Office Oddballs Make Everyone Better

By | May 29, 2009

Insurance agency managers could learn a lot from a beet-farming, volunteer sheriff and paper salesman like Dwight Schrute.

Schrute, the character played by Rainn Wilson on NBC’s “The Office,” is a comic oddball whose eccentricities and awkward interactions leave his coworkers bemused and befuddled. Were Schrute or someone like him to start working in an office, he’d likely be the kind of new employee with whom nobody wanted to share a cubicle.

But if they want to succeed, they should.

That’s according to new research by a group of university professors who say that, in business, groups that include a Dwight Schrute or two tend to make better decisions. The research looked at the impact of folks like Schrute – known as “socially distinct newcomers,” psychology-speak for someone who is different enough to bump other team members out of their comfort zones – on traditional group problem-solving experiments. For a twist, they added a newcomer to each group about five minutes into their deliberations. It turns out that, when the newcomer was a social outsider, teams were more likely to solve the problem successful.

“One of the most-cited benefits of diversity is the infusion of new ideas and perspectives,” said Katie Liljenquist, assistant professor of organizational leadership at BYU’s Marriott School of Management and one of the study’s co-authors. “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,'” Liljenquist said. “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, said 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 said. “It is the tension between social dissimilarity and opinion similarity that prompts heightened effectiveness in diverse teams.”

Lessons Learned
There are a couple of key conclusions that Liljenquist said can be drawn from the research – lessons which insurance agency managers and those involved in hiring or leading teams should take note of.

One is the inherent power of outsiders. In the experiment, newcomers 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 second lesson has to do with the perception of effectiveness. Subjects in the experiment were members of different fraternities and sororities. In general, when the newcomer was from the same sorority or fraternity as the other team members, the group said that it worked well together, but was less likely to correctly solve the problem.

In contrast, when the newcomer was a member of a rival sorority or fraternity, the opposite was true — these groups felt they worked together less effectively, yet they significantly outperformed socially homogenous groups.

“What’s really distinct about this research is that, from a self-reporting perspective, what people perceive to be beneficial turns out to be dead wrong,” Liljenquist said. “The teams that felt they worked least effectively together were ironically the top performers!”

Find Your Schrute
Finding an outsider need not require hiring managers to head out o the beet farms. There are common “social distinctions” in today’s workplaces that cause enough tension to fit the mold for creating better-performing groups.

Some examples:

  • One employee from accounting working on a team in which everyone else is from sales
  • An employee of a company that had just been bought out finding herself on a team of people from the acquiring firm
  • An out-of-stater finding himself on a team full of natives of the company’s home state

To help employees in those situations cope, managers would be wise to explain that such conflict can actually generate better results.

“Without that information people just assume, ‘This is really uncomfortable. My team obviously must not be working effectively,'” Liljenquist said. “The experience in diverse teams may not always be a feel-good session, but if employees know that from the outset, they can better deal with inevitable conflicts and recognize the potential benefits… it can translate to real performance gains.”

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