Recognising the value of ‘token’ individuals within the workplace can broaden perspectives and improve the performance of teams.
Diversity may have been a buzzword in the business world for decades but the changes that bring diversity to life within organisations and industries have been slow to materialise.
For example, a recent report found that even in 2020 over three-quarters of Australian TV presenters are white. Like the world of TV broadcasting, many fields of work are still dominated by men, specifically STEM fields like information technology and engineering.
According to data from the Workplace Gender Equality Agency, half of Australians work in an industry that is more heavily dominated by one gender.
Male-dominated industries include construction and mining, while education and healthcare remain traditionally female-dominated sectors.
But our research, by the University of Melbourne and universities in the US, has found workplaces that welcome diversity but also recognise and listen to the voices and perspectives of all its members can be smarter, more efficient, and more effective when faced with challenges.
This is because diversity provides opportunities to people normally excluded from certain industries.
Organisations can benefit from diversity in terms of fresh perspectives, ideas, opinions, and problem-solving capabilities that improve workplace performance.
But first, important obstacles must be overcome.
In the Academy of Management Journal, my colleagues and I looked at what happens when organisations take the first step towards a more diverse workforce by including a token individual and the conditions that enable effective team dynamics when doing so.
A token individual can be based on gender, race, sexuality or being part of a minority group or marginalised group.
While the concept of tokenism has generally had a negative connotation for many minority groups, our work emphasises that including a token in and of itself is only the first step in leveraging the potential power of diversity in teams.
Having a token on a team is a necessary but not a sufficient condition and requires the support from leaders and other team members alike in order to benefit a work team’s effectiveness.
At the time of our research, the US military was considering whether to allow women to take on direct, front-line combat roles that had been, in the past, restricted to only men.
All such restrictions on women have since been lifted.
We observed small teams of personnel completing tasks typically used in leadership development training in the armed forces. These included scenarios like rescuing a casualty, delivering supplies and medicine, and avoiding dangerous obstacles.
We randomly assigned and balanced teams so that some were male-only and others included a single – token – woman, sometimes serving as team leader.
We watched and recorded critical incidences as teams worked through four distinct tasks with differing degrees of physical and mental challenge. Teams were timed to assess the speed with which they effectively navigated the task and whether they successfully completed the task.
For tasks that were less mentally challenging, teams with a token woman were less effective. This isn’t surprising as, on average, women are usually not as physically strong as men.
But teams with token women were more effective when facing tasks that were more mentally challenging and required complex problem-solving abilities.
However, teams only performed better if the women spoke up, if leaders held a belief that women were capable contributors, and if the team acted on her suggestions.
This raises the question of how do token individuals use their voice?
In organisational research, voice isn’t just talking. It’s when a person speaks up and challenges the status quo, makes criticism or suggests an idea that moves their workplace or organisation towards a new course of action.
People from minorities or marginalised groups often bring different perspectives to the table than people who belong to the dominant or majority groups. They might offer novel perspectives, unique solutions or simply a different approach towards solving the same issue.
Listening to the perspectives of minorities can enable groups to solve problems more creatively and effectively.
Because the women in our study were, on average, less physically strong they had to find more creative solutions to tackling the problems that their male counterparts may address through brute physical force.
But, work units miss out on the benefits of minority perspectives if group leaders don’t listen to and support these perspectives. This highlights the importance of top-down leadership in organisations.
There are several ways to increase the capacity of leaders to manage diverse teams.
First, organisations can make sure that leadership teams themselves are diverse – sometimes a challenge as highlighted by organisations like Australian broadcaster SBS.
Second, leaders need to receive appropriate training in working with and leading diverse teams. Leaders must have an exceptional awareness of the issues faced by people from minority or marginalised groups and have the skills to make these people feel safe and comfortable when they speak up.
Leaders also need to endorse the value of diversity within their work units and the broader organisation.
Diversity is a worthy goal but it’s more complicated than simply setting targets. Importantly, leaders need to set the culture and only then can the benefits of diversity be fully enjoyed by everyone.
This research was funded by the US Office of Naval Research and conducted with Associate Professor Crystal Farh of the University of Washington-Seattle, Assistant Professor Jo Oh of the University of Connecticut, Professor John Hollenbeck