How to create a team that takes advantage of diversity by listening to researchers who energetically say “there is no magic in team building”

“A company that respects diversity” and “promoting diversity.” I have often heard such phrases recently. In fact, in the past decades, role models of the past have become ineffective and have collapsed, and people’s values continue to diversify.

However, even if we say, “respecting diversity,” the hurdle to achieving this is high. How can people with different goals and backgrounds get together to create one value?

This time, we talk about “team building that takes advantage of diversity” with Toshio Murase, an associate professor at Waseda University, who has been engaged in teamwork research in Japan and the United States for more than 10 years. In the future, how will diversification affect the image of the leader and the ideal state of organizations? We want to think together about how we should band these together.


The values in differences start with “difference recognition and values”
Which one do you choose, homogeneity or diversity?
“Tolerance” is the keyword allowing teams to join hands
The impact of office space on the team
Leaders and team members can both mobilize the team

Toshio Murase
Toshio is an associate professor at Waseda University School of Commerce. After graduating from high school in 1997, he went to the United States. In 2011, he obtained a PhD from the University of Central Florida (industrial and organizational psychology). After serving as a postdoctoral fellow at Northwestern University and the Georgia Institute of Technology, he taught at Roosevelt University in Chicago. He started his current job in September 2017. He specializes in leadership and teamwork research.

The values in differences start with “difference recognition and values.”

― This publication is based on the concept of “Across and Beyond,” that is, “the intersection of different things creates new values.” Today, I hope you can tell us about the secrets of team building, bringing together a variety of team members, and creating innovation. First, what is the most important element of team building?

Murase: In that sense, “having good chemistry” is an important factor in team research. Having good chemistry means that team members can understand each other’s thoughts. If we can share information about “who plays what role” and “what to do next,” the team will work very well together. To put it another way, having good chemistry can be called “shared recognition,” and when it is successfully cultivated, deep conversations and collaboration can be achieved without much communication. In other words, research has shown that high performance is achieved.

For a long time, the working environment in Japan consisted of mostly men who grew up in similar environments and had the same level of education. For better or worse, it was an environment where people could work together without explaining every step from one to ten. However, in an environment with different values, ideas and backgrounds, like the United States, it is necessary to devise a way of letting people understand every step from one to ten.

― Recently, values have diversified in Japan, and it has become common to have different ages, genders, and backgrounds in the workplace.

Murase: Therefore, first, communication won’t be successful unless we start from the premise that “everyone has a different way of understanding and different values” and “managing the differences well will produce interesting results.” Reconciling ideas is a laborious task that requires a lot of effort, but it is easy to get over “the troublesome aspect” by recognizing that each background is different and knowing that value will be created in the future.

― As a result, innovation will be born.

Murase: It is important to perceive the value of “differences,” and a major part of this comes from the leader. Team members are unconsciously looking for what their superior is thinking. Therefore, if the leader thinks that “reconciling ideas is troublesome,” team members will have this perception, and an atmosphere of “it can be considered troublesome” will be created. Leaders should be aware that their values influence team members. When building a team to create innovation, it is important to communicate, through words and attitude, the fact that differences create value.

Which one do you choose, homogeneity or diversity?

― However, I also hear the opinion that in small elite teams, like startups, “a team whose members are homogeneous is faster.”

Murase: If similar people get together, their sensibilities will match and their speed will be faster. Bringing values close together and matching the communication style is very troublesome. It is not about being able to read each other’s minds, but if the premise is shared and the background is the same, it is possible to have deeper thoughts. On the other hand, the more homogeneity, the narrower the field of view, so even when finding a new thing, its width will be narrower. There is a limit to knowledge at the beginning, so even when trying to think about something new, it is difficult for it to be completely different.

For example, regardless of whether it is good or bad in the end, when adding the ideas of a woman to a situation where a group of men are saying “this is good,” the combinations will spread.

When creating new ideas, how you combine them is important. If the combined elements come from the same area, new things will be born in the same area, and when elements coming from different areas are added, chemical changes are produced. The good thing about diversity is that the range of combinations becomes wider.

― You should use diversification at the appropriate time and in the appropriate circumstances.

Murase: That’s right. That said, research shows that increasing diversity will increase friction in the team and slow down speed. Diversity itself is not universal, but how to manage it is an important aspect. If your organization doesn’t need diversity, you may want to focus on speed.

