What diversity counts?

Written by
Changeboard Team

03 Aug 2011

03 Aug 2011 • by Changeboard Team

Diversity - not a simple equation

Perhaps they are right to believe the claims of bountiful benefits that are almost automatically assumed to come along with a greater mix of people in teams and organisations but what is on offer in fact? And are some types of diversity more useful than others? 

Firstly the utopia scenario of greater diversity leading to a happier, more productive workforce is way too simplistic: unsurprisingly many studies have found that if you mix people up with different values, preferences and points of view you are actually quite likely to get more conflict, as well as communication problems and even alienation and dysfunction in group dynamics. Rutherford (1999) for example found higher levels of harassment in diverse teams.

Diversity is not therefore, a simple equation - add more in and get more out. There are costs to be managed in order to realise the benefits.

Innovation and creativity

And what are the real benefits on offer? The claims I mentioned are often in terms of 'productivity' or generic 'performance'. These gains can be real but are far from assured and depend on the fit of the diversity to the task – there’s no point having lots of diversity to complete, simple, routine tasks as in fact, this can reduce efficiency. 

What do seem to be more consistent are research findings around innovation and creativity (lone geniuses are actually quite rare), and relating to problem-solving and decision-making. These findings refer to the range of perspectives considered and the different ‘ways of thinking’ that can be applied in a diverse group compared to a homogeneous one.

Cognitive diversity

Which brings me finally to the point, ‘what diversity counts?’ Many studies find that the diversity dimensions they vary in their study groups do not turn up the expected superior performance – in different studies only educational diversity, gender, age, culture or personality seem to matter and the rest make no difference or even get in the way of better performance. This is because a fair comparison between diverse and homogeneous teams assumes that the diversity is well-managed (to avoid the potential problems above) and this is not always the case in all studies. Also that the diversity of identity, (gender, race, religion etc.) provides a mixture of ways of thinking about the task – or ‘cognitive diversity’. This is not always the case where other hidden elements in the team are not diverse (e.g. professional background, training, education). 

The key is this: diversity of identity does not produce direct benefits. But it does influence how we think and behave and it is this that organisations need to profit from. Ultimately it is cognitive diversity that counts.