Tom Timmerman studies diversity in the workplace through sports

Corporate trainers love to use sports analogies to motivate their employees, but researching how sports teams perform may offer organizations a lot more insight than just “There is no ‘I’ in team.”

Tom Timmerman, a Tennessee Tech University decision sciences and management professor, is in the midst of a series of research projects based on what groups can learn from sports teams. He said professional sports teams provide an untapped gold mine of performance data that can tell us a lot about how people work together.

“Sports teams’ records hold a wealth of information at the individual and team level,” said Timmerman. “The amount and the completeness of the data are unlike any you’ll find for other types of businesses. Wins and losses are hard to quantify in most businesses.”

Not only is quantitative data hard to come by, many businesses just don’t want to share how well, or not so well, they are performing; especially in sensitive areas. In fact, last year a group of the country’s top researchers sought to conduct a comprehensive study of the effects of racial diversity on organizational performance for some of the nation’s most powerful companies. Out of dozens of requests, only four responded with enough data to be useful and the study was canceled.

One of Timmerman’s most comprehensive studies looks at almost 2,000 teams, baseball and basketball, from 1950 to 1997. It looked at the effects of racial and age diversity on the performance of sports teams.

There are two prevailing theories about diversity in the workplace — one predicts that groups of people of dissimilar races and/or ages are less productive because of the conflicts created by stereotypes, and the other says that diversity can be positive to group performance if different skills, information and world views are needed.

Timmerman chose to study basketball and baseball because they represent two different types of teams. Basketball is a “high-interdependence” game where team members work physically close together and success requires high interaction and cooperation. Baseball is a “low-interdependence” game where less interaction is required and individuals perform more autonomously.

“We find the same two groups in non-sports organizations,” said Timmerman. “Some jobs, like working on an assembly line, require relatively little contact and cooperation with other people. Other jobs, such as product development teams, require much more interaction and collaboration.”

The results showed that in basketball teams, age and racial diversity were significantly and negatively related to team performance. In baseball, age and racial diversity were unrelated to team performance.

“After controlling for team ability, greater diversity on basketball teams was associated with lower winning percentages,” he said. But by dividing his study into time periods, he found a surprising pattern. “Age and racial diversity were related to basketball performance only in the 1981 to 1997 time period,” he said. “The negative effect of diversity appears to be a relatively recent phenomenon and clearly deserves further study.”

Timmerman suggests that high-interdependence teams have the most to gain from diversity, but his and other research finds that the benefits of diversity are often unrealized.

“Companies can’t assume that increasing diversity will increase team or organizational performance,” he said. “It can lead to lower performance without strong leadership in diversity management.”

Timmerman’s other recent studies include a look at the effectiveness of a coach on players of both similar and different races and of the influence on performance when minorities join a team. He said gaining insight to the roles diversity plays on the playing field is important to learning how diversity affects all workplaces.

“It stands to reason that if prejudice should have been suppressed anywhere, it would be in team sports where the common goal is easy to define and there’s a common enemy to fight,” said Timmerman. “Work teams may overcome the potential negative effects of demographic diversity by focusing on clear common goals and identifying competing teams.”
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