Diversity or more of the same in the workplace?

Gabriella F├Ągerlind Photo: Anna Viola Hallberg 3 May 2018
Gabriella F├Ągerlind

Diversity or more of the same in the workplace?

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

I have worked as a diversity consultant since 1999, I run my own company and a few years ago I was thinking about hiring. I read a number of CVs, and which ones was I drawn to after the first reading? Yes, other “Gabriellas”, people who are quite similar to me. It was embarrassing to realize because I travel around the country and talk about the importance of diversity in the labor force.

Unreflectively, many of us tend to choose what is similar to what we recognize. We tend to see skills and potential in someone who is similar to ourselves. In a recruitment situation, we can see it as risk minimization to choose someone with a familiar background. But when I’m sitting there with the other Gabriella’s CVs, I have to wonder: What happens to my company if we are mostly “Gabriellas”? Perhaps it gives us a clear common picture of our goal that we are quickly and effectively moving towards. But the problem is that with our equal vision of the world, we risk not seeing opportunities or threats outside of this common perspective. Perhaps we are even moving towards the wrong goal?

Professor Katherine Phillips at Columbia Business School in New York has shown in her research that groups with diversity perform better. She conducts lab studies where students can solve assignments in groups. Of the homogeneous groups, more than half have the correct answers, while fully 75 percent of heterogeneous groups with diversity have the correct answer. Participants may also indicate how effective they believe the group has been in their work, and how secure they feel about the group’s responses. Then the result becomes the opposite: Participants in the homogeneous groups find that the group ‘s work has been more effective, and they are more confident in the answer compared to the participants in the heterogeneous groups.

The problem is that the responses of the homogeneous groups are more often wrong. It raises thoughts about our experiences in homogeneous and heterogeneous groups! Interestingly in this study is the reason why the heterogeneous groups’ results were better. It was not only because people with different perspectives entered the group but also, to a large extent, that people who were equal in these groups shared much more information. Everyone contributed with more perspectives in the groups of diversity. Participants in the homogeneous groups were more concerned with holding back information and perspectives, and were quick to seek consistency in approaches, and to reach a consensus. Getting all employees to contribute all their perspectives and their entire skill set is therefore an important reason to invest in diversity.   

Professor Katherine Phillips also shows in her study that in groups with diversity, members expect different perspectives and opinions, and this affects their behavior. The result is that the group members process information more carefully and expect that it can be more difficult to reach a consensus. They prepare more and think through various possible options before the meeting / cooperation. The same endeavors and preparations are not made in a homogeneous group where members expect, to a greater extent, to understand each other’s perspectives and opinions, to agree, and to have a relatively easy time reaching consensus. Here we can all ponder what groups we ourselves are part of. Are many of them homogeneous? So, what do we do to prevent the problems that can occur in homogeneous groups, such as different perspectives and viewing angles not appearing, which causes the group to perform worse? Diversity is profitable and you can read more about that in my book.

Gabriella Fägerlind
Diversity Consultant

Gabriella Fägerlind has written more about this in a book that deals with diversity leadership, how to create an inclusive organizational culture, and how internal and external recruitment can be developed using a diversity perspective. A forthcoming book is about how the subconscious of the brain can trick us into choosing copies of ourselves, for example in a recruiting situation. The books are only available in Swedish.