Project Management Institute

Diversity and team performance: Selecting your traveling squad

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Rodney ‘Butch’ Bailey, MBA, PMP

Joe Bailey, MS, PhD

In his best-selling book Outliers (2008), Malcolm Gladwell dicusses the process used to select players for the elite teams in the Canadian Youth Hockey League. Although it appears the primary factor in team selection is based on the player’s own performance, a closer look at the team rosters reveals an interesting phenomenon. By an overwhelming margin, more of the players selected to become all-stars were born between January and June, with a predominant number born in January. How do we account for this?

The explanation is fairly simple, and it has to do with the selection process. In Canada, the eligibility cutoff for age-class hockey is January 1. A boy who turns ten on January 2 of a given year could be playing alongside someone who will not turn ten until December 20 of that year, a full year’s difference in growth, coordination, speed and maturity. Given the significance of that difference, when they practice against each other the boy who turns ten early in the year is more likely to excel in the eyes of the coaches. As Gladwell (2008) states, “He will then be more likely to get chosen for the all-star team traveling squad, will receive better coaching, play with better teammates, play twice as many games a season, and practice twice as much as the other boy. At the beginning of the season, the January boy’s advantage was that he was older. By the end of the season, with all the benefits of extra coaching and playing time, his advantage will have extended significantly, and he will really have become the much better player”

There are two critical concerns with such a selection process. First, from a moral perspective, there is the simple issue of fairness. If you are born in the last half of the year, the odds for success in Canadian hockey are really stacked against you. Secondly, from a practical perspective, the selection process has effectively squandered the talent of half of the Canadian athletic population.

Well, it is only hockey, you say. But selection biases can occur in areas of much more consequence. In the workplace, we have to be sure that our selection processes do not inadvertently create advantages and concurrent disadvantages that are unfair, demoralizing, and squander the talent that exists within and that sustains our respective organizations.

Overview of Paper

All too frequently, organizational leaders tend to define diversity in very conventional terms, focusing on selection processes for hiring and promoting, and doing so in a way that is fair and open to individuals regardless of their ethnicity, gender, religion, age, or other demographic factors. There is often a desire expressed to have a workforce make-up that is roughly representative of an organizations’ customer base, or of the community in which they operate. There is nothing wrong with this practice, and in fact it represents an excellent starting point in obtaining the real value that good diversity management can bring. However, it is a poor stopping point, and organizations with this limited perspective leave much of the value ‘on the table.’

The purpose of this paper is to discuss diversity and inclusion from the perspective of sustainability and organizational team performance, with the aim of helping project managers and other organizational leaders understand the subtle but strong influences that may be affecting their ability to optimize team performance. Of equal if not greater importance, the learnings here will enable us to achieve higher levels of sustainability, from the human resource perspective.

Studies and theories of organizational behavior and development, diversity research from ecological systems, and applied experiential learnings reinforce the criticality of diversity in the area of organizational sustainability. However, psychological factors and theories impact our effective management of diversity in ways that sometimes undermine our best intentions. In order to provide consistently exceptional leadership, we must learn to value diversity for the potential it can bring to our organizations. We must appreciate that diversity management is not only the right thing to do in terms of fairness, but also in terms of results. Like most great principles, diversity management has both a moral imperative to its credit, but a business results imperative as well. Great organizations do not sacrifice business results in pursuit of diversity goals, but in fact may achieve great business results because of their effective diversity management.

Diversity and Sustainability: Ecological Perspectives

This section highlights the importance of diversity in achieving organizational goals related to sustainability. It should come as little surprise that findings from scientific environmental research have applicability in the ‘real’ business world. In this case, research from the field of systems ecology highlights the organizational strength that diversity brings, and the vulnerabilities that an organization incurs when it becomes predominantly homogeneous. Homogeneity, or ‘sameness,’ may look initially like a strength. However, given the wrong set of circumstances over time, this sameness may become a serious, if not fatal, problem for the business or organizational system.

Within the scientific community, it is well known that biological diversity enhances the productivity of an ecological system. Each species, regardless of its size or apparent significance, has an important role to play in the productivity of the overall system. The greater the diversity of the ecosystem, the higher the probability of its long term viability and sustainability. Scientists also find that diverse and healthy ecosystems have a much stronger ability to withstand or to recover from potential or actual disasters.

We should not be surprised to realize that these findings also apply to organizational systems built and maintained by human beings. Diversity management will be come increasingly important as we face new challenges from globalization and address relationships between ecological systems diversity, cultural diversity, and organizational human resource diversity.

Human and Organizational Behavior Factors Affecting Diversity Management

A full and mature understanding of the importance of diversity management drives the need to understand the factors that prevent us from being effective leaders in this area. We must be mindful of the several psychological perceptions or biases, which can cause us to make bad judgments in this area. Even worse, when combined these factors may create a sort of ‘perfect storm’ of compounded problems resulting in sub-par team performance.

