Why Working With Friends Can Be a Big Mistake

Mar 3, 2014
6 Min Read

Admit it: You would rather work with people who are pretty much just like you.

It’s human nature to feel more comfortable with people who share common traits, habits or values. But there is real danger in surrounding yourself with a bunch of “mini-mes.”

Research shows that “homogeneity” can lead to individuals underestimating the actual complexity of tasks facing a group “because they assume that others’ behavior is more predictable than it actually is,” says Evan Apfelbaum, the W. Maurice Young Career Development Professor of Management and an assistant professor of organization studies at the MIT Sloan School of Management.

Why? Apfelbaum explains that those in homogenous groups tend to believe that because others look like them, they are like them in terms of having similar perspectives, knowledge and behavior.

“This assumption of like-mindedness feels comfortable; it caters to our basic human need for social acceptance and inclusion. But it also creates blind spots in our judgments and behavior,” he says. “We underestimate the potential for seemingly similar others to have substantively different perspectives and ideas, which can lead us to make oversimplified, perhaps even, objectively inaccurate, assessments in these contexts.”

A Harvard University study further underscores the problem of collaborating with those who have similar backgrounds.

Specifically, researchers found that venture capitalists tended to collaborate with people who were a lot like themselves, in terms of race, past employers and the college attended.

But those who shared a lot of personal characteristics were generally much less successful in their deals than those who worked together based on talent. For two members of the same ethnic minority, for example, their likelihood of success dropped 25%. In another example, two investors sharing the same college alma mater were 22% less successful.

Researchers say the reason friends may not deliver the best results is because they may tend to think alike – or even force themselves to think alike. Instead of challenging one another and risking a confrontation, they seek harmony and don’t see potential pitfalls or accept diverse opinions.

It’s clear from research that diversity can benefit your career and your company. So, if you’re ready to break out of your comfort zone and begin seeking diverse opinions and ideas that can help you be more innovative, challenged and successful, think about:

  1. Diversity comes in different packages. A recent Economist Intelligence Unit study finds that a new definition of workforce diversity is emerging that includes values. That means that when seeking diversity, you should also talk to people about things like what motivates them, what engages them and how they like to collaborate.
  2. Ditch the excuses.  It’s not difficult to find those with diverse backgrounds. Census data shows that between 2000 and 2050 new immigrants and their children will account for 83% growth in the working-age population. If you can’t find people different than you, you’re not paying attention.
  3. Look for people who annoy you. While you don’t want to work with someone who will make you so angry you can’t see straight, do seek those who get your blood pumping and your brain engaged. You want those willing to challenge you and your assumptions.
  4. Travel the globe.  You may not be able to take a round-the-world trip, but technology makes it easy to reach out to others from other cultures and countries who can offer different viewpoints and ideas. Social media can be a great way to connect with other people and learn of their challenges and solutions.
  5. Change the station. Listen to a different radio station on the way home from work, attend a networking event for a different industry or culture, read magazines aimed at a different gender or go to an ethnic restaurant you’ve never tried. The more you expose yourself to different tastes and ideas, the easier it will be to embrace the idea of change.

What are some ways to become more diverse in your career?

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