For many people the word “diversity” is an honourific term that denotes positive things in the workplace, on teams or in neighbourhoods: including more creativity, more innovation, less group-think and better problem-solving abilities. And for the most part they are right.
Numerous studies have demonstrated the benefits of having diverse perspectives and backgrounds in organizations. And with an increasingly global marketplace, businesses are seeing the advantages of having more, not less, ethnic and cultural diversity.
In an interview with the Globe and Mail Sonia Kang, assistant professor at the Rotman School of Management, says diverse organizations tend to have better employee relations. “You typically find less absenteeism, less turnover, higher productivity, people are more committed,” she says. “There’s a higher sense of belonging, which tends to make them better workers.”
But “diversity” can pose challenges for organizations and teams.
Prof. Roy Y.J .Chua of Harvard Business School has found that the presence of conflict or tension between two people of different cultures — whether the cause of strife is culturally based or simply due to personal antipathy — diminishes the ability of others to think creatively in multicultural ways. His findings appear in the current issue of the Academy of Management Journal (“The Costs of Ambient Cultural Disharmony: Indirect Intercultural Conflict in Social Environment Undermine Creativity”)
Prof Chua says, “Creativity is not necessarily about producing a completely new idea or product that never existed before [but] oftentimes involves combining existing ideas in new ways that are useful toward solving practical problems. To solve problems creatively in a global multicultural context, problem-solvers need to first see non-obvious connections among ideas from different cultures.”
He suggests that “ambient cultural disharmony” — the tension that can arise between people brought about by cultural differences — will cause individuals to give up making those important connections because they conclude that it is not worth the effort. The late R. Roosevelt Thomas, called this, “diversity tension” — the stress and strain that comes with the interactions of differences and similarities — that naturally accompanies any effort to create a diverse environment.
The simple fact is, “diversity” is easy — bringing together a mixture of people with the things they have in common as well as their differences. The more difficult thing is getting that diversity to work together.
To do this, diverse teams must become more interculturally competent. They must develop the ability to bridge aspects of their own culture with someone else’s culture. This is the hard part of “diversity” because it requires people to develop greater empathy, self-awareness and openness.
Prof. Chau’s findings are correct but they are not a death-sentence for creating productive, rewarding and diverse organizations or teams. It means we just have to try a bit harder to make it work.