Strength in Diversity?!

I believe there is “Strength in Diversity” and for that reason this became the ‘tagline’ for my company. The work I do is built on this belief; in a work context where different cultures not only tolerate and understand each other, but make use of each other’s differences to come to better decisions, the company will gain better results.


The theme ‘diversity’ however is used in a lot of different contexts, and can refer to differences in – among others – gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity and age. A diverse workforce then is heterogeneous, and consists of both men and women, people of different generations, and people from racially and ethnically diverse backgrounds. However, the presence of this heterogeneity itself is not enough for an employer to gain better results as compared to a homogeneous workforce: the employer will need 1) to have a diverse workforce and 2) actively take advantage of this diversity. Only when many different cultural groups are present and the diversity within this group is actively used, can we speak of a so-called ‘multicultural organization’.

Now there are websites full of beautiful texts about ‘diversity’, and the word is over-used in the annual reports, websites and brochures of many companies. This makes me suspicious. What intrigues me is how ‘diversity’ translates at the workfloor level; how do people communicate and interact once the diversity is there? And how does the company benefit from that? To find out, I did a bit of research.

Overall, research about the impact of diversity on companies has been pretty equivocal. There is ample evidence that diversity can both positively and negatively affect team performance. In general, one can say that diversity brings potential benefits, such as improved decision making, better problem solving, greater creativity and innovation, and more successful marketing to different types of customers. On the negative side, miscommunication in a diverse workforce can be huge: people from different cultures perceive messages in different ways, and communication can be very confusing or frustrating if the sender and receiver in the communication have not been well-tuned to the same frequency of understanding.

It has been demonstrated (Scott, 2007) that heterogeneous teams consistently out-perform homogeneous teams on a variety of tasks. But diversity in teamwork is not so simple in the messy real world.

For example, Kilduff, Angelmar, & Mehra (2000) provide statistical evidence that in team performance simulations, the only demographic diversity measure to affect overall performance was age heterogeneity. In other words, the greater the diversity of team members’ ages, the better the teams performed. The effect was much smaller – or absent – for other demographic factors such as functional or national heterogeneity. What this tells us is that diversity can enhance team performance in some specific scenarios. And furthermore, our assumptions of what diversity is (typically constrained to gender or race differences) are too limited.

This is corroborated by Jehn, Northcraft & Neale (1999), who distinguish between “value diversity” (different principles), “informational diversity” (different education/life/work experience), and “social category diversity” (different races, genders, ages, nationalities etc.). They emphasize that research tends to focus on social category diversity as the best indicator of diversity. But in their research low “value diversity” was the best predictor of team performance. “For group members to be willing to engage in difficult and conflictual processes that may lead to innovative performance, it seems that group members must have similar values”.

Similarly, research by Polzer, Milton & Swann (2002) suggest that interpersonal congruence moderates the impact of diversity on group performance. “In groups that achieved high interpersonal congruence, demographic diversity enhanced creative task performance; in contrast, in groups that failed to achieve interpersonal congruence, diversity impaired performance”.

Simply summarized, the latter 2 studies tell us that creative team performance benefits most from similar values and principles within a diverse group. Only when these interpersonal differences are small, will variety in age, race, gender and nationality benefit the team. On the other hand, when the values of team members are quite different, variety in age, race, gender and nationality will negatively influence team performance.

Finally, Ely and Thomas (2001) suggest that only when your rationale for diversification follows what is called “Integration and Learning”, can sustained benefits from diversity be expected. When the company’s motive for establishing a diverse workforce is different (for example, to gain access to a wider variety of markets and clients, or to provide justice and equality and eliminate discrimination), the benefits from the established diversity will be minimal.


Young indian students planning
Young indian students planning

I conclude that “Diversity”, in the broadest of terms, is not itself an inherent component of success. Rather diversity, in all its forms and in every setting, must be well managed in order to unlock its potential.

This is one of the main themes I want to spend time on in 2017, and develop workshops and materials for actively using the diverse workforce once present. I want to provide practical advice to unlock the potential of a diversity of cultures within an organization. This is not a complicated thing to do. There’s a wide range of small-group interventions and methods that can stimulate to use the diverse points-of-view at hand, and take advantage of the differences in – for example – decision making that different people prefer. Depending on the goals and aims of the organisation, simple tools such as language training, equal-opportunity seminars, focus groups, bias-reduction training and intercultural task forces can be beneficial. On a personal communication level, people who learn to reflect on the impact their behaviour has on others and who are willing to adjust, can make an organisation very successful in their cross-cultural adventures.

You’ll hear more from me in the months to come!


Read more on this topic: