Posted: 30 Mar. 2016 05 min. read

Diverse teams benefit the boardroom

Pledge for Parity

In her book, “Which two heads are better than one? How diverse teams create breakthrough ideas and make smarter decisions”, Deloitte Partner and author Juliet Bourke draws on academic literature and applied research to explore why diversity of thinking adds value. In doing so, she finds some surprising results on gender equality.

As part of the International Women’s Day theme ‘Pledge for Parity’, companies are being encouraged to commit publicly to gender equality at the board or executive level. Why would companies make a pledge, beyond notions of fairness and integrity? Is there any more to the story than simply drawing from a wider pool of talent?

In her book, ‘Which two heads are better than one? How diverse teams create breakthrough ideas and make smarter decisions’, Juliet Bourke explores diversity of thinking, and in one of the nine chapters, unearths a surprising stream of studies that talk to a hidden value of gender diversity. In particular, she identifies how gender balance can positively change a group dynamic to be more open and conducive to sharing information.

Bourke argues that the overlooked and more indirect value of gender balance provides a compelling reason for organisations to accelerate their inclusion efforts. This article profiles three of the studies Bourke interrogates, highlighting the way in which collective intelligence is generated by gender balanced groups.

  1. Psychological safety in gender balanced teams

In 2007, Professor Gratton and colleagues from the London Business School released a paper exploring individual and group differences across 100 gender-diverse teams in 17 countries. They asked team members a series of questions in relation to personal initiative, self-confidence, sensitivity to others’ views and domestic labour. The study found that men and women are likely to have different sensitivities to work and family issues, and that those perspectives influence decision-making. However they do not claim that men and women always have different perspectives from each other; in fact, quite the contrary.

Gratton found that when men or women are a minority group within a team, they are likely to experience negative outcomes. Feelings of psychological safety and experimentation were optimal with a ratio of 50:50 women and men, and feelings of self-confidence optimal with a ratio of 60:40 women and men. This means that both men and women will perform better (due to greater self-confidence) and teams will be more innovative and productive when they are gender balanced.

  1. Group dynamics and conversational turn-taking

The idea that parity optimises a group’s dynamic was further supported by research undertaken by Dr Woolley in 2010. Her team measured collective intelligence across small groups and found that collective intelligence was a better predictor of performance than the average of maximum individual intelligence. Put simply, group dynamics matter to team performance, no matter the intelligence of each individual.

Taking this notion one step further, Woolley studied 152 groups in detail across six factors – cohesion, motivation, satisfaction, proportion of women, equal distribution of speaking up and social sensitivity. She found that the three features that were correlated to and predictive of collective intelligence were: proportion of women, turn-taking and social sensitivity. In particular, Woolley found that women were more socially sensitive than men and better at reading non-verbal cues, such as when a team member wishes to speak up. Practically speaking, this means that team members are more likely to contribute to group discussion, and the team will behave more collaboratively and cooperatively, when the team is gender balanced.

  1. Smiling and group cohesion

In case you weren’t already convinced by these findings, a study by Dr Fairbairn on spreading smiles within a group arrived at similar conclusions. This, somewhat quirky, study explored smiles and how they are unconsciously mimicked by group members, thus becoming mutual smiles and in doing so, eliciting positive feelings and social cohesion. Fairbairn’s starting point was reading research which demonstrated that men demonstrate less emotion (than women) in the workplace, but more emotion when socialising and drinking alcohol. Her question was – does the gender composition of a group influence smiling?

She separated 360 male and female participants into small groups of three people, allocated them to either a control, placebo or alcohol group and then measured smiles and feelings of cohesion. She confirmed that men smile less and for shorter periods when in workplace settings with other men, but more and for longer when drinking alcohol. More importantly, Fairbairn found that when groups comprised men and women, women increased the likelihood (by 9.2%) that a man’s fleeting smile would be caught through an unconscious process of mimicry. Moreover, because women tend to hold smiles for slightly longer, they enable the smile to be ‘caught’ by another group member thus turning the smile into a mutual group smile. This changed the mood within the group, with participants reporting increased social connectedness. And in a virtuous circle, connectedness and feelings of cohesion prompt increased information sharing.

Final thoughts

Moving beyond group dynamics, Bourke also challenges a number of deeply held beliefs about men and women ‘thinking’ differently, specifically in relation to women being more holistic than analytical compared to men and also more risk averse. In dismissing these flawed arguments for gender diversity, Bourke makes a much stronger case. Complementing the more obvious notions about merit and drawing from the widest pool of talent, Bourke presents a cogent and well researched view that there is a hidden value in gender balanced teams. That value does not arise from women and men thinking differently, but rather, because men and women behave differently in gender balanced groups, and this improved conversational dynamic helps to elicit a broader range of perspectives.

Which two heads are better than one? How diverse teams create breakthrough ideas and make smarter decisions is published by the Australian Institute of Company Directors. For more information, please go to the following linkURL:

Meet our author

Sasha Zegenhagen

Sasha Zegenhagen

Manager, Financial Advisory

Sasha has experience in health policy, and has done numerous reviews and evaluations in the mental health area.