Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 118
Supervision Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Getting the Right Mix

Researchers explore the effects of gender on the performance of decision making groups.

Here's a management assignment for you. Consider it a test, because there is a "best" answer. Select a team of four people who will solve this problem:

There's been an accident: a crash of a light airplane in the far north in the winter. Rescue can not be immediately expected. The survivors have salvaged 12 items from the wreck. Rank the 12 items according to their value in helping these people survive.

As the manager, you can choose between males and females, composing your team with any mix of the genders you think will lead to the best performance (there is a correct ordering of the 12 items). Your team can be all male, all female, equally divided between the sexes, a single male with 3 females, or a single female with 3 males.

In arriving at your selection, you must consider the strengths and weaknesses males and females bring to the task, and the influences they have on each other. You should not concern yourself with political expediency. Your goal is to compose a team that will produce the best solution, and there is an optimum team composition which was discovered in research conducted by Steven Rogelberg, from Bowling Green State University, and Steven Rumery, from the University of Connecticut. They posed this winter survival problem to 96 randomly organized 4-person groups of undergraduate students, and one configuration consistently out performed the other possible combinations.

If you selected 4 males for your team, you probably recognized that the task was male-oriented, that is, males would likely have more first-hand experience with survival tactics and may even have had survival training from the military or from scouting. When Rogelberg and Rumery presented their winter survival test to undergraduates individually, males did consistently rank the items closer to the correct ordering. So if your team was all male, you were probably trying to load as much expertise as possible onto your team, a rationale reflected in staffing patterns in countless business settings. But you would be wrong. The all-male teams in Rogelberg and Rumery's experiment came in third, on average.

If you selected a team equally represented by males and females, you may have expected each gender to contribute unique insights and decided to load your group with equal representation from both genders. This solution would also be politically correct, but you would also be wrong. Half male, half female groups came in second.

Ranking the 12 items forced group members to share opinions, insights, and experiences, and to forge an agreement in judgment. Groups of 3 males and 1 female not only out performed the other combinations, the difference was significant. They were first.

Why? Rogelberg and Rumery could only speculate.

All-male groups tend to be overaggressive and competitive. Men exhibit more task-related behaviors whereas women exhibit more socioemotional behaviors. Perhaps the lone female "calmed" males' overaggressive drives. Perhaps she encouraged more effective teamwork by impressing upon males the need to coordinate their discussion and integrate and resolve widely divergent opinions. Perhaps she discouraged egocentric listening, which finds people only listening to themselves, waiting politely for others to stop talking so they can express their own points of view. Or perhaps she discouraged loafing as each male endeavored to impress upon her his intelligence by making a valuable contribution.

Whatever the reason(s), the effect was unmistakable. Women do influence men. And the next time you look around the table at a meeting and see only men in attendance, you should remember Rogelberg and Rumery's research. Your company may be handicapping itself, shutting out the very females who could make all the difference.

Reference: Rogelberg, Steven G., and Steven M. Rumery (1996). Gender Diversity, Team Decision Quality, Time on Task, and Interpersonal Cohesion. Small Group Research, 27 (1), 79-90.

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