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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
Participants took an exit survey so we could understand their impressions of the experience and others in their group.
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.
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.
Forbes 30 Under 30 Listmaker, and Ph.D. Neuroscientist at McGill University.
Senior research scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women, Director of the Youth, Media, & Wellbeing Research Lab, and Scientific Advisor at Forbes Ignite.
Inclusion consultant with a PhD in Neuroscience from McGill University.
Executive Director and Co-Founder of Military Mentors, and a speechwriter for the U.S. Secretary of the Army
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.”
Forbes 30 Under 30 Listmaker, and founder of Nacea Partners, a business management and leadership coaching and consulting firm.
Head of Product Design at Benshi.ai and a data visualization expert.
Data Lead at Data Culture, an innovation and design consultancy and data visualization expert.