Are Homogeneous Groups Better?

Are Homogeneous Groups Better?

During graduate school, I learned about the Homogeneous Unit Principle. Simply put, the theory states that people are most comfortable in groups of people like them. Robert Putnam’s book, Bowling Alone, reinforces the idea of the Homogeneous Unit Principle. His extensive study and research found that people are increasingly isolated within our communities largely in part to increased diversity and multiculturalism. People withdraw from interacting with others because they are uncomfortable relating to people they perceive as “different.”

Michael Jonas, writing in the Boston Globe calls this “the downside of diversity.” Citing Putnam’s research, he writes that “in the most diverse communities, neighbors trust one another about half as much as they do in the most homogenous settings.”

Diversity can be a hindrance to working together, when people allow their discomfort with “others” stand in the way of collaboration and community.

We may use politically correct language; we may say the right buzz words about the importance of embracing diversity. At the end of the day, though, Putnam’s research shows that even though we may not admit it, many of us strongly prefer to live, work, and interact with people who are just like us.

Leaders who work to bridge differences do so against enormous resistance at times, both from within and from without. Yet collaborating in diverse groups unleashes energy, insight, and creative solutions. Jonas states: “Culture clashes can produce a dynamic give-and-take, generating a solution that may have eluded a group of people with more similar backgrounds and approaches.”

While it may be comfortable and easy to stay in homogeneous groups, we will accomplish far more when we work in more heterogeneous groups.

Joion the conversation!

What can you do as a leader to help people overcome their resistance to working in heterogeneous groups?

What success have you found working with people from different backgrounds or perspectives from your own?

This was originally posted at Mountain State University LeaderTalk and is re-posted with permission. 

Filed As:  teamwork, LeaderTalk

About Becky Robinson

I am the owner of Weaving Influence and the leader of the Weaving Influence team. We help authors and thought leaders grow their online influence. I am also a wife and mom of three daughters, and I enjoy running, reading, writing, a good cup of coffee, and dark chocolate.

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What People Are Saying

  • Children. What I mean by this is – it is necessary to find that universal common denominator. It is often children that has the potential to bring us all together.
    Next is time (and proximity). When we first moved to our small village outside Geneva, like all new residents we didn’t know a soul. Soon however, our children were playing with the others on our cul de sac. They were in our yard and house and ours in theirs. It took time but when we were in need, we would ask “Thomas’ Mum” or Minka’s Dad” to help us. We were always hesitant but when you run out of options, you do what is necessary. The Swiss are rather reserved. It took “Thomas’ Mum” three years before she asked to borrow our crock pot.
    After a year of living here, another Canadian family moved in two doors down. We both had similar backgrounds and having us look after each others’ children was natural. I never felt awkward asking to borrow milk while I would NEVER do that with someone who was not from North American. It is more than just knowing the rules – as you write Becky, there is something familiar and comfortable.
    We have met some wonderful people through our youngest son’s school activities. We are fortunate – at his International School everyone is different. As we plan to move this summer, I know they will move out of our lives and that is sad.
    In summary . . . find the common denominator; realize it will take time; take your cues from others; and it may never be completely natural. . . But WOW it is so worth the effort. Once you have experienced diversity everything else pales.

  • Leaders can
    -talk about how they value the diversity of the team and what it has contributed to the business results – and do this REGULARLY
    -engage in “team time”, facilitated by an expert – using tools such as DiSC, MBTI, PI to identify each team member’s unique style and the overall style of team…and then discuss the advantages and challenges that the styles bring to the team. These conversations are always done respectfully and often have the result of allowing team members to see each other more fully and with a better understanding of the others uniqueness and benefit to the team. Ongoing conversations move toward the more challenging diversity aspects but a foundation of trust has begun to be established.
    -regularly demonstrate an appreciation for diversity by hiring, promoting, acknowledging the work of individuals that are different than the leader, whether visible of not, and who have demonstrated results.
    -recognizing that the leader’s commitment to diversity is an ongoing conversation and commitment to the team. One conversation and one team meeting DOES NOT build cohesiveness in the midst of diversity NOR “fix” the challenge of diversity.

  • Homogeneity is almost always easier, but how often is easier better? Not only is there more discomfort with heterogeneity, but also more conflict. Paradoxically, conflict is where we get the returns from heterogeneity as well. The important thing to understand, then, is the difference between task conflict and interpersonal conflict. Taking advantage of the former while minimizing the latter is the key to successfully leading diverse teams. I think DEBEXO above is correct, using language to safely explore our differences is important and can be accomplished using tools like the ones he mentions. Talking about, moving towards respecting, and eventually valuing our differences is the way to best gain the benefits of heterogeneity while managing the difficulties.

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