Diversity; a strategic choice

As showcased earlier (see previous post on High performance teams) high performance teams function on the basis of twelve interrelated traits grouped into three higher order ‘families’: team culture, team structures, team processes. Zooming into our model, we highlighted that out of all three dimensions the very basis of a high performance team is made up of those four attributes (i.e. trust, transparency, conflict management strategies and team diversity) that constitute the team’s particular culture. Hence, the prescription for managers who aim at transforming their team into a high performance ‘super team’ is to kick things off with the appropriate culture.

One such cultural theme, diversity, is a reality of a growing importance for modern firms. Contemporary organizations perform within global, tech-driven markets, they build strategic alliances (Jackson, May, & Whitney, 1995) and implement work teams with greater frequency. These work teams are routinely assembled from individuals of varying demographic traits, team role preferences, skills, personalities etc. They therefore, display at least one type of diversity. The prescription is clear; when putting together a team, a sharp-sighted manager should select which type of diversity he/she should strive for and invest in the right training tools. On this note, in the present thesis we will equip our readers with the evidence based knowledge on how Virtual Reality (VR), the future -or present for some – of effective corporate training, can be of decisive contribution.

‘Food for ‘managerial’ thought
Why choose VR when considering team building tools, in the first place? The argument for VR in corporate training is simple; it can increase engagement and knowledge retention levels, and employees can be trained in a safer, more cost efficient way. Despite the initial set-up cost, in the long run the engagement, safety, and retention of training guaranteed through VR, translate in greater ROI for the firm.


Types of diversity, effectiveness and Virtual Reality

An early taxonomy of team diversity was introduced by Morgan & Lassiter (1992). The authors distinguished the differences between team members into four broad categories: (a) biographical differences, (b) personality differences, (c) differences in abilities, and (d) leadership differences. This taxonomy has two advantages over other categorizations put forth by theorists and researchers. First, individual attributes more easily fall into one category. Second, there appears to be less room for experimenter bias when deciding where an individual attribute belongs. Building upon this view while integrating Belbin’s (1981) ideas as well as other typologies (e.g. Jackson et al., 1995) we can categorize team diversity into four types:


1. Biographical diversity

This type of team diversity describes differences in observable attributes like gender, age or ethnicity.

The verdict: According to Bell et al.’s (2011) meta-analysis, race and gender diversity displays small negative relationships with team performance, whereas age diversity is rather unrelated to team performance. Increased demographic diversity has been linked to increased task-related conflict within a team which in turn, increases the risk of overall losses in productivity (West, 2012). Regardless, we should not ‘throw the baby out with the bathing water’. If said losses are treated by executives as an anticipated routine cost of doing business, then the focus can be shifted towards the potential benefits of demographic diversity. Namely, an inclusive organization can be rendered more attractive to talents. Inclusion communicates the message of a firm actively encouraging fairness and equal opportunities in all its activities e.g. hiring practices, training and promotion opportunities. Sacrificing some process losses might prove a greater strategic choice in the long run, since less diverse organizations face poor public relations and angry shareholders due to lack of inclusivity (see post at: https://observer.com/2017/01/diversity-workplace-economic-returns-hiring/)

VR builds empathy: VR is largely viewed as the optimal ‘empathy machine’. Unlike the passive experience of watching a TV show or reading a novel, this immersive technology throws people right into the action, by putting them in other people’s shoes. An insightful 2-month long Stanford research study (Herrera et al., 2018) corroborated this logic. During the research, some participants were shown a “Becoming Homeless,” VR experience developed by the University’s Lab. Those who underwent the VR experience were more likely to have lasting empathy toward the homeless and even more so they were ready to act upon that empathic tendency, by signing petitions! This emotional-behavioral response was not manifested by people who did other tasks (reading a narrative on a computer). Characteristically, as the researchers note ‘what’s special about this research is that it gives us longitudinal evidence that VR changes attitudes and behaviors of people in a positive way’.


2. Personality diversity & Team role diversity

As outlined previously (see previous post on Team role theory), Belbin’s team role model describes the inclination of certain personalities to take on particular roles when working in teams. On this note, Belbin additionally proposed his so-called ‘role-balance’ axiom, whereby the greater diversity of roles manifested within a team the better the team performance. Simply put, ‘the more the merrier’. We remind our reader the close relationship between team roles and personality –Big Five personality model- traits. Hence even though Belbin’s model remains under criticism for its validity, personality diversity is a safe lens through which the model can be treated.

