army

Micah Hendler headshot
Micah Hendler

Forbes 30 Under 30 Listmaker,  Executive Director and founder of the Jerusalem Youth Chorus, an interfaith choir of Israeli and Palestinian children, and the co-founder of “Raise Your Voice Labs.”

Razvan Nacea headshot
Razvan Andrei Nacea

Forbes 30 Under 30 Listmaker, and founder of Nacea Partners, a business management and leadership coaching and consulting firm.

Marisa Asari headshot
Marisa Ruiz Asari

Head of Product Design at Benshi.ai and a data visualization expert.

Neil Oliver headshot
Neil Oliver

Data Lead at Data Culture, an innovation and design consultancy and data visualization expert.

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