Picture this. You are in a meeting and the boss makes a suggestion. Everyone on the team heartily agrees, but you walk out of the room knowing that there had not been enough meaningful discussion. You just experienced a meeting that lacked diversity of thought.

What is diversity of thought?

Diversity of thought goes beyond traditional elements of diversity – such as race and gender – and looks at differences in perspectives and approaches. Employees vary in their thought patterns based on differences in backgrounds, experience, education, responsibilities and more.

When employees express their unique perspectives, it encourages more critical thinking and discussion. Diversity of though can result in better decisions. 

Criticality and Decision Making of Teams

Diversity of thought can also apply to the alignment between leaders and teams in their risk tolerance related to action plans.  The expectation is that teams will actually perform better if there is some disagreement during the planning and goal setting phases. 

As the world has gotten more complicated, more and more work is being accomplished through teams.  Large organizations generally have teams within functions, locations, geographies and business units that may or may not be well aligned with priorities and goals. 

Expert teams must make fast decisions

Solving complex problems in business, healthcare, military, research and development and other arenas requires the use of expert teams – and often requires multiple expert teams.  The prevalence of teams makes this type of research critical for the success of large organizations

The complexity and uncertainty inherent in our world raise the stakes on decision making – decisions often need to be made fast and involve risk due to unpredictable outcomes. 

With teams being so critical for solving complex problem, it is important to understand how to build great teams and deploy them effectively. The ultimate goal is to set the teams up for success.

Risk tolerance and risky behavior

Individuals and teams can be evaluated on their level of risk tolerance and the impact on risky behavior.  Large organizations involve networks of people within teams, across teams and up and down hierarchies.  At any point in these networks, risk tolerance can be similar (convergent) or different (divergent). 

Convergence versus divergence

The concept of convergence also showed up in a previous blog post titled Research Says – New Leader Transitions Can Make or Break a Team that looked at alignment of proactive personality traits between a new leader and the new team. In that study, convergence of proactiveness was a benefit to helping a new leader join a team.  The current study explores the benefits of divergence of traits for multi-team systems.

Multi-team systems (teams of teams)

Multi-team systems are defined here as teams of teams – interdependent teams within a larger organization that are working together on a shared goal. The size and complexity of multi-team systems makes it challenging to coordinate and adjust.

Consequently, multi-team systems often rely on planning and goal setting sessions with a leadership team.  Those leaders then coordinate the activities of the component teams.

When leaders and teams don’t agree

Sometimes the component teams don’t agree with decisions made by leaders in the planning sessions. This lack of alignment could be seen as negativity or dissension.

This research suggests that diversity of thought between the leader and the team in the planning stages is actually helpful and leads to positive behavior and more success for the team.  

Research Overview

In a 2018 paper published in Academy of Management Journal titled “The Benefits of Not Seeing Eye to Eye with Leadership: Divergence in Risk Preferences Impacts Multiteam System Behavior and Performance”, Klodiana Lanaj, Trevor Foulk and John Hollenbeck explored how similarities and differences in comfort with taking risks can affect the performance of teams in a multi-team system. 

The research involved 1288 United States Air Force officers who worked in 92 14-person teams as part of a leadership training course. 

Research question: Can divergent risk preferences help teams?

The study examined the alignment between the leaders’ risk preferences and the teams’ risk preference.  This alignment (convergent or divergent) was hypothesized to impact team performance.

Specifically, they expected teams to perform better if there was divergence between the leader’s risk preference and the team’s risk preference during the planning and goal setting stage.

Research question: Can divergence lead to positive behavior?

In addition, the researchers expected the divergence of risk preference during the planning stage to lead to more positive behavior and for those positive behaviors to make team performance even stronger. 

In this study, they termed the positive behaviors as aspirational behaviors – which are defined as well-planned calculated risks that use data to choose the best course of action.

They also considered negative behaviors termed as unwarranted risk behaviors – which are defined as activities enacted without first finding critical data and considering costs and benefits.

This study hypothesized that the alignment level of the risk preference leads to certain aspirational or unwarranted risk behaviors which in turn lead to the team performance outcome.

Research Findings

Finding 1: Teams in a multi-team system perform best when the leaders and the specific teams had different risk preferences (their preferences diverge) in the planning and goal setting phase.

