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Why every office needs a Dwight Schrute

When teams have a member who's different than the rest, they make better decisions, new research shows

From Monday's Globe and Mail

A new hire like The Office's Dwight Schrute joins your team. He sits down at the table and it's awkward. The ideas he shares (thankfully not about beet farming or his conspiratorial plans for an office coup) are different. And while you might be taken aback by the new guy's intellectual assault, you kind of agree with him. It makes you feel a little antsy, but you're sharing and that gets the meeting rolling. Decisions are made. There's progress.

Behold the Dwight Schrute Effect.

Well, that's not its official tag. But if you ask researcher Katie Liljenquist, having "socially distinct newcomers" on a team can help it perform at a higher level. Team tension is crucial, she says, and shaking up the same old crowd is the way to create it.

"You can imagine if you work in an office and you've got this outsider like Dwight Schrute who walks in and a lot of his ideas resonate with you," she says, adding that a "socially distinct" person is from a different background, not just kooky or weird. "Your fellow in-group members are hearing this and thinking, 'Wait, you agree with Dwight?' That can be really uncomfortable and socially threatening."

Insecure and conflict-averse employees who are comfortable in their groups often bristle when a newcomer arrives.

That's because their social cohesiveness is threatened, says Prof. Liljenquist, an associate professor of management at Brigham Young Universitywhose research was published last month in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

If one person agrees with the outsider, the group is spurred to brush aside that discomfort and sharpen its focus on the task at hand. Members will open up to new ideas, have a few productive, yet civil boardroom tussles, and voilà: A higher-quality team session will ensue.

The research comes at a time when employees are doing just about anything to blend in because of recession-fuelled job insecurity. Employees who don't run with the pack can have extra trouble with this, experts say.

Prof. Liljenquist and her co-authors, Katherine Phillips of Northwestern University and Margaret Neale of Stanford University, conducted their experiment on 220 members of sororities and fraternities at Northwestern by playing the Murder Mystery problem-solving game.

Participants decided individually ahead of time which suspect they thought committed the murder. Researchers reinforced the students' identities by posting the name of their sorority or frat on the wall and divided the room with blue tape. Then, "socially distinct" members of the different fraternities or sororities met with the "in-groups" and came to a consensus on who was the murderer. The groups who had a socially distinct member came to the right answer more often than groups who were all familiar with one another.

The groups that had no no newcomer, or only one with whom they were familiar, didn't perform well, but had confidence to spare, Prof. Liljenquist says.

"They were like, 'We worked great together, there was a lot of respect.' But what they were really doing was chatting about the weekend," she says. "In the group where you have a social outsider, it's not fun [but] there's a lot more group tension and so they misinterpret that."

So, managers should take self-reported team performances with a grain of salt, she says. And managers should also actively try to make teams more diverse, says Prof. Phillips. The mere presence of a socially distinct newcomer made the groups work more effectively.

"In this time of economic downturn, it's even more important for companies to figure out how to cut the fat and improve their efficiency," she says. "If you can have people thinking critically about the issues at hand, then I think that companies see the benefit."

But what happens to the Dwight Schrute effect over time?

While there's no conclusive research on this, Prof. Liljenquist says it will likely persist in subtler ways. "If you set the groundwork [and say] 'Hey, we have different perspectives and we need to change our processes because of that' ... that sets a norm for work styles that could continue in the long run."

Groupthink can hurt companies trying to keep their heads above water in the recession whirlpool, says Derek Chapman, an organizational behaviour psychologist with Valscent Consulting in Calgary. Fearful of losing their group identity, employees familiar with one another often won't speak up if they don't agree with another member. When a newcomer from a different background comes in, that risk isn't so high, he says.

"It forces [the group] to question whether or not the practices that they've had in the past are still good ones," he says. "They suddenly can't just operate the way they always did."

Since coming out to his colleagues as a gay man just over two years ago, Chris Post, 46, says he actively looks for people with different backgrounds when building a group.

"I don't know if it's because I come from a different place and it's coloured my view; I just think you get richer decisions," says the Calgary-based tax partner with accounting giant KPMG. "I believe the more [and] varied viewpoints you bring to something, you're going to get a more robust decision and a more robust environment."

However, the newcomers who bring unique qualities to the table ought to be cautious about being very open too soon or they can alienate alienating others, says Gail Rieschi, president and CEO of VPI Inc., a human resources firm in Mississauga, Ont. A survey her firm commissioned last August found half of Canadians feel they don't fit in at work.

"Any newcomer, if they want to become part of the group, [will] need to walk softly," she says. "There has to be an element of ... conflict, there has to be an element oftrust before you can actually get into a healthy conflict situation. ... That's where the walking a little bit softly, being a little bit empathetic, not simply forcing your ideas initially but gaining an element of trust before you then start being an agent for change, comes in."

Got that, Dwight Schrute?

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