How A Little Discomfort Can Boost Performance

Author: Barbara Palmer       


In “Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives,” Tim Harford writes that people should embrace the challenging process of seeking input from people who are different from themselves and expect it to be uncomfortable. (Fran Monks)

When we’re deliberating with a group, we should be seeking out people who think differently, who have different experiences and training, and who look different from us, writes Tim Harford, author of Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives. No surprise there — you may already be familiar with the wealth of research that demonstrates that diversity benefits your organization’s ability to innovate, the quality of its decisions, and its bottom line.

In his book, Harford, an economist, cites a study conducted by psychologists that looked at how well groups made up of four friends worked together to solve a murder-mystery puzzle, compared with groups made up of three friends and a stranger. The groups that included a stranger, the study found, were substantially more likely to reach the correct conclusion — they did so 75 percent of the time, compared with a 54-percent success rate by the groups of friends.

But here’s where the research takes an unexpected and interesting twist: The teams of friends were more confident that that they had gotten the right answer, even when they were wrong. And the diverse teams, who performed better, were less likely to think they’d gotten the right answers. The diverse teams also reported that they felt socially uncomfortable, unlike the groups of friends who’d had a good time working together.

“The diverse teams were more effective, but that is not how it seems to people in those teams,” Harford writes. “Team members doubted their answers, distrusted their process, and felt that the entire interaction was an awkward mess. The homogenous teams were ineffective and complacent. They enjoyed themselves and wrongly assumed that because their friendly conversation was smooth and effortless they were doing well.”

Harford’s takeaway? Although it doesn’t come naturally to us, we should embrace the challenging process of seeking input from people who are different from ourselves and expect it to be uncomfortable.

The economist suggests four ways to get out of our comfort zones:

  • Recognize our tendency to spend time with people just like us, and deliberately put ourselves into situations where we won’t be able to avoid new kinds of interactions.
  • Value people who connect disparate teams. “The role of these people is to knit together the teams and to build trust,” Harford writes.
  • Constantly remind yourself that there are benefits to tension — “which can be easy to forget when all you want is a quiet life.”
  • Aim for “goal harmony,” rather than focusing on team harmony. “We have to believe that the ultimate goal of the collaboration is something worth achieving,” Harford concludes, “and worth the mess of dealing with awkward people.”

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