Attribution theory

The foundation of Attribution Theory lies in the belief that we tend to attribute our successes to strong personal attributes and excuse our failures as being the ‘victims’ of external forces. However, when considering the success of others, we are more likely to attribute it to external factors. For example, the person was in the right place at the right time, he or she had a powerful upper-level sponsor that laid the groundwork for them, etc. On the other hand, we tend to attribute their failures to their own personal actions, with little room for the possibility of external factors. Table 1 illustrates Attribution Theory at work, where we see various hypothetical outcomes listed in the left column, with their associated causal interpretation in the following columns:

Table 1. Attribution Theory

Me Not Me
Positive Outcomes
Internal External
  • Promotion
  • Well-qualified, well-deserved
  • Well-connected in organization
  • Major project goal met
  • Hard work, great leadership abilities
  • Got some really lucky breaks
Negative Outcomes
External Internal
  • Passed over for promotion
  • Inconsistent performance standards undermined chances
  • Not organizationally adept
  • Major project goal missed
  • Funding issues; loss of sponsor commitment
  • Wouldn’t stay focused; lacked work ethic

As illustrated in Table 1, Attribution Theory works in the ‘Me – Not Me’ perceptual space. A related bias directly affecting diversity management is the Similar-To-Me Effect, which refers to the tendency to perceive others who are similar to ourselves more positively than we perceive those who are different.

Now we have a ‘Me -- Similar to Me -- Not Similar to Me’ spectrum to consider. Following these theories, we should expect that the benefit of the doubt would successively extend to Me, then Similar to Me, then finally to Not Similar to Me. Clearly, the stage is set for human resource decision-making that may not yield a fair result. Table 2 highlights how we tend to extend the benefit of the doubt that we give ourselves to those who are similar to us, but withhold that same benefit from those who are not similar to us.

Table 2. Attribution Theory / Similar to Me Effect

Me Similar to Me Not Similar to Me
Positive Outcomes
Internal Internal External
  • Promotion
  • Well-qualified, well-deserved
  • Her talent is starting to be noticed
  • Well-connected in organization
  • Major project goal met
  • Hard work, great leadership abilities
  • Did a great job of following my lead
  • Got some really lucky breaks
Negative Outcomes
External External Internal
  • Passed over for promotion
  • Inconsistent performance standards in place
  • Very strong competition to overcome
  • Not organizationally adept
  • Major project goal missed
  • Funding issues; loss of sponsor commitment
  • Some tough breaks went against him
  • Wouldn’t stay focused; lacked work ethic

In some respect, this is the psychological starting point from which organizational leaders tend to choose their own ‘traveling squad,’ comprised of the folks they have come to regard as their ‘go-to’ performers. So it may be fair to say that the Leader-Member Exchange (LMX) Theory follows on the heels of those previously discussed, yielding decisions that really do begin to affect organizational performance.

Leader-member exchange (LMX) theory

According to LMX Theory, leaders tend to unconsciously choose ‘In-groups’ and ‘Out-groups.’ The choice of ‘in-group’ or ‘out-group’ happens fairly quickly in the leader-member relationship, and may not be based on performance results. In fact, it may be based on non-job related factors having to do with the leader’s comfort with that individual, and his or her belief that the follower will do the best work. If we consider the power of the Attribution Theory and Similar-To-Me Effect, we know that the in-group/out-group selection may initially have more to do with perceptual biases than actual job performance. Over time, the leader will spend more time, give more growth opportunities, and have more informal interactions with the in-group. The in-group individuals will gain insights into the leader’s priorities, ways of thinking, and solving problems. On the other hand, individuals in the out-group will spend less time with the leader, will not get the chance to gain the same insights, will receive fewer developmental assignments, and generally experience a more formal, structured interaction with the leader. The leader, if only subconsciously, has different expectations of the two groups: good results from the in-group and lesser results from the out-group.

Self-fulfilling prophesy

The Self-Fulfilling Prophesy states that individuals are likely to live up to the expectations surrounding them from their leader. The in-group, who receives more of the leaders time and insight, and has higher expectations placed upon them, is more apt to deliver results that align with the leader’s expectations. Out-Group individuals have a more structured, formal interaction with the leader albeit over less of the leader’s time. Thus, out-group individuals find themselves responding to a leader who may have lower expectations, and may deliver a lesser result than they would otherwise. This confirms and reinforces the leader’s thinking and expectations, and the circle continues. Over time, what possibly began as the result of a perceptual error becomes fact. The in-group individuals may become better performers and be recognized as such whereas the out-group individuals, having not received the same level of leadership attention and positive expectation, may perform at lower levels.

There is nothing inherently wrong with in-group/out-group formation. After all, any group or team will have some excellent performers, some who may not be as strong, and some who just do not perform well at all. It is important to recognize that to the extent a large out-group exists on a team, as a result of perceptual bias, it may be a sub-optimized team. Affected individuals as well as the organization may suffer long term loss.

Conclusion

Those who wish to perform and be recognized as strong, effective leaders must be aware of the need to minimize in-group/out-group patterns of behavior, and have a plan to address this. They must be keenly aware of the power of the Similar-To-Me Effect and be sure that their selection decisions are not based on faulty, biased thinking. They must understand the long term consequences of perceptually biased selections to the individual, the organization, and the view of his or her leadership.

The imperative for diversity and inclusion is clear. Diversity awareness and effective management helps us ensure a level playing field, free from perceptual errors and biases as we assess our key players. Inclusion teaches us that leaders need to constantly be trying to expand the traveling squad, bringing more people fully into the game. To the extent we are able, we will have created a fair and open culture that optimizes our talent, maximizes our team’s organizational effectiveness, and engenders high levels of employee engagement and satisfaction.

Works Cited

Gladwell, Malcolm. (2008). Outliers: The story of success. New York, NY: Hatchett Book Group.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

© 2014, [Rodney Bailey, MBA, PMP; Joe Bailey, MS, PhD]
Originally published as a part of the 2014 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Phoenix, Arizona, USA

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