Updated: Sep 29, 2020
Three psychologists performed an interesting study in 1998. They created teams of 3 physicians and gave them all a hypothetical medical case. They gave each of them history reports on a 25-year-old female with flu symptoms. Over the last 2-months the pretend patient had felt swollen joints, muscle soreness and unexplained weight loss.
The interesting part is what the doctors didn't know.
The psychologists weren't testing their ability to diagnose. They had given 2/3 of the information about the patient to all the doctors but each doctor was given some information that was unique to them.
The psychologists were more interested in observing how groups were ineffective or effective at discovering, what they termed, "unshared information." They wanted to see how people would operate in the group assuming that everyone knew the same things.
What they discovered was that teams of doctors who were effective at sharing "unshared information" with the group were more effective at diagnosing patients. (Larson, Christensen, Franz, Abbot, 1998).
The study found that the most effective way of generating unique information was from the leaders of the group. Which, as a business leader, is a great question.
What should you do to generate the best ideas from your group?
First, here are some effective strategies. Most of them have to do with setting up the right process and structure with your group:
Redirect discussion to unshared information
Determine team members’ knowledge and expertise
Suspend initial judgments
Create psychological safety
Encourage full discussion of minority opinions
Cultivate norms that require disagreement (Devil’s Advocate)
Establish a pattern of identifying and questioning the underlying assumptions (Dialectical Decision Method)
And some ineffective strategies:
Increase amount of discussion
Increase size of group
Increase amount of information
Make team accountable for decision
Give team more time
I found it interesting that more time and more discussion did not lead to more effective decisions.
Along these same lines, a study at Brigham Young University found that groups that incorporated a "socially distinct newcomer" were more effective at problem-solving experiments. (Lilenquist, BYU, 2009)
"One of the most-cited benefits of diversity is the infusion of new ideas and perspectives," said study co-author Katie Liljenquist, assistant professor of organizational leadership at BYU's Marriott School of Management. "And while that very often is true, we found the mere presence of a newcomer who is socially distinct can really shake up the group dynamic. That leads to discomfort, but also to a better process that ultimately yields superior outcomes."
The key factor is simply whether newcomers are distinct in some way from the other group members.
"Remember, socially 'distinct' doesn't necessarily mean socially 'inept,'" says Liljenquist, whose co-authors on the paper are Katherine Phillips of Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management and Margaret Neale of Stanford's Graduate School of Business. "Dwight's upbringing and past work history - in addition to his bobblehead doll collection - all contribute to the measure of diversity he brings to 'The Office' melting pot."
The paper adds a new wrinkle to the wealth of research on teams, says Melissa Thomas-Hunt, associate professor at Cornell's Johnson School of Management.
"[This research] is groundbreaking in that it highlights that the benefits of disparate knowledge in a team can be unleashed when newcomers actually share opinions of knowledge with old-timers but are socially different," Thomas-Hunt says. "It is the tension between social dissimilarity and opinion similarity that prompts heightened effectiveness in diverse teams."
What explains the results?
According to Liljenquist, newcomers in the experiment didn't necessarily ask tougher questions, possess novel information, or doggedly maintain a conflicting point of view. Just being there was enough to change the dynamic among old-timers who shared a common identity.
When a member of the group discovered that he agreed with the new outsider, he felt alienated from his fellow old-timers - consequently, he was very motivated to explain his point of view on its merits so that his peers wouldn't lump him in with the outsider.
The person who found himself disagreeing with the in-group - and instead agreeing with an outsider - felt very uncomfortable. An opinion alliance with an outsider put his social ties with other team members at risk.
"Socially, that can be very threatening," Liljenquist says. "These folks are driven to say, 'Wait, the fact that I disagree with this outsider doesn't make me weird. Something more is going on here; let's figure out what's at the root of our disagreement.' The group then tends to analyze differing opinions and critical information much more thoroughly, and that facilitates much better decision-making results."