― In that sense, there are also teams that get inspired by the charisma of one person, right? Is that the right person for the right job?

Murase: We tend to seek a single genius, a hero or a heroine, but the limit of genius is being individual. The fact that the genius did something is visible and easy to understand, but that doesn’t mean that this person can actually pay attention to everything. There are limits to what an individual can do. I think the important thing when seeking innovation is how to create a collaborative system that takes advantage of diversity. How can we connect elements that have not been connected so far to create new elements? In other words, it is important to create serendipity.

Certainly, it is overwhelmingly easier to move with an individual, and cooperation is troublesome. However, when thinking about potential, people who collaborate with people from different fields and ideas will have a greater scope and will be more likely to generate innovation.

 “Tolerance” is the keyword allowing teams to join hands

― From here on, the topic is teams with different values, for example, when startups and big companies work together, and I would like to ask what the leaders should think about and how the team members should communicate to build teams in a proficient manner.

Murase: I haven’t done that much comparison between startups and big companies. If teams have different expertise, I think it is important to share the goals. When diversity exists, the interpretations are different when seeing the same thing, so it is important that leaders share the direction. Is it possible to create an environment that allows failure after setting a common goal?

― It is psychological safety.

Murase: In the first place, there will be many “failures” when trying to do “new things.” Homogeneous teams tend to score 80 points each time. However, in the case of a diverse team, the swing toward good or bad is large. It starts with reconciling ideas about the premise, so the result may be less than 50 points, or it may be significantly greater than 100 points.

In order for the team to work well on the premise that failure may occur, psychological safety must be ensured. Of course, not blaming people for the failure, and also if the failure that occurred is shared, measures can be taken to raise the average score. In other words, in order to create innovation, we need an environment where not only good ideas, but also failures can be shared. I think that the role of a leader is also to be responsible for creating a place around that aspect.

― In this way, the role of the leader in a team is great. On the other hand, how should team members act? For example, how do you avoid situations where conflict or jealousy among team members arise?

Murase: We want to avoid situations where team members try to put each other down. Since humans are also animals, trying to put somebody down can be perceived as a threat, and such situations have to be eliminated. If you recognize that you are not being put down, you may think “what should I learn?” or “let’s pay a little more attention.” Without such a premise and atmosphere, deep discussions are not possible. However, conflict (confrontation and friction) is not generally bad. Conflict can be due to human relations or tasks. In terms of human relations, such as “the personality of this person does not fit,” this will reduce performance. On the other hand, task conflicts are a combination of the “way of proceeding” and “recognition” regarding a job. It is said that if this happens moderately in the team, it can increase performance.

In teams with members with different values, it is normal for task conflict to occur. Where there is no task conflict, it is because we can’t say what we want to say, and we are reluctant to interact with each other. This makes it difficult to share good ideas. I think it is important that team members can exchange a variety of opinions.

― What should be done specifically?

Murase: I think that there may be no magic formula. It is layers of correct approaches. In that sense, social gatherings play an important role. However, there is a tendency to talk to the people you already know, even at a social gathering, so it is necessary to create a mechanism for talking with strangers.

Besides this, you can also use lunches. Eating food will raise your blood sugar and make you feel better, so you can rely on such physical changes. Some people can’t drink, but I love drinking, so I socialize over drinks (laughs). However, it doesn’t have to be alcohol. It could be coffee or anything else.

― By the way, what kind of communication should I keep in mind when meeting for the first time? I would like to know the points that the introducer should pay attention to.

Murase: We unconsciously divide people into the categories of “my friends” and “others.” For example, that’s the case with style of dress. The impression is different between casual and formal clothes. Compromise is important, in order to be aware of “having the same perspective.”

― If the other person cares about whether or not you wear a tie, maybe it would be better to wear a tie.

Murase: I don’t really like wearing ties (laughs).

The way you speak is also an element. If you speak using only technical jargon without understanding the other person, you may feel that “this person is different.” It is easier to communicate what you want to convey when you think about what the other person is saying and what you think is important. In fact, research has shown that people who imagine and talk about other people are able to hold discussions while tolerating diversity.

― It is important that both clothes and behavior are closely aligned to those of the other person. This is something that could also be applied to love and friendship.