The verdict: People with different personalities display different behavioral patterns and tendencies. For instance, there are advantages to having teammates that score lower on risk aversion for they hold the role of the innovator inside the team. Similarly, individuals with higher risk aversion tend to lead the team towards safer solutions and fewer errors. On this basis, heterogeneous groups may be at an advantageous position, owing to the fact that team members complement each other’s strengths and substitute for each other’s’ weaknesses. However, it is advisable that this type of diversity should be sought after in cases when the desired outcome is sustained stability and collaboration within a team, rather than performance and productivity per se. Why? Studies suggest stronger correlations between personality diverse teams and variables such as task cohesion and team cohesion (Van Vianen et al., 2001). What is more personality diversity has been shown to act as a remedy for team conflicts (Trimmer et al., 2002). The critical question for the executives at this point is how to track or predict their peoples’ work related behavioral tendencies?

VR offers accurate behavioral assessments: The advantages of VR over ‘traditional’ measurement tools are particularly salient in the field of clinical psychology, whereby practitioners are often asked to make accurate assessments and predictions regarding an individual’s behavioral patterns inside a particular context (work, classroom etc.). The commonly available behavior testing tools, such as paper-and pencil or computer assessments, behavioral observations, self-report questionnaires, interviews etc. seriously lack what we call in research as ‘ecological validity’. In essence, results from such procedures do to reflect the real-world and cannot provide safe predictions about the individual. This gap is growingly addressed by adopting VR experiences and technology, instead. As Parson & Phillips (2016) note in their study, VR technologies allow candidates to be placed in a controlled social situation, a carefully designed immersive scenario etc. offering a good idea of how they will interact in a similar social/work environment. The authors highlight, furthermore the fact that besides the immersive experience that primarily serves the user, VR technology allows for administration efficiency, data analysis and processing, automated logging and storage of responses; all facilitating the administrators’ job. Through these critical features virtual reality guarantees that the practitioners will be able to offer repeatable, and diversifiable assessments of whether a candidate is suitable for a role, as well as –at a second stage- keep track of his/her development over time e.g. after a particular training experience.


3. Functional diversity

Functional diversity or deep – level diversity refers to team members’ different fields of expertise, different skillsets and abilities.

The verdict: Bell et al. (2011), reported functional background diversity (i.e. multidisciplinary teams) as having a positive relationship with team performance, team creativity and team innovation, especially for design and product development teams. The latter was hinted in Bowers, Pharmer & Salas’s (2000) meta-analysis where the authors reported that homogeneity displayed no effect on team performance, when tasks were of cognitive nature. This implies that a team composed of members from diverse functional backgrounds/specializations (e.g. marketing, UX experts, finances, engineering etc.) sustains a broader range of perspectives and knowledge to draw from. Hence, performance outcomes are superior.

Virtual Reality buffers biases: Nevertheless, it appears that all leaders face a rather stubborn obstacle, when working with functionally diverse teams; such teams find it difficult to coordinate. Effective communication and flow of knowledge become quite elusive, since each member holds a unique set of job experiences, a unique expertise background and an equally unique outlook on ‘how the job must be done’. Mangers can surmount this challenge if only they adopt a strong focus on building empathy and perspective taking among their teams. As showcased above VR have proven particularly effective in this domain. Essentially, perspective taking works towards lifting peoples’ unconscious biases. Here is another great evidence-based case. Existing research suggests that within a firms/team the elderly may face various forms of age-based discrimination (i.e., ageism) such as, widespread unwillingness to communicate with them (e.g. Harwood et al., 2015). A Stanford study (Oh et al., 2016) found that embodied perspective taking made possible only through the use of VR experiences mitigates the possibility of ageism being manifested within a team. This is achieved mainly through ‘correcting’ biased notions e.g. the notion that the elderly is inconveniencing the younger members. Once again, research underscores how VR can produce results greater than any conventional training medium when it comes to building peoples’ perspective taking potential.


Key takeaway: ‘Choose your fighter’

Assess what form of diversity your team and firm could support and would mostly benefit from. Next, turn to cutting-edge team building and training tools to help you sustain a functioning ‘diverse’ team climate. Virtual Reality experiences have a lot to offer on that matter. Explore your options.



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