Skill Set Diversity: The Key to Increasing Team Productivity


Workforce diversity is a popular topic and at the top of the priority list for most of our organizations. Typically when we discuss diversity we are referring to age, cultural background, physical abilities and disabilities, race, religion, gender and/or sexual orientation. Rarely do we discuss various skill levels among employees as a diversity option. As we continue to look for the best ways to create and maintain diverse and productive teams, skill level and the effects it can have on productivity may become more important.

Jackson Nickerson, PhD, Associate Dean of Brookings Executive Education and Barton Hamilton, PhD, both professors at  Olin Business School, Washington University in St. Louis worked with Hideo Owan, PhD, The University of Tokyo  to specifically research diversity and its effects on productivity. Their study revealed four takeaways for managers:

  1. Teams can be more productive than individuals, if they are made up of individuals with complementary skills sets.

Putting together a team based on complementary skills sets does not mean that everyone can do the same thing or perform at the same level. We often put together teams based on title, experience, etc. and group like with like versus seeking out an opportunity to build a team with various levels of experience.

  1. The ability of the best person on the team can drive the productivity of the team.

Employees with higher skill levels coached those with lower skill levels t help them perform at a higher level. Over time, this approach was beneficial to the entire team as it saw its level of productivity increase to that of the highest skilled worker on the team.

  1. If you plan to implement teams in the workplace, let your workers form them and give them a team incentive plan.

The employees who formed their own teams often chose teammates with different skills levels. One theory behind this selection process was that employees took this as an opportunity to take advantage of learning opportunities within the team.  Research results showed that this approach paid off with the teams of varying skills levels outperforming the teams with mostly employees of the same skill level.

  1. If management directs team formation, think about the distribution of ability. Create teams with a good mix of skills.

The study showed that the diversity of ability outweighed other factors. The more productive the team, the more likely it was to stick together, which in turn can encourage people to stay in positions longer and decrease turnover.

What would a team that was diverse in both demographics and skill set look like for your next big project?

Kimberly Hall is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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richard regan

In your first paragraph, you claim that skillset diversity outweighs demographic diversity. In your last paragraph, you claim we need both.

Which one is it?

LaCandice McCray

I have found StrengthsFinder to be a useful tool in helping to identify skills of individuals and matching those with appropriate projects to form effective teams.

Kathy Gill

Without a link to the research this supposedly summarizes, the post is weak in evidence. Would like to share, but not without the research. There’s no title or date, so it’s not easily searchable, either.

miriam noetzel

my one and longstanding request, offered over the years, is for our workplaces to offer us Spanish for medical providers. this would greatly increase our diversity, don’t you think?