The impact of office space on the team

― Until now, we have focused on communication, but on the hardware side, does the office space have any impact on the team?

Murase: I think there is an impact because we are aware of the circumstances around us. For example, you know that here is your group, because desks are arranged by department. So, that is a different group. Then, there is a high possibility that fluid information sharing won’t be carried out.

― Then, will “open space creation,” such as open offices, become important?

Murase: In general, I can’t say that, but considering the nature of human beings, we can expect two advantages to an open space.

1: Avoid patterning

Our behavior is unconsciously patterned. In the workplace, you may not go to talk to people in the next department if there is no need, and it will be necessary to create a pattern and achieve high performance in the limited time at work. On the other hand, new knowledge arises from a combination of things that haven’t been touched before, so it is difficult to create a pattern.

Then, if you create a place for a variety of people, such as an open space, accidental combinations are likely to occur. So, it is possible to create an environment on the hardware side. However, if the same people come each day, it will be the same combinations every time, so it is necessary to manage this, so that people with different ideas will attend.

2: Capturing heterogeneity

Another thing is that we tend to seek homogeneity. Talking to a group with different backgrounds is very hard. If you are a big company, it may be easier to talk to other big companies. This is because it is easy to empathize with others in the same industry and at the same stage. The open space can be a trigger for overcoming such homogenization.

However, this is also meaningless if you only talk to the same people. There is no way to solve everything in one way, so it is necessary to rotate the system in a complex manner. It is troublesome, but if no one does it, innovation won’t emerge.

― Recently, how has remote working affected team building?

Murase: I’m researching this right now. In order to share information in a fluid way, just inviting team members is not enough. We are busy. It is hard to come up with topics by just saying “please talk freely.” That’s why we need to devise ways to encourage communication. For example, it might be project-based, because people will have to talk.

However, there may be too much information. If you don’t have time to look through useless information, you may shut down the information. Then you could forget about the important information.

Considering whether fluid information sharing can be easily done across groups, I think that it is not easy in the first place. I think everyone is having a hard time about what to do there.

Leaders and team members can both mobilize the team

― Would you like to give a message to the readers at the end?

Murase: I’m a leadership researcher, so I perform research into the impact of leaders on teams, and I have repeatedly said that they have the power to change the system. It is the leader who creates the atmosphere of the team, so even if you say, “I can’t do it,” you can change the system because you have influence, if you want to do it. I want to tell you, “you are the symbol of the team.”

The troubling point about the leader is that he/she fits into the existing system, and it has become his/her career, so I think it is difficult to think about the changes that should be made to the system. It is necessary to move forward with the help of outsiders.

On the contrary, what I want to tell team members is that everyone can demonstrate leadership. Leadership is about making changes, whether large or small. It is hard to make a change, but if you leave all the decision-making to someone else, nothing will change.

― Anyone may be involved in creating a mechanism. This isn’t a summary, but I heard that many people are now working to improve work efficiency under the name of work style reform. However, I think that doing new things while improving work efficiency in a situation where you are extremely busy is very contradictory, or a task that runs contrary.

Murase: Efficiently handling what you have now and creating new things are completely different vectors of work. I think it is hard to do both.

To tolerate useless work is to accept failure. If the top leadership doesn’t create such an atmosphere, innovation won’t emerge. The mechanism is also important, and if the team’s evaluation system is focused on efficiency, the motivation to do new things will be reduced. I think that support from the top is necessary for a solution to be found, and incentives are also necessary for new things.

― In reality, there is no magic wand. There is no choice but to build a mechanism in a steady manner and move forward. I have realized that again today.


・The recognition and personal behavior of the leader is important, in order to perceive the value of “differences.”
・There are both advantages and disadvantages to homogenization and diversification, but if diversity is used, the potential for innovation increases.
・When teams with different values collaborate, “a common goal” and “an environment that tolerates failure” are required.
・Conflict is not “evil,” and reconciling ideas about the way of working and recognition will improve performance.
・There are areas where advantages can be expected to be seen from “an open space,” but management of the place is also essential, in order to make it function.
・Leadership is something that everyone can demonstrate by “making changes.”

Planning:Yohei Azakami
Writing:Gaku Suzuki
Photography:Keisuke Takazawa