The value of diversity

When making decisions as a group we tend to think and operate through frames of reference which means that we take cues from what we know and the people around us. The problem with this is that we are oblivious to our own blind spots and psychologists call this perspective blindness.

Because we tend to follow what we know and are comfortable with we avoid what we don’t know or like and this was discussed recently in an excellent article by Matthew Said in The Times. He suggested that as a result of perspective blindness we will not consider that which we are not familiar with nor are we likely to consider alternative factors in arriving at decisions.

Team of people working in an office

Two sets of teams were given a murder mystery to solve

He gave two examples of this: he cited a study by an American psychologist, Katherine Phillips, in 2009 where two sets of teams were given a murder mystery to solve. One set consisted of four friends and the other set was made up of three friends and a stranger. The latter set of teams performed significantly better by predicting the correct answer 75% of the time compared to the teams of four friends which only got the right answer 54% of the time.

Interestingly there was another striking difference between the two sets of teams: the discussions “experienced” by the two sets was varied significantly with the diverse teams finding that discussions were demanding and challenging because of the differing views or perspectives of team members. In most cases they came to the correct conclusion however they were not wholly certain that they were right and they began to understand the complexities of the problem.

The other teams, made up of four friends, found the discussions much easier and were more confident of being correct even though, in fact, they weren’t. In other words they had not been exposed to differing views and did not fully understand the broader issues of the problem.

The second example given by Said in his article was that of the poll tax which was introduced by the Thatcher government in 1990 as a replacement for the rating system. It is now regarded as one of the biggest mistakes in modern political history, current events notwithstanding, and it came about because it was conceived by a key group of cabinet ministers who all came from the privileged elite and did not reflect, or indeed understand, the broader electorate and the impact of the poll tax.

A classic example of this was when it was pointed out that the new tax would mean that an elderly couple living in inner London would be paying 22% of the income on the tax alone to which the then Secretary of State for the Environment, and key proponent of the change, suggested that “ … they could always sell a picture …”.

The failing here was “group think” that arose during the development stages and that the small group of ministers were all drawn from the same background. The problem was then compounded because the proposal was discussed in a limited way at cabinet without due process which would have allowed additional/alternative views to be put forward.

The answer to perspective blindness is therefore diversity with a range of views and experiences being brought to the group which will significantly improve discussion and decision making. This concept has been followed for many years by large organisations which have sought to appoint members from differing backgrounds on boards and committees in order to optimise performance.