More diverse teams have been shown to come up with better ideas than more homogeneous teams.

They are also more likely to succeed at continuing to be creative in the long run.

So then why is it that so many companies are full of similar-looking people? Especially when it comes to the more senior levels?

Or why do we seem to like ideas which are similar to the status quo and comfortable, or why many people wait until they have seen someone they know use a new innovation before they would consider using it themselves?

It partially comes down to a cognitive bias called In-Group Bias.

The In-Group bias shows that people naturally split other people into two groups: those who are similar to themselves (the In-Group) and those who are different from themselves (the Out-Group). And you will almost always prefer and favour the members of the in-group who are similar to you.

Now, there may be multiple in-groups which an individual may feel a part of, based on:

  • members of their family
  • close friends
  • religion
  • gender
  • occupations
  • political identity
  • physical ability or attributes
  • sports team they support
  • types of films they like
  • anything where groups can be formed around a shared identity or belief

The bias is apparently so deeply embedded in our evolutionary past that looking at members of an in-group or an outgroup will activate different brain regions. We empathise more with in-group members, and the faces and even actions of in-group members are seen differently than those of out-group members. This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective, where we have evolved a strong fear of the unknown, and often see new things as negative. Therefore, individuals from outside of our in-group were more likely to be a threat, such as the potential of bringing disease or violence, so society was designed to keep the in-group safe from outside threats. This evolutionary drive is so strong that humans fear being excluded from the in-group as much as physical pain itself.

Interestingly, factors such as intergroup competition, similarity, and differences in status indirectly affect in-group bias by influencing the importance and impact of the bias. So in situations where there is a bigger benefit to being in an in-group, the bias may be more pronounced. As an example, in a case study where two hospitals merged, a high-status metropolitan teaching hospital and a relatively low-status local area hospital, both groups of staff exhibited strong in-group preferences, leading to conflict during the merger as they saw each other as a threat.

As a result of this bias, teams and especially companies will prefer to have team members who are similar to one another. As teams grow and change over time, the more senior members are likely to prefer keeping or bringing on board new people who are similar to themselves, to keep the in-group strong.

This has been proven by case studies where diverse teams in a bank were more likely to have higher turnover (people leaving) than teams which were more homogeneous. Being more similar was also more correlated with getting promoted. As a result, over time internal recruitment (rather than bringing in new blood) was likely to result in teams full of people who are more and more similar to one another.

Even when looking at external recruitment of new employees, often companies will claim that they are looking for individuals who match the company’s culture. Employers looked for candidates who were not only competent but also culturally similar to themselves in terms of leisure pursuits, experiences, and self-presentation styles. What this results in is companies bringing in people who are already similar to the people working there, reducing diversity further.

This is all terrible news when it comes to innovation, because research shows that more diverse problem solvers will outperform more intelligent groups. It also means that there will be less diversity in the types of ideas being generated by these groups, or evaluating creative ideas which come from people who are different more negatively. This is all ultimately likely to reduce your innovation success rate.

The good news is though: research shows that if you understand the neurological and biological reasons behind in-group bias (discussed above), it has been shown to reduce the impact of in-group bias. So have an open discussion within your group about similarity within your groups, and how you interact with other out-groups. It might just change the way you interact with others.

Did you know that scientific evidence shows your creativity decreases over time

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Creativity & Innovation expert: I help individuals and companies build their creativity and innovation capabilities, so you can develop the next breakthrough idea which customers love. Chief Editor of and Founder / CEO of Improvides Innovation Consulting. Coach / Speaker / Author / TEDx Speaker / Voted as one of the most influential innovation bloggers.