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NSF-Funded Study Asks ‘Does Diversity Enhance Team Success?’

Scott Tonidandel
Scott Tonidandel

Watson Associate Professor of Psychology Scott Tonidandel is co-investigator in a study recently funded by the National Science Foundation for $479,767 over three years.

Tonidandel will join principal investigator Eden King, associate professor of psychology at George Mason University, to explore group diversity "fault lines" and their patterns for the study, titled "When Team Diversity Facilitates Performance: Understanding and Overcoming Fractured Behavioral Patterns."

Two examples of "fractured behavioral patterns" or "fault lines" can be illustrated by the questions of whether women are more likely to be interrupted in business conversation, or whether people withdraw physically from individuals who are not of the same ethnicity.

Tonidandel and King will make use of Sociometric wearable electronic sensing devices that can capture face-to-face interaction, extract social signals from speech and body movement, and measure proximity and location of users. Comprehensive analysis of those data will then help them pinpoint the fault lines in one-on-one human interactions.

"This study will go beyond the one-dimensional thinking of, for example, race and gender ratios, and the various manual overlays psychology has traditionally used to explore them," said Tonidandel.

King and Tonidandel's analyses will show a fuller extent of related patterns than was possible to see before, for example how strongly such fault lines align and/or evolve over time, said Tonidandel. Deploying the technological and analytical tools made possible by the NSF grant, King and Tonidandel hope to find fresh answers to both persistent and emerging questions about workplace diversity.

Tonidandel and King met as students at Rice University. Since then, King's research focus has been diversity, while Tonidandel has focused on quantitative methodologies. "The two approaches have converged recently," he said.

The pair also recently collaborated on an edited book, Big Data at Work: The Data Science Revolution and Organizational Psychology, coming out this fall.

Initial lab work, to establish measurement parameters and validate data collection and performance techniques, will take place at George Mason. Data analysis will be under Tonidandel's supervision at Davidson. Later in the study, data collection will shift to Davidson, where Tonidandel plans to collect field data using intact work teams at local organizations. Tonidandel has begun preliminary conversations with potential strategic partners in the corporate and non-profit sectors.

"Common wisdom behind the ‘business case for diversity' purports that diversity is a resource that enhances team success," according to the research proposal. "Social science findings, however, suggest that diversity can instead yield stifled and conflictual team processes that undermine team outcomes."

"Is diversity, per se, effective or ineffective at increasing team functionality?" Tonidandel asks. "Or is that more a function of the interaction patterns? How are people interacting? Why is that? You can be part of a diverse team, but if you're always the one getting interrupted, that diminishes your effectiveness as a team member. How much of that is related to diversity parameters?

"The diversity literature is equivocal," Tonidandel said. "The results are really mixed."