When the leaders and teams converged in their risk preference, performance is lowest.  Interestingly convergence led to weaker performance whether the shared risk preference is for high risk or for low risk.

Finding 2: Different risk preferences also led to more aspirational (positive) behavior. And more aspirational behavior resulted in better team performance.  The research found that aspirational behavior partially mediated the relationship between risk preference and performance.

Finding 3: Unlike the aspirational behavior, the research did not connect different risk preferences to unwarranted risk behaviors.  The results showed a directionally correct result, but the finding did not meet the standard (statistical significance) for proving the hypothesis.

Finding 4: Although framed as a “research question” instead of a formal hypothesis, the study also looked at how a divergence in risk preferences might impact learning over time. They found directional evidence that the divergent risk preferences helped teams adjust and perform better over time. In a sense, differences during the planning phase put the team in a stronger learning mode which helped make the team more adaptable.

Summary of findings

These findings support the benefits of diversity of thought – teams performed better when there was divergence in thinking (risk preference) between the leaders and the teams during the planning phase.  These divergent preferences also led to more of the well-planned (aspirational) behaviors.

Applying This Research

Challenge your team to come up with diverse solutions

Encourage diversity of thought

As a leader, you should encourage diversity of thought – especially during the planning and goal setting stages of complex programs. Encourage team members to discuss and debate approaches and strategies with the intention of reaching better outcomes.

Just as important, be wary of too much agreement too quickly. If everyone around the planning table seems aligned too quickly, you should probe and ask questions to make sure that critical issues are being discussed.

Support adaptability through learning

In this rapidly changing world, organizations and employees must prepare to adapt and respond to changing situations.  Encouraging diversity of thought and debate creates a learning environment which supports adaptability and continuous improvement.

Focus on quality solutions

During planning, keep your team focused on coming up with quality solutions.  Quality solutions can come through diversity of thought and the resulting discussion and critical thinking. 

Focusing on the positive result can help overcome the discomfort that sometimes arises with disagreement.

Know when to disagree and when to agree

Early in my career, I got a great piece advice about there being a time and place for disagreement and a time and place for a unified front.  A team can and should debate, discuss and disagree as needed to make an optimal decision. 

But once the decision is made, everyone on the team needs to get on board and support the decision – even if the chosen plan was not your own preference.

Debate behind closed doors and align around decisions. 

This research provides interesting context and support for these workplace applications and focused on diversity of thought related to risk preference – divergence in risk preference led to more discussion and better outcomes. 

Not all disagreements are good

Keep in mind that all disagreements are not created equal.  Other types of misalignment or divergence in preferences could focus on petty issues or personality differences and lead to in-fighting or derailing the session. 

Diversity of thought should support positive, solution-focused discussions – and should not be interpreted as supporting unhelpful bickering.

Assessment of Research

This study contributed to research regarding diversity of thought and teams.  It had some impressive aspects such as using a large sample size and including observations of actual behavior (aspirational and unwarranted risk behaviors). It also employed a realistic military scenario with meaningful outcomes.  The Air Force uses this simulation to make promotional decisions, so participants are motivated to take it seriously.

Different than many academic journal articles, this one also provided an interesting scenario of how this approach could be leveraged.  The journal article builds on an example – based on a corporate product development team – that makes it easy to understand how these concepts can apply beyond the military scenario to the corporate world.

The study would have benefitted by having some additional measures – especially related to individual level data.  Specifically, there was no data about each individual person’s risk tolerance.  From a psychological perspective, it would have been interesting to see how each person’s individual risk tolerance influenced the discussions and team and multiteam level decisions.

Research Details

Lanaj, K., Foulk, T. A., Hollenbeck, J. R. (2018)  “The Benefits of Not Seeing Eye to Eye With Leadership: Divergenge in Risk Preferences Impacts Multiteam System Behavior and Performance.”, Academy of Management Journal, Vol 61, 4, 1554-1582.

Research factors: real-world sample, mediators, behavioral measures, path analysis, surface graphs


This article was first published on Science of Working on May 5, 2019 as Diversity of thought helps teams achieve more.


  • Ann Howell

    Executive Coach

    Howell Leadership Science

    I write about research-supported workplace topics and improving workplaces. I'm also experimenting with humor writing in my Level 50 Life series. Be warned - this is an experiment, and explosions, or at least bad jokes, could occur at any time.