Communication Currents

Who Will Survive? Diversity and Team Dynamics

June 1, 2012
Intercultural Communication

The host of the reality television show Survivor started the 2012 season by announcing that the competition would team nine women against nine men.  In the episode with the merging of the two teams, six women and six men remained. The next person voted out was male, which started the other men scrambling, worried about whether they would be “overpowered by these girls.”

You don’t have to be on Survivor to know that team interaction is complicated. Team interaction can be particularly complicated when it involves people from different biological sexes, ethnicities, and cultures. Research indicates that diverse teams may experience more conflict and interaction difficulties than homogeneous teams and yet they are still able to produce high quality work. Understanding team interaction and team outcomes requires us to understand how individuals within teams, and teams’ interaction, are affected by teams’ diversity.

How does diversity influence teams’ interaction and satisfaction? Do biological sex and ethnicity impact people in the same way? How important are individual characteristics compared to diversity in the team? Answering these questions is important because rapid demographic changes in the workplace require us to understand how difference and diversity are associated with team interaction. To investigate these issues, we asked more than 550 individuals from 41 workgroups (or teams) in a large manufacturing organization to report their perceptions of their team’s interaction climate and evaluate their satisfaction in working with their team. We also acquired each individual’s sex and race/ethnicity in order to determine the diversity of the teams. Once we had all the individual data, we could not only examine if individual differences were associated with their perceptions of the team, but we could also examine how the diversity of their team was associated with their individual perceptions. In other words, we were able to explore if how someone assessed the team was more determined by individual factors or the diversity of the team. Some interesting conclusions emerged.

The level of diversity in a team matters. In the opening example, the men on Survivor were worried about how many women were left. The men in this study may have reacted the same way if they had been on Survivor—as the number of women in the team increased, ratings of the teams’ interaction climate decreased. Conversely, although the ratio of men to women was associated with decreasing evaluations of interaction, as ethnic diversity increased, evaluations of the teams’ interaction also increased. This appears to provide contradictory insight into the impact of team diversity. These findings, however, may be more indicative of the importance of environmental influences on the interpretation of diversity rather than a clear conclusion about diversity. The organization we studied was largely male (about 80%), so as the “normal” ratio of men to women changed, individual’s evaluations of the team also changed. In addition, the organization is ethnically diverse so team members are used to interacting with people from different ethnic groups.

Who you are in the team matters in relation to how diverse your team is. When we examined the ethnicity of individuals relative to the diversity of the team, a more complicated picture emerged. Team members who were white or Hispanic tended to have lower ratings of interaction climate and were less satisfied with the team when there were increased levels of ethnic diversity. In contrast, as the ethnic diversity of a team increased, those who did not identify as white or Hispanic rated their teams’ interaction more positively and were more satisfied with their team. These results suggest that diversity might be locally situated. The organization we studied is located in one of four states with an ethnic plurality and individuals in these teams are used to ethnic diversity. In fact, the employees who participated were 40% European-American, 33% Hispanic American, and the remaining 27% were from other racial/ethnic groups. In other words, for those team members who are from an ethnic group with a critical mass in this organization, ethnic diversity is a slightly negative feature. For team members who are from an ethnic group that is not well represented in the organization, ethnic diversity is a slightly positive feature.

What this study indicates is that our interpretation of, and reaction to, diversity may be more determined by our everyday experiences and expectations rather than by Census reports on racial and ethnic diversity. White, Hispanic, and male employees all reported decreased perceptions of interaction climate as their teams shifted to include more people who were different from them—not white, not Hispanic, and not male. This demonstrates that simple diversity may not matter as much as how the diversity differs from the norm in a particular organization. That is, two ethnic groups with ethnic differences may be so familiar with each other and their equal representation that presumed differences are negated. In this organization, Hispanic and white employees are equally represented, which may explain why individuals from both these of ethnic groups experience diversity similarly. An individual’s reaction to diversity may mean different things depending on their location—being Hispanic in Albuquerque versus Hispanic in Albany may differently influence how we consider ethnic diversity in a team.

Diversity is a factor for team interaction and that is important because interaction is a key factor for team satisfaction and outcomes. Regardless of individual background or diversity of the team, the higher the quality of interaction in teams, the more satisfied individual members were with the team. Specifically, high quality interaction includes listening to and respecting different perspectives, participating in achieving team goals, and handling conflicts collaboratively. Practicing these aspects of high quality interaction and prioritizing the team’s needs and their own connection to others tends to lead to positive perceptions of team climate and satisfaction with team.Even though Survivor takes places on an island and prioritizes competition, those who recognize that no man or woman is an island are often most satisfied with the team process. So, the last key message about this study is that teams should work toward having high quality interaction with each other to create positive team outcomes.

For the men in season 12 of Survivor, they were right to be concerned about the composition of men versus women. Four weeks after the episode mentioned in the opening aired, five women and a man named Tarzan remain. Apparently, the women also knew something about how diversity and communication climate work. What will be interesting is to see what happens next—of the five women who remain, two are white, one is African American, one Hispanic, and one is Asian American. And, in the episode that last aired, the women were intent on ensuring that the final three players were women.

About the author (s)

Virginia M. McDermott

High Point University

Associate Professor

John Oetzel

University of Waikato