Diversity or more of the same in the workplace?

Why should workplaces invest in diversity? Is it profitable? These are questions I often get. It is important to clarify how diversity helps the organisation to better achieve its business goals. But it's also important to think about what happens if we are too equal, in our work groups, in project teams and in management teams.

I've been working as a diversity consultant since 1999, running my own business and a few years ago I was thinking about hiring. I read a number of CVs and which ones did I fall for after the first read through? Well, other "Gabriellas", people who were quite similar to myself. It was embarrassing to realise as I travel the country talking about the importance of diversity in the workforce.

Unreflectively, many of us tend to choose what is similar to what we recognise. We tend to see competence and potential in someone similar to ourselves. In a recruitment situation, we may see it as a risk minimisation to choose someone with a background that is familiar to us. But as I sit there with the other Gabriellas' CVs, I have to think: What happens to my company if we are mostly Gabriellas there? Maybe it gives us a clear common picture of our goal that we move towards quickly and efficiently. But the problem is that with our similar views of the world, we risk seeing neither opportunities nor threats outside this common perspective. Perhaps we are even moving towards the wrong goal?

Professor Katherine Phillips of Columbia Business School in New York has shown in her research that groups with diversity perform better. She conducts lab studies where students are asked to solve problems in groups. More than half of the homogeneous groups get the answers right, while as many as 75% of the heterogeneous groups with diversity get the answers right. Participants are also asked how effective they think the group has been in their work and how confident they are in the group's answers. The result is the opposite: participants in the homogeneous groups feel that the group's work has been more effective and they are more certain of the answer compared to participants in the heterogeneous groups. The problem is that the answers of the homogeneous groups are more often wrong. This raises questions about our experiences in homogeneous and heterogeneous groups!

Interesting in this research is also the reason why the results of the heterogeneous groups were better. This was not only because people with different perspectives entered the group, but also largely because the people in these groups shared much more information. Everyone contributed more perspectives in the diverse groups. Participants in the homogeneous groups were more likely to withhold information and perspectives, and were quick to seek common ground in views, to reach consensus. Getting all employees to contribute all their perspectives and all their skills is thus an important reason to invest in diversity.

Professor Katherine Phillips also shows in her research that in diverse groups, members expect different perspectives and opinions and this influences their behaviour. As a result, group members process information more carefully and expect that it may be more difficult to reach consensus. They prepare more and think through different possible options before the meeting/collaboration. The same effort and preparation is not made in a homogeneous group where members have a greater expectation that they will understand each other's perspectives and opinions, agree, and have a relatively easy time reaching consensus. Here we can each reflect on which groups we ourselves belong to. Are many of them homogeneous? If so, what do we do to prevent the problems that can arise in homogeneous groups, such as a failure to bring out different perspectives and points of view, which can lead to a group underperforming?

And by the way, yes diversity is profitable. Read more about this in my book Diversity in Practice - A Handbook for Business Development. You can also read about diversity leadership and how your workplace can create an inclusive organisational culture that embraces diversity. You can also read about how your internal and external recruitment can be developed using a diversity perspective, and much more. In the autumn, my book Diversity in Practice - Creating Inclusive Workplaces will be available, where you can read about, among other things, the subconscious preferences of the brain that can trick us into choosing copies of ourselves, for example in a recruitment situation.

Gabriella Fägerlind
Diversity Consultant


Diversity consultant Gabriella Fägerlind