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Diversity: It's not just about race and gender

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What about smart and dumb? 

The case for more diversity in management is well-researched. Teams that encourage minority opinions regularly make better decisions than those with a narrow view.

That should be no surprise. Anyone who has stress-tested a “great idea” knows it will be more robust if it’s intensely critiqued. While technical ability and relevant knowledge play a big part in effective management, its openness and enquiry that fine-tune successful decisions.

Business history is littered with corporate failures due to single-minded boards and CEOs. It’s the core message behind arguments for countering gender bias or mono-cultural input in senior management.

Nonetheless, it needs to be real. In the same way that corporate social responsibility has little real impact when it is mindlessly bolted onto a mission statement, diversity achieves little unless management draws on all its inherent strengths.

Diversity is not just a populist matter of race or gender. It comes in all shapes and sizes. Take smart people. We all know they are useful. Yet they also represent only one input and they come with their own limitations.

Smartness often involves having a lot of so-called “working memory” – the ability to juggle a lot of information at one time. It gives those people the ability to work with complex issues.

The downside? Studies show that people with a lot of working memory will often opt for the most complicated process or the more complex solution. They can use up all their mental horsepower and fail to spot the optimal answer, which might be something much simpler.

What’s the upside for us dumber people?

The advent of the MRI has helped neuroscientists make a lot of statistically significant findings in this area. There are too many to cover here, but a short list would include:

  • Smarter people find answers to difficult questions more easily when they are working on them with dumber people.
  • Smarter people can focus, but it can prevent them from seeing all the alternatives. Dumber people, whose brains don’t inhibit the entry of distracting ideas, see them more easily.
  • Smart people tend to be more perfectionist and are hard on themselves. That leads to more stress and less efficient decision-making. Dumber people more easily see excuses for their lack of perfection and are less stressed as a result.

Then there is the “cocktail party” effect. People with less working memory inadvertently eavesdrop. They are more likely to hear their name mentioned by others in a crowded room, whereas people with strong working memory concentrate on the conversation they are having. 

Most studies describe the cocktail party effect as a bad thing, but frankly, there are times when it is pretty useful, if you don’t’ get so hammered on the cocktails that you misinterpret the information.

Diversity is a spur to innovative thinking. If you are putting together a think tank to generate new ideas, or test them out, don’t limit participation to the politically correct categories.

Take advantage of gender and cultural differences but look as well for broader differences in thinking patterns. Smart people will help, but so will dumb ones. It will also improve my chance of getting picked on the team.


There’s more on managing teams in my book, Recharge. You can buy it online here. Or go to the Recharge Workshop and check out the free download called “Forming a functional team”.


Reader Comments (4)

I don't know whether dumb is the right word, but I certainly get surprised by how some distracted people spot the answer so quickly. Especially children. We spend too much time drumming that ability out of them.

July 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterStacey Reinholt

I've sent this to my boss!

July 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterManny Turnbull

I'd been struggling with a project for over a month. My PA, who happily admits she is not the sharpest knife in the drawer said this: "why don't you send it to someone who knows how to do it." I did. A month later when it was complete, my boss congratulated me for managing the project so well.

July 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRoss Higgenson

Nice take on a serious issue.

July 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterEllie Dearborn

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