How To Make Diversity Work For You

March 2016

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Diversity remains a hot, yet often divisive, topic in both the workplace and the popular consciousness.

Whilst most discussions around diversity focus on so called ‘identity diversity’, ie diversity in our appearance, the real value comes when you have a diversity of thought and ideas.

The cost/benefit of diversity

The notion is that when you have diverse opinions, you’re more likely to have creative and innovative ideas, and therefore your organization is more likely to thrive.  There are costs associated with diversity however that need to be considered if you are to utilize it effectively.

For instance, a MIT study from a few years back found that whilst a diverse workforce had strong performance benefits, it tended to result in an unhappier workforce.

“The more homogeneous offices have higher levels of social capital,” the authors say. “But the interesting twist is that … higher levels of social capital are not important enough to cause those offices to perform better. The employees might be happier, they might be more comfortable, and these might be cooperative places, but they seem to perform less well.”

Coordination costs

A second study, from researchers at INSEAD and Wharton, explored this in further depth and found that there was a diversity sweetspot where the gains from diversity were high, but the costs involved in coordinating diverse teams were low.

This was especially problematic when teams were diverse in comparison with the rest of the organization.  So a skunkworks style innovation team may be able to come up with great ideas, but integrating those with the wider organization is a real challenge.

When teams were too homogeneous, it created an echo chamber style environment, but when they were too diverse, the challenges of coordinating activity proved too great.

Worth the effort

The effort of building a diverse workforce is worthwhile however, as a recent paper from Columbia Business School points out.

“The benefits of diversity are really about the different experiences that individuals bring to a problem,” the authors say. “Demographically diverse groups make better decisions and produce more innovations, because they bring in different perspectives.”

The study suggests that diverse teams change how individuals think within that team, rendering them more effective decision makers at a group level, with a boost in their economic output.

It does this because diversity of thought makes us both more creative and more able to engage in complex thinking.

“The benefits depend not just on encountering unfamiliar situations, but on wanting to learn about and integrate them,” the authors continue. “For example, people who have lived in foreign countries and encountered more diversity become more creative and complex in their thinking, but only if they are engaged in learning about others.”

How to integrate thought diversity

As with the previous studies however, the authors do accept the challenges inherent in making diversity work, with conflict and disengagement real risks to collective harmony and effectiveness.

Which is where a recent report from Deloitte might come in handy, as it outlines five things organizations can work on to increase their diversity levels:

  1. Hire unconventional people - they reveal that recruiters can often fall into the trap of hiring those that are just like them.  Overcoming this bias can provide a quick and easy boost to diversity levels.
  2. Better understand the skills you already have - this is a big weakness in many organizations, as we simply lack the knowledge of the numerous skills our employees have, as so many of them are under-utilized.
  3. Encourage people to speak up - it probably goes without saying that diversity only works if people feel emboldened to share their (diverse) ideas, even if it runs counter to what the boss thinks or is the status quo in the company.
  4. Use reverse mentoring - the 4th tip is very much designed to encourage this, as it encourages younger people to advise more senior colleagues on new trends they may have strong knowledge of.
  5. Be open to fresh ideas - of course, your own employees represent but the tip of the proverbial iceberg when it comes to the range of ideas and experiences they might have.  Being open to ideas wherever they may reside, therefore, is a key component of capitalizing on thought diversity.  Not invented here should have no place in your company.

Hopefully those tips will help you to realize the benefits of thought diversity, without suffering some of the pain of integrating those diverse thoughts and opinions.

 

This article was written by Adi Gaskell from Forbes. This reprint is supplied by BNY Mellon under license from NewsCred, Inc.  

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