Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Benefits of diversity: more than what's on the surface

America is at a new frontier when it comes to diversity. The nation has its first African-American president, and more and more women hold positions of corporate power. With the click of a mouse, we can connect and collaborate with practically anyone anywhere, thanks to the Internet. We are more likely to come into contact with people unlike ourselves than ever before, and in every aspect of our lives.

Ask someone what's good about diversity, and you'll likely be told that it's beneficial because different people bring different perspectives to discussions. Today's executives may wonder: Is there really something of value to get from all this diversity?

We often bring outsiders, socially distinct newcomers, into our organizational groups in hopes of introducing new perspectives. We tolerate these outsiders because we understand that people with different cultural, gender and national backgrounds will, with contrasting experiences behind them, offer differing perspectives and opinions about any given problem. We're likely to assume that a black manager and a white manager working together on a problem will come up with divergent ways to solve the problem.

Such assumptions have implications that we tend not to think deeply about. The first is that when individuals work together in a group, any unexpected perspectives will come from the people who are different. The black person in a group of whites, or the marketing person in a group of engineers, will bring forward a different point of view that the group can benefit from. A second and even more important implication is that people who appear to be similar to each other, such as two middle-aged white men, will share the same views. But is it really sensible to assume that all superficially alike people think alike?

Of course not all people who look alike think alike, and not all people who look different disagree. And the benefit of diversity does not principally come from people who are "different" offering "different" perspectives. Katherine Phillips recently published research with co-authors Katie Liljenquist of Brigham Young University's Marriott School of Management and Margaret Neale of the Stanford Graduate School of Business, that found that members of a social majority are more likely to voice unique perspectives and critically review task-relevant information when there is more social diversity present than when there is not. Moreover, this is true even when the people who are "different" don't express any unique perspectives themselves. Our research suggests that the mere presence of social diversity makes people with independent points of view more willing to voice those points of view, and others more willing to listen.

When anyone in a group has perspectives, opinions or information that vary from the consensus, our research suggests, the mere presence of social diversity will make them express, and others consider, those perspectives in a way that benefits the group.

Whether trying to solve murder mysteries, develop new products, enter new markets or overhaul work processes, employees in organizations work harder when diversity is present, and a little bit more hard work is exactly what we need in corporate America. So as you think about diversity and its effects in organizations during this tough economic time, recognize that the most robust practical value of diversity is that it challenges everyone in an organization. We are more thoughtful, and we recognize and utilize more of the information that we have at our disposal, when diversity is present. That is diversity's true value. Click here to read the full article.

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