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Which is better – an idea that everyone agrees with, or one that’s the result of conflict? That depends.

It’s an interesting phenomenon. As human beings, we like being with people who agree with us. It’s comfortable. We know what others are thinking. Boards have an easier time coming to consensus.

Unfortunately, that comfortable consensus isn’t always the best solution. The discomfort that comes with having to work with people unlike yourself is actually a good thing. In fact, that ease of working together may be keeping you from taking leaps forward.

Homogeneous groups don’t come to better solutions, as Columbia University’s Katherine W. Phillips, and co-authors Katie Liljenquist and Margaret Neale have found. They’re simply convinced that they did. Heterogeneous groups, on the other hand, come to better solutions. They just don’t think that’s the case.

According to Phillips,

“When you think about diversity, it often comes with more cognitive processing and more exchange of information and more perceptions of conflict.”

What I love about this is Phillips’ phrase perceptions of conflict. Having a difference of opinion is often perceived as a conflict, and we humans tend to magnify the potential discomfort in conflict.  For most of us, our default mode is to avoid conflict, and that can lead us to avoid diversifying our boards (or staff!).

Less confidence = better outcome

In fact, it appears that this feeling of discomfort can also lead the group to have less confidence in their ultimate decision, despite actually having a better outcome.

That’s right.

Diverse groups make better decisions and have less confidence; homogeneous groups have more confidence and worse decisions.

Phillips hypothesizes that the very discomfort with diverse opinions causes the group to examine all the opinions more critically. There is less automatic acceptance, and a desire to defend one opinion versus another causes each opinion to be examined more closely.

A lot is written today about the need to diversify boards and staff, to reflect the diversity of the community we serve. We usually point to having a better understanding of needs and being better able to respond and serve those needs. What this study shows is that the benefits go well beyond reflection of the community.

Diverse groups make better decisions. What are you waiting for?

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This post is based on a report in KelloggInsight, from Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, which summarizes the work published originally published in Society for Personality and Social Psychology.