When do differences make a difference?
Unpacking the relationship between team diversity and creativity
US/China research, April 2012
With the growing interest in creativity and innovation, organisations are eager to understand which factors influence creativity in their employees.
We’ve heard about the benefits of leveraging the “wisdom of the crowd” for achieving higher performance. There is also considerable research exploring the relationship between diversity and desirable workplace outcomes, such as creativity, performance and decision making. However, this relationship is complex and results are often mixed, sometimes yielding positive and negative outcomes.
In trying to unpack the complexities of this relationship, it behoves us to refine our conceptualisation of diversity. Diversity captures all the ways in which we are different whereas creativity is about combining, adapting and manipulating unrelated ideas in new and unique ways. The inherent mental processes required for this activity highlights the need to explore the role of cognitive diversity. Cognitive diversity refers to the differences in thinking styles, knowledge, skills and beliefs of the world. When it comes to creativity, focusing on cognitive diversity or diversity of thought makes intuitive sense.
It is important to note that diversity, cognitive or otherwise, only provides the potential for creativity; it does not ensure creativity. Recent American research by Associate Professor Shung Shin (Portland State University), Associate Professor Tae-Yeol Kim (China Europe International Business School), Associate Professor Jeong-Yeon Lee (University of Kansas) and Lin Bian (City University Hong Kong) tells us that cognitive team diversity, while important only benefits individual creativity when other situational and personal factors are present.
This study, conducted by Shin, Kim, Lee and Bain (2012), sought to explore conditions that support a positive relationship between cognitive team diversity and team member creativity. Specifically, the authors examined the impact of:
- An individual’s belief in his or her ability to generate creative ideas
- The leader’s style of leadership on the relationship between cognitive team diversity and team member creativity.
This study examined 316 employees on 68 teams from three organisations in the Republic of China. They used a combination of self-ratings and supervisor-ratings to help reduce the bias in responses.
The average team size was 4.7 with team size ranging from 3-10, the average team tenure was five years with an average individual tenure of 5.3 years, 34.2% were female and the average age of participants was 31.7 years.
- The study found a positive relationship between cognitive team diversity and team member creativity only when individuals believed they had the ability to produce creative ideas. This is known as creative self-efficacy (Tierney & Farmer, 2002) and refers to the extent to which an individual feels they are capable of being creative.
Creativity involves both cognitive and motivational components. Possessing the confidence in one’s creative abilities is a key differentiating factor between individual team members who were able to leverage/harness the range of perspectives and ideas brought together by a diverse team, and those who were not.
- Similarly, this study also found that cognitive team diversity was positively associated with member creativity, but only when leaders where perceived to be high in transformational leadership (Bass, 1985).
Leadership is a key factor influencing the situations in which teams operate. Transformational leadership is particularly relevant to creativity in that transformational leaders positively affect team member motivation and encourage members to seek out and be open to new perspectives and ideas.
Additionally, transformational leaders can help increase feelings of psychological safety. For examples members feel safe to engage in interpersonal risk-taking and be themselves (Edmondson, 1999), promote a focus on common goals and help members feel that their perspectives are valued. Leaders with this style have the potential to help decrease the negative outcomes that can arise in diverse teams (e.g., conflict, process loss, poor communication), while enhancing the opportunity for sharing and leveraging ideas.
Related research (Shin & Zhou, 2007) also found similar results with regards to team creativity, such that the relationship between cognitive team diversity (specifically focusing on educational background) and team creativity was positive only when transformational leadership was present.
In summary, both an individual’s beliefs in his or her ability to perform a creative task and the leader’s influence are potent factors impacting the creative output of teams and their members.
This work emphasises that organisations as a whole, and leaders in particular, can proactively influence their work environment in ways that harness the benefits of diversity and promote individual and team creativity. By modifying their style, leaders can increase individual and team confidence in their abilities to be creative; encourage the sharing and exploring of ideas in a safe and supportive environment; and role model diversity supportive behaviour by responding to unique contributions and inspiring others to do the same.
Leaders should consider the following practices to incorporate and leverage diversity of thought within their own teams.
- Consider and draw on the individual’s backgrounds, including their education, experience, areas of knowledge and expertise, skills, values and beliefs
- Facilitate the establishment of norms that highlight the value and benefits of diversity
- Promote feelings of psychological safety by encouraging information sharing; using frequent, open communication; inviting feedback and input from people; and modelling inclusive behaviour
- Promote a shared identity and desire to work as a team by highlighting common goals and collective outcomes
- Allow room for errors during the creative process, engage the team to learn from mistakes, and provide feedback to individuals and teams on their performance.
To read the full article, see Shin, Kim, Lee & Bian (2012). Cognitive team diversity and individual team member creativity: A cross-level integration. Academy of Management Journal, 55: 197-212.