As a social scientist, I know that one person cannot solve a societal problem on their own — and even a group of very intelligent people will struggle to do it. But we can boost our chances of success if we ensure not only that the team members are intelligent, but also that the team itself is highly diverse.
By ‘diverse’ I mean demographic diversity encompassing things such as race, gender identity, class, ethnicity, career stage and age, and cognitive diversity, including differences in thoughts, insights, disciplines, perspectives, frames of reference and thinking styles. And the team needs to be purposely diverse instead of arbitrarily diverse.
In my work I focus on complex world problems, such as how to sustainably manage our natural resources and landscapes, and I’ve found that it helps to deliberately assemble diverse teams. This effort requires me to be aware of the different ways in which people can be diverse, and to reflect on my own preferences and biases. Sometimes the teams might not be as diverse as I’d like. But I’ve found that making the effort not only to encourage diversity, but also to foster better understanding between team members reaps dividends.
In 2008, I was coordinating a project in which researchers from various European Union countries worked to identify effective policy mechanisms for promoting soil conservation on farms. I quickly noticed that the political scientists in our team used terms that were different to those used by soil scientists and economists. Even more confusingly, they sometimes used the same terms to mean something different (for example, an ‘effective measure’ could refer to a European directive being smoothly converted into national policy; it could mean that many farmers signed up to a popular option of an agri-environmental funding programme; or it could mean that a farming practice increased yield or reduced soil degradation). Economists talked about opportunity costs, soil scientists about aggregate stability and agronomists about tramlines. Often, I found myself asking them, “What do you mean by that?” and then ‘translating’ for others.
At first, I thought asking such simple questions gave away my lack of experience, but I now understand that it is essential for interdisciplinary teams to invest time into developing a common language. I had to gain a basic understanding, for example, of different tillage operations and cost–benefit calculations, because only with that knowledge could I get the social scientists to make informed decisions about which policy intervention would work.
In this first interdisciplinary team I did not get to choose the team members, but the variety of demographic and disciplinary backgrounds prompted us to look for insights in places that a less-diverse team would not even have considered. For example, we learnt that it is not enough to protect the soil by offering payments to farmers to stop ploughing. Instead, we needed to consider how no-till equipment could be made compatible with the farmers’ existing machinery, and to show them how they could manage increased weed pressure without using more weed killer. From that experience, I learnt the importance of asking questions and listening, even if it felt cumbersome and sometimes annoying.
I also noticed that discussions as a group became more or less open depending on who was sitting around the table and who was leading the conversation. Power dynamics have a strong influence on group communications, even if the power is only perceived and not actual. I noticed that more-senior team members tended to speak more and would often talk over others, whereas more-junior members, particularly female members, spoke less and were more frequently interrupted. British journalist Matthew Syed has described this dynamic as ‘dominance hierarchies’ in his book Rebel Ideas: The Power of Diverse Thinking (2019), and he says that these hierarchies are engrained in human societies.
For these and other reasons, I think that it is crucial for diverse teams to have an inclusive, empathetic leader with high emotional intelligence to counteract such hierarchies and ensure a climate of psychological safety in which people can voice their suggestions and ideas, as well as disagree with other team members. This effective leadership includes keeping an eye on equal conversational turn taking (an important factor influencing collective intelligence), and making sure that those whose native language is not English are not sidelined in discussions. Facilitation skills are a great asset, so I sought out training in facilitation and mediation and tried to apply those skills wherever I could, such as in leading workshops and resolving conflicts among team members, even though I felt out of my comfort zone at first.
The downside of similarity
When I needed to assemble my own teams, I tried to select candidates with the greatest knowledge of the subject that we would be studying. In hindsight, I realize that I was drawn to those whom I could connect with, who expressed themselves eloquently or who shared my interests. This is human nature; we like surrounding ourselves with people who are similar to us (a tendency known as homophily), and we often work more effectively with like-minded people. This is because they share our views, confirm our way of thinking and do not ask uncomfortable questions. Sharing the same cultural background or disciplinary reference points makes communication easier and helps with bonding. These are important because they can make collaboration more efficient and reduce conflict.
But there’s a downside. When people in a team are similar, their knowledge and experience overlap. Without cognitive and demographic diversity, we become collectively blind, both to the core of the problem and to creative solutions. If people on a team are from different demographic backgrounds and social situations, they will have entirely different experiences and frames of reference. This leads to differences in assumptions, problem perception, divergent thinking and fresh perspectives, all of which can boost creativity and innovation. When I was working with an early-career researcher from Brazil on co-management of natural resources in a protected area in 2015, it took me a long time to realise that her understanding of ‘community’ was very different to mine — but ultimately our collaboration produced great insights into the dynamic nature of social capital.
Collaborating in diverse teams is cognitively more demanding. Not only do you not share the same vocabulary, but you also need to work out what your collaborators know and don’t know so that you can adjust your communication style to avoid or clarify misunderstandings. It is difficult, if not impossible, to ask for information that you don’t know you are missing. More heterogeneous teams are likely to face higher levels of tension and potential for conflict. Seemingly simple things such as joking can help with bonding, but if you don’t share the same sense of humour, these efforts can become awkward or even a point of contention.
Making the extra effort to build diverse teams depends on the problem and its context, as well as on the value we place on the workability of solutions, and whether effectiveness trumps efficiency for you and your team. I have experimented with tests that tell you more about your own personality and your preferred role in a team. These results worked well when I was teaching master’s students about team management, and with more-junior members in my team. But I found more-established colleagues to be less open and more dismissive of such ‘exercises’.
Don’t blind yourself and your teammates to potential solutions that could elude you, just because the entire team thinks and approaches problems in the same way. Seek the broadest variety of team members that you can find. The world might depend on your answers.