Study: Outsiders facilitate better decisions

Published March 31, 2009 7:57 pm
BYU » 'Socially distinct' newcomers help solve problems.
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Maybe Jim and Pam should stop torturing Dwight -- and thank him instead.

On NBC's "The Office," paper salesman and beet farmer Dwight Schrute's odd hobbies and bizarre perspective endlessly annoy his co-workers. But in real life, such "socially distinct newcomers" might actually help teams of workers make better decisions, according to a new study co-authored by Brigham Young University assistant business professor Katie Liljenquist.

According to Liljenquist's study, recently published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin , new workers with different backgrounds and perspectives help existing teams of employees make better decisions by prompting more discussion and analysis. In the study, Liljenquist, along with two other researchers, asked groups of students from different sororities and fraternities to solve a murder mystery. They found that when a member of one sorority or fraternity agreed with an outsider from a different group, that person felt compelled to explain and discuss his/her point of view so as not to be alienated from the original group.

"They find it so uncomfortable to be agreeing with this social outsider; they're much more committed to leading the group through a thorough analysis of information," Liljenquist said.

She said the results are especially relevant in today's sagging economy.

"In light of so many companies downsizing and merging you suddenly have a lot of people who had long-standing identities with a division or corporation who are now being thrust into a group of people they are virtually strangers with," Liljenquist said. "This can help people make sense of these interactions they'll have."

Though Liljenquist noted that being socially distinct is different than being socially inept, she said someone with Dwight's background and mind-set would help to change a group's dynamic.

Lyda Bigelow, an assistant professor at the University of Utah's Department of Management, who did not participate in the research, said businesses could likely benefit from more work-force diversity. But she said there also might be limits to how different an employee can be before his opinions are not taken seriously.

Dwight, for example, might be pushing it.

Bigelow said she also worries that businesses in this economy might actually avoid hiring people with differences in an effort to play it safe, not realizing that hiring these people might be better in the long run.

Liljenquist said companies often pay lip service to the idea of hiring diverse employees but, in reality, without realizing it, end up hiring like-minded workers. In her study, Liljenquist found that groups composed entirely of similar members thought they performed better when they actually performed worse -- and vice versa for groups that included an outsider.

David Newbold, president and creative director of Richter7, a Salt Lake City-based advertising and public relations agency, said the results of Liljenquist's study don't surprise him. He said employees often feel more comfortable working with people like them, but diverse backgrounds produce better discussions and results.

"The advertising business we're in, for instance, relies on a broad variety of ideas and usually you get that...from a broad variety of backgrounds," Newbold said. "You can't get out of your mind and soul what hasn't been put there by various experiences."

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