The Outsider Effect


Trying to juice up your next ad campaign? Develop a clever new product strategy? Research shows that adding an outsider to the mix can improve the thinking of your team and produce better results. According to a study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin,

Better decisions come from teams that include a “socially distinct newcomer.” That’s psychology-speak for someone who is different enough to bump other team members out of their comfort zones…

Researchers noticed this effect after conducting a traditional group problem-solving experiment. The twist was that a newcomer was added to each group about five minutes into their deliberations. And when the newcomer was a social outsider, teams were more likely to solve the problem successfully. [From Kellog School of Management News – Embracing the ‘socially distinct’ outsider.]

The good news is that the “outsider” doesn’t have to be an expensive consultant or an external facilitator. The important thing is that the newcomer is distinct in some way from other group members. Beyond such obvious social distinctions as race and gender, the study’s author, Katherine Phillips of Northwestern University, suggests other examples that might work:

– One employee from accounting working on a team in which everyone else is from sales
– An employee of a company that has just been bought out finding herself on a team of people from the acquiring firm
– An out-of-stater finding himself on a team full of natives of the company’s home state

The outsiders in the study weren’t necessarily vocal or opinionated; their mere presence seemed to be sufficient to make the group think harder. According to Phillips, this research is one justification for maintaining an emphasis on workplace diversity: a diverse team (whatever the elements of diversity might be) will produce better results.

So, when you are pulling together the next team or task force, add all of the “obvious” team members, and then throw an outsider into the mix. You’ll be glad you did.

  1. katchja says

    It would be interesting to know if there is any correlation between the amplitude of this outsider effect and the in-group solidarity. The most cohesive, string team is also the most biased one due to the group-think tendency created and encouraged over time. Therefore, a certain degree of reluctance is exepcted towards the outsider. It would be interesting to see also if there is any correlation between the amplitude of the outsider effect and the group leader’s openness to novelty. He should be the only one who could break the group think-phenomena and let the outsider provide new insights for any given situation.

  2. Paul L'Acosta says

    It should be interesting Roger to see the group’s reaction to this addition. But I can definitely see not only the positive effects but also the added variety to the mix. Great idea so thanks for sharing it, along with the quotes as support. — Paul

  3. cbrancheau says

    Makes me think about how a grain of sand can bring about the making of a pearl. An oyster bumped out of it’s comfort zone creates something beautiful.

    I like Phillips view that it just has to be someone distinctly different from the group. It makes it easier and more practical to change things up without necessarily throwing money at it.

  4. Akash Sharma says

    Thanks for sharing the post this analysis confirms that in most of the firms the strategy is designed by the same teams over and over again and the problem in this is that they get used to a lot of things which should not be there.
    According to me the people who would work best as an outsider are the new recruits of the same dept. as they have new ideas which might contradict the traditional thinking of the old team and thus something remarkable can be easily configured.

  5. Ed Martin says

    I’ve worked on a lot of cross-functional teams. Who knew we were so clever?! We would often bring in an outsider because they could ask a “dumb” question that we took for granted and could be wrong. They could act as a reality checker for us. Software development teams often bring in an outsider to act as a sounding board. I agree that new people can often bring in fresh ideas as well. Thanks for the post!

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