Diverse Decision-Making Groups

Posted on November 3, 2008. Filed under: Academic Publishings, Corporate |

Elsass, Priscilla M. and Laura M. Graves. Demographic Diversity In Decision-Making Groups: The Experiences of Women and People of Color. Academy of Management Review. 1997. Vol. 2, No. 4, pgs. 946-973.


This study investigates diverse decision-making groups and the experiences of women and racial minorities. In evaluating societal and organizational norms, they use theoretical models to describe basic cognitive and behavioral processes that influence their experiences in decision-making groups. The first model is centered on the Focal Individual’s Experience in a Diverse Work Group and the second model summarizes the focal individual’s role in the group via Patterns of Exchange for Outgroup Members.

The first method, involving Figure 1, the Diverse Work Group model, the authors illustrate a 3-phased developmental process for focal individuals (women and racial minorities), beginning with cognitive, then behavioral, and lastly, their outcomes. “When a work group is formed, its members will engage in social comparison and categorization processes that shape their role expectations (949).” Each individual possesses a self-identity which is based on their social and gender categories. They also have a personal identity which is based on their personal attributes, which is generally their salient features as perceived by others. By salient features, they specifically refer to those perceivable physical characteristics that project either their gender or racioethnicity.

Research proves that salient features such as race and gender are automatically categorized by others, and function as the primary fields of categorization. As women and racial minorities enter groups, categorization of the focal individual is centered around the social dimensions of traits and behaviors. These social expectations are unconsciously imposed upon the focal individual, slowly persuading the individual to adopt those role expectations. These cognitive processes include all social expectations, namely; stereotypes, judgments, biases, and negative expectations, all of which orient dominant members to unconsciously assign low status to women and racial minorities, and consequentially, empowering white males.

Recent research also suggests a positive correlation between interactions of demographic similarity and task competence. However, “the focal woman or person of color may develop negative expectations regarding his or her own group role (950).” Once women and racial minorities internalize the negative expectations, they begin to doubt their own capabilities and competency, reinforcing the negative racial and gender stereotypes. This phenomenon is also cited in Anna Fels article, Do Women Lack Ambition? where she discusses the effects of ambition, mastery, and recognition. In this article, Fels underlines the significance of women receiving less recognition, and thus, losing the ambition to master an art or skill, and finally, losing all ambition for success, withdrawing from group decision making and tasks.

As women and racial minorities withdraw from groups and decision making processes, they also begin to limit their own capacities. “Women and people of color may experience limited opportunities to develop their task skills, which further reinforces their self-doubts (950),” causing majority group members to be less attracted to that gender or racioethnic group and any remaining dissimilar others. According to James Elliot and Ryan Smith’s Race, Gender, and Workplace Power, they discuss homosocial reproduction, the desire to promote and work with members most similar to the majority, as a primary cause to workplace disparities. As long as homosocial reproduction is being practiced, women and racial minorities may not be a beneficiary, thus requiring focal individuals to maintain strong self and social identities in the workplace. Through this vehicle, women and racial minorities will maintain their ambition, mastery, and will receive the necessary amounts of recognition to push for continued success.

The second phase of Figure 1 are the behavioral processes, which focus on the behavioral interactions between focal individuals and the group. The authors divided these interactions into two different exchanges, instrumental and social. “Instrumental exchange refers to the quality of the task-related interchange between the focal individual and the group. Social exchange refers to the quality of the social interchange between the individual and the group, including the extent to which an individual offers social support to others as well as the degree to which this behavior is reciprocated (951).” These exchanges are the basis for Figure 2, the patterns of exchange for outgroup members.

Lastly, the third and final phase of Figure 1, Outcomes, concentrates on the focal individual’s group attachment and contribution. There are two major developments here, with the first stating; a high level of social exchange with focal individual’s will provide support and thus develop a positive attachment to the group, and secondly; positive (supportive) instrumental experiences produces enhanced task behaviors and the quality of these exchanges.

Figure 2 is simplified into 4 quadrants; exclusion, complementing, contributing, and engagement. These four possible patterns of exchange “describe the effects of racioethnicity and gender on the instrumental and social roles of women and people of color in decision-making groups (953).” Exclusion stands in quadrant 2 with low quality of instrumental exchange and low quality of social exchange. The exclusion pattern, low group participation and tasks, fewer influence attempts, leadership oversight, and poor commitment, is connected to fewer established networks and contacts within the organization. This fact is supported by Blass et al.’s article, Politics Understanding and Networking Ability as a Function of Mentoring: The Roles of Gender and Race, in which they prove that women and racial minorities do not have equal access to networks due to the lack of political affiliations and networking opportunities.

Complementing, a rare exchange, consists of low instrumental and high social exchanges. Here, “some individuals may exhibit a preference for social, rather than instrumental, behaviors, which leads to the complementing pattern (957).” Here, focal individuals rely on social group maintenance rather than task activities. Engagement, an uncommon experience, is a high quality and high social exchange, proving that focal individuals “are most likely to experience this pattern when individuals and situational factors minimize the effects of categorization and facilitate the individuals’ participation in task and social interactions (958).” In order for this exchange to occur, salient features such as skin color and other biological physical characteristics must be reduced in order to minimize negative and behavioral stereotypes from developing.

The authors also discuss change triggers, when group members (focal individuals) alter their behaviors depending on internal or external influences, and how it affects diversity-related exchanges. The two categories of triggers are: interpersonal challenges and gaps between actual and desired group outcomes. “Interpersonal challenges arise when a member’s behavior contradicts other members’ role expectations for him or her (963).” There are a multitude of examples, including confidence, denial, positive self-concepts, and so forth.

The second trigger is group outcome gaps. Here, “the focal individual’s role is a gap between the desired and actual outcomes of the group (964).” Outcomes, or rather, successes and failures, may result from group member frustration, imbalance or balance, and even synergy. However, negative outcomes results in inter-group scrutiny, prompting evaluation and problem-solving tactics, often times pinning failures onto focal individuals.

Further research must examine how race and gender affect both task and social behaviors. This is internal assessment is critical for practicing managers, whereas scholars need to focus on longitudinal research in order to properly address individual experiences. These experiences will vary among factors and personal attributes, all of which will affect diverse decision-making group experiences. In conclusion, this research demonstrates that social, racial, and gender factors influence diverse decision-making groups and needs to be further evaluated, and lastly, focal individuals must experience positive task and social interactions in order for diversity efforts to be fruitful.

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