chevron-down Created with Sketch Beta.
August 03, 2021 Article

Diverse and Inclusive Teams: They Simply Work Better Together

Diversity and inclusion: a recipe for enhanced team performance.

By Gerardo Alcazar
When teams commit to diverse and inclusive leadership and membership, they will have a greater likelihood of success.

When teams commit to diverse and inclusive leadership and membership, they will have a greater likelihood of success.

Pexels; Christina Morillo

As the studies discussed below show, the mere presence of diversity in a team can lead it to work harder, share unique perspectives, be more open to new ideas, and perform better. A vital indicator of a successful team is its makeup and inclusiveness. Just like a winning football team can’t be made up exclusively of quarterbacks, a productive and creative team requires a diverse mix of skill sets, experiences, sexes, color, and national origin. It also requires an environment where team members can bring their whole, genuine selves to work every day and feel that they can be meaningful contributors.

Diverse and inclusive teams are more thoughtful, strategic, careful, and innovative. They are smarter. However, the urge to choose colleagues that look like you and have had the same kinds of experiences is immediate and, frankly, consistent with human nature. We are most comfortable with what we are used to, and in most businesses (especially law firms), we have historically been most comfortable with, and most used to seeing, White men in positions of leadership. The benefits of a diverse and inclusive team, however, unquestionably outweigh any initial discomfort. 

Diverse and Inclusive Trial Teams Think Differently

In the month and years leading up to a client pitch or product launch, the team working on them will face hundreds of decisions, any one of which may affect the ultimate result. From the beginning to the end, the decision-making process within the group will evolve. In a 2016 Harvard Business Review article, “Why Diverse Teams are Smarter,” Heidi Grant and David Rock explain the research that shows that diverse teams are generally more strategic and careful in their decision-making. The decision-making process is improved by the “greater scrutiny of each member’s actions, keeping their joint cognitive resources sharp and vigilant,” they explain.

A 2020 McKinsey Quarterly report, “Diversity still matters” by Kevin Dolan and three coauthors, also notes that “diverse teams are more innovative.” As noted by Sundiatu Dixon-Fyle and others in a McKinsey report entitled “Diversity wins: How inclusion matters,” innovation requires the meaningful and thoughtful inclusion of all team members. In “Diversity still matters,” Mr. Dolan and his colleagues found that diverse companies are “more likely to have employees who feel they can be themselves at work and are empowered to participate and contribute.” Consequently, the cultivation of inclusiveness, belonging, and trust should be part of any successful company’s culture.

The benefits of diverse and inclusive teams are borne out by the research. For example, according to Erik Larson’s 2017 piece in Forbes, “Diversity + Inclusion = Better Decision Making at Work,” inclusive teams make better decisions up to 87 percent of the time, and they make those decisions two times faster with half the meetings. Rocio Lorenzo and Martin Reeves found in their January 30, 2018, piece in the Harvard Business Review, “How and Where Diversity Drives Financial Performance,” that more diverse companies report 19 percent higher revenue. Similarly, a McKinsey report by Vivian Hunt and two coauthors, “Why diversity matters” determined that for every 10 percent increase in the racial and ethnic diversity of a business’s senior executive team, there is a 0.8 percent increase in earnings. When diverse ideas are permitted to be shared in an inclusive work environment, the studies show that the team can reach beyond any single member and realize its full potential.

Diverse and Inclusive Teams Generate Better Ideas

“Where all think alike, no one thinks very much.” —Walter Lippmann

Groupthink is the practice of thinking or making decisions as a group, and it discourages both creativity and individual responsibility. As the Belbin Team and Victoria Bird found in “Groupthink and the importance of behavioural diversity,” in groups mired in groupthink, the team becomes the primary driver of behavior, which is a potentially dangerous consequence. Groupthink, as Anna Johnson discusses in her 2017 piece in Forbes, “Why Workplace Diversity Diminishes Groupthink And How Millennials Are Helping,” creates the illusion of invulnerability and collective rationalization; teammates don’t second-guess their assumptions, and, worse, they engage in self-censorship, among other symptoms. These issues are common to every team and exist in the team’s fabric. We can be easily fooled into thinking that alignment of thought is the best way to proceed, but actually, overwhelmingly, the reverse is true.

A diverse and inclusive team can reduce groupthink and generate a discussion process that tends to lead to more thoroughly vetted and thoughtful ideas. A diverse and inclusive group is more likely to reexamine facts and remain objective. In their 2001 study “Minority Dissent and Team Innovation: The Importance of Participation in Decision Making” in the Journal of Applied Psychology, Carsten K.W. De Dreu and Michael A. West showed that a diverse team boosts dissent. This is crucial because dissent encourages a thorough discussion of all ideas. In moments of dissent and high degrees of participation in decision-making, the team gets closer to the truth and can make better decisions. Dissent also more often results in greater creativity—in innovative ideas, strategies, and tactics.

Diverse and Inclusive Teams Perform Better

According to William H. Frey in “The millennial generation: A demographic bridge to America’s diverse future” in Brookings, census data show that millennials, adults born between 1980 and 1996, are a more diverse group than any other generation. Very soon, the millennial generation will represent a bridge to a more racially diverse adult population.

As our population becomes more diverse, so too will the communities and companies with which we conduct business. Racially diverse groups of clients, customers, and stakeholders consider a wider range of perspectives and exchange a broader range of information during deliberations than gender and racially homogeneous groups. Research by Samuel R. Sommers, “On Racial Diversity and Group Decision Making: Identifying Multiple Effect of Racial Composition on Jury Deliberations” published in 2006 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, shows that diverse groups spend more time deliberating and use “their time more productively, discussing a wider range of case facts and personal perspectives.” Sommers also found that diverse groups made fewer errors than all-White groups.

Consequently, diverse presenters, presentations, and ideas are crucial. The mere identification of a diverse team lead or team members will not cut it; to enhance the function of the team, diversity must be coupled with a culture of inclusivity and belonging. The team must look like and, more importantly, think and act like the community that will judge its work. A diverse team brings a perspective that more closely aligns and resonates with a larger, more varied group of people. A narrative that accounts for the experiences and viewpoints of the greater community generally resonates better.

To achieve the benefits of diversity, not only diversity but fostering a genuine sense of belonging must be a part of your organization’s culture and the way you work. When teams commit to diverse and inclusive leadership and membership, they will have a greater likelihood of success. 

Gerardo Alcazar is a partner at Blackwell Burke P.A., a NAMWOLF member law firm, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. 

This article is part of a special edition of the Woman Advocate Committee's newsletter following the theme Diversity: It Makes Teams Better and featuring a diverse team of writers from National Association of Minority and Women Owned Law Firms (NAMWOLF) member law firms. This edition of the newsletter was organized and edited by Sheryl L. Axelrod—president of The Axelrod Firm, PC, a NAMWOLF member law firm, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania— and Sandy Sakamoto—partner at LimNexus LLP, a NAMWOLF member law firm, in Los Angeles and San Francisco, California; Washington, D.C.; and Wilmington, Delaware.    

The material in all ABA publications is copyrighted and may be reprinted by permission only. Request reprint permission here.

Copyright © 2021, American Bar Association. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or downloaded or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association. The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of the American Bar Association, the Litigation Section, this committee, or the employer(s) of the author(s).