We all know firsthand from cable news and social media that America is growing more politically polarized. But political bubbles aren't limited to our communities, online and off.
When researchers quantify the political orientation of particular industries, they find that if you work in agriculture or mining, you're extremely likely to be surrounded by conservatives. If you're in entertainment, academia, or tech, everyone around the water cooler is likely to be some flavor of liberal. Political bubbles happen at work too.
There's no huge shock there. But according to fascinating new research by a team of scientists and data wonks published in Nature Human Behavior and highlighted recently on the Harvard Business Review site, there is a hefty cost to having a team that's made up entirely of people who vote like you.
The most effective teams fight about politics.
To figure this out the researchers designed a clever experiment. They looked at a place where they could easily follow both arguments about politics among teams and quantify the impact of those arguments on their eventual output: Wikipedia. After estimating the political orientation of 600,000 Wikipedia contributors based on their past edits of the online encyclopedia, they then quantified the political polarization of the teams behind 232,000 Wikipedia pages.
Did more politically diverse teams write articles that were deemed higher quality by Wikipedia's internal rating system? Here's the money sentence from the HBR writeup:
"We found that higher team political polarization was strongly associated with higher page quality, far exceeding the quality of similarly sized biased, neutral, or moderate editor teams. This was especially true for political articles, but also those on social issues and science."
In other words, mixed teams of conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats, ended up writing way better Wikipedia pages than those written by teams that consisted largely of people who all agreed or had no strongly held position. Fighting about politics, in other words, led teams to do far better work.
How to fight right about politics at work.
Does this finding pertain to anything beyond the world of online encyclopedias? Decades of psychology research showing that diverse teams, while uncomfortable and challenging for their members, produce better results suggests so.
Just as hiring people from different racial or socioeconomic backgrounds brings more ideas to the table and helps uncover unexamined assumptions and hidden biases, hiring both Democrats and Republicans helps weed out group think and broaden the knowledge of the team to find more creative solutions. And hey, it might even help strengthen American democracy, which is no small side benefit.
But as we all know from particularly nasty Thanksgiving conversations, political diversity might be thought-provoking, but it can also devolve into shouting and dysfunction. Just getting people who disagree profoundly together in a room is not a recipe for a productive exchange.
The researchers behind this study agree. They insist that while political diversity can pay hefty dividends, in order to cash in leaders need to set the stage for a healthy exchange of ideas. Here are a few of their recommendations in brief, though if you're thinking of pushing to hire a more politically diverse team, it's definitely worth a read in full.
One token Republican/Democrat does not a politically diverse team make. "We found that polarized teams engage in more debates but with less toxic conflict than ideologically unbalanced teams, where the efforts of lone, contrarian editors to 'de-bias' articles sometimes provoked charged disputes," write the researchers. Translation: one token diversity hire tends to lead to end poorly. True diversity demands a greater balance between different viewpoints.
Set clear set expectations for the discussion from the get go. "Frequent appeal to Wikipedia guidelines and policies in polarized teams, the violation of which could lead to an editorial crack-down on participation, suggest that increased oversight and bureaucracy might be beneficial," they write. Translation: it probably pays to set out a rule book for respectful conversations before you dig into meaty discussions and make sure there is a transparent process for handling violations of these rules. Talk about how you'll talk before you talk.
Be upfront from the beginning about your commitment to diversity. Wikipedia has a "well-known and publicized commitment to discourse and consensus. Strongly signaling such a mission upfront may induce self-selection from those individuals willing to cooperate for the common good," note the researchers. Translation: be upfront about your commitment to political diversity and productive debate with those you hire so they can self-select in to the challenges and rewards of this sort of workplace.
Have you had either positive or negative experiences working with a politically diverse team?