Diversity has become a fact of life for many organizations. The changing nature of the workforce and the popularity of work teams means that more of us are working with people from different demographic backgrounds. This increased diversity is one of the main challenges of today’s organizations. Demographic diversity can be a positive influence when differences in perspectives stimulate in-depth understanding of the issues at hand, and can promote better quality and more innovative solutions to problems and decisions. At the same time, demographic diversity can likewise result in interpersonal tensions and factional thinking that is detrimental to team performance. An important challenge is thus to prevent the negative effects of team diversity and to stimulate the positives – a challenge that puts the role of team leaders at center stage.
My co-authors (Daan van Knippenberg from Erasmus University and Shainaz Firfiray from Warwick Business School) and I propose that team members’ perceptions of leaders’ charisma can minimize the negative effects of diversity on evaluations of team performance in two very different ways. First, it is possible that seeing charisma in their leaders makes team members “diversity blind” so that they do not “see” these differences because of the group members elevated sense of identification with their leaders and their values. Alternatively, it is also possible that while objective differences are perceived, the sense of power and confidence attributed to charismatic leaders makes team members “diversity mindful” so that they appreciate their differences overcoming the propensity to negatively evaluate their team performance.
Our approach differs from traditional diversity research in that we put emphasis on psychological aspects of diversity. We examine for the first time the salience of social categories such as sex and race in the minds of group members. We develop a novel measure applying methods from artificial intelligence to determine the degree to which the categories of sex and race are psychologically significant in the mind of team members. In doing so, we are able to study how charismatic leadership can serve as an antidote to intergroup biases often associated to diversity.
Conventional wisdom suggests that sex or race differences between team members would inevitable invite social categorization in term of own group and other groups, and such categorizations would certainly invite intergroup biases that would disrupt performance by reducing the willingness to collaborate with demographically different team members producing breakdowns in communication. However, we propose and empirically test that if a leader is perceived to have sufficiently high levels of charisma, followers may begin to turn a blind eye towards the demographic differences that distinguish them from others within the group. Furthermore, it is also possible that even when group members are psychologically aware of their demographic differences, teams under charismatic leadership do not translate their awareness of being different into poor task performance.
In our study of gender and race diversity in 42 manufacturing teams in the United States, comprising 287 members, we test these two competing ideas: the “diversity blind” hypothesis and the “diversity mindful” hypothesis. In addition to the objective distribution of sex and race attributes within the team, we also consider fautlines of sex and race. Diversity in work teams is very complex and does not only comprise of single attributes, but rather the compositional dynamics of multiple demographic attributes that can potentially subdivide groups. Groups that have identical dispersion of demographic attributes can still have different dynamics if those characteristics are aligned among the individuals in the group so that when the group is divided on the basis of one attribute (e.g., sex), then these subgroups are very similar with respect to other attribute (e.g., race). For example, in a group of five, all three females are white and all two males are black. Thus, we consider the degree of sex diversity, race diversity in the group as well as the strength of faultline between sex and race.
Our results show that perceptions of team leader charisma makes people both sex and color-blind, so that they become oblivious to these differences, supporting a diversity blind effect of charisma when the group is highly diverse in terms of sex and race faultline. In other words, diversity-blind responses inspired by charismatic leadership preempt intergroup bias by suppressing social categorization of both sex and race in combination. However, we find a mindful response to diversity when the group is diverse only in terms of sex differences. Under conditions of sex diversity – even when members are psychologically aware of their sex identities – perceptions of charisma in the leader make people mindful about their differences reversing the negative consequences of sex identity salience on evaluations of team performance, supporting a reduction of intergroup bias inspired by charismatic leadership.
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[This research paper has been reproduced with permission of the authors, professors of IE Business School, Spain http://www.ie.edu/]