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Points and Questions on Workplace Diversity


Years ago, in the early nineties, a position in our Product Engineering department opened up due to someone leaving. One day my boss said to us, “Let’s go to lunch, I have something to tell all of you about a new person I’m thinking about hiring.” At this time, our group was only made up of me, in my late 20’s and another man in his early 30’s. In fact, the entire management group for the corporate division consisted of younger college educated men of similar culture, attitude and social background. Over lunch, my boss explained that he was thinking of hiring an older woman who had performed more or less the same job description for a nearby company that had recently closed. His discomfort was not with whether she could do the job (she had more combined experience than all of us put together!), but with whether or not she would “fit in” with the rest of the group socially. The closest way I can describe this person now would be as an older version of Phyllis from The Office (with static-laden polyester blouses and all). We assured our boss that everything would work out (we were all nice guys, after all), but in the backs of our minds we were wondering just how that would really happen on a daily basis.

“The Difference”

Professor of Complex Systems and author Scott E. Page writes in his book “The Difference” about how the collective knowledge and experience contained in a group often exceeds the sum of its parts when it comes to problem solving and overall performance. The right group of people is often much more effective than a single brilliant person working on a problem alone. The important thing is for the group to contain the proper range of diversity when it comes to experience, knowledge, perspective and social identity. Page makes the point that if you have two different perspectives, you now actually have three, because combined perspectives will often yield different results than the original two alone.

It’s not just having more people that make the difference. A group made up of like-minded experts can be similarly less effective when it comes to overall performance on tasks requiring certain levels of innovation. Again, the various abilities of the individuals relevant to the task is still a key factor.

Effects of Social Outsiders

A study performed by researchers at Brigham Young University revealed similar aspects of this effect when they introduced “socially distinct” outsiders into group problem solving experiments about 5 minutes into each session. The study showed that the groups that included the outsider were more often able to solve the problem successfully as opposed to groups who did not have an outsider. Of further interest, when asked for a self-assessment on how well each group felt they worked together, the “comfortable” groups without an outsider felt they worked very well together, even though they did not solve the problem at hand. The groups with the outsiders often felt they did not work well together, even though this group was able to complete the task.

The article in the above link explains in more detail why the researchers feel the results of the experiment worked out the way they did, but one simple reason for the change in group dynamics had a lot to do with the changing social comfort levels affecting individual performances. If an “insider” found he agreed with the “outsider,” he was much more inclined to seriously think about and explain the idea or proposed solution on its merits as a direct result of the social pressures exerted in having to disagree with his friends. Or, as co-Researcher Katie Liljenquist explains, “It causes people to say, ‘Something more is going on here; let’s figure out what’s at the root of our disagreement.’ The group then tends to analyze differing opinions and critical information much more thoroughly, and that facilitates much better decision-making results.” The research seems to indicate that a socially homogeneous group of people can also have performance issues when trying to solve problems together.

Advantages of Diversity in Groups

In the yearly forum “State of the Black Union -2009”, Harvard Law Professor Lani Guinier fields a question (video) about how to mitigate “classism” in the black community as a necessary ideal for the future. Though the main subject matter of the forum is somewhat out of context with what is being presented here, she brought up an important point when it comes to the importance of diversity in the workplace by citing an example from the aforementioned book “The Difference.” In addition to acknowledging that a room full of smart and similarly educated people will often all think alike, she portrayed the following scenario that is paraphrased here:

A group of potential employees is given a test. John scores 7 answers out of 10 correct, Steve Scores 6, and Jane scores 5. The common “American” hiring tendency would be to hire John and Steve since they had the highest scores. But, as Lani explains, the real thing to look at is if Jane has answered questions that the other two did not. If she did, by hiring John and Jane, you now have a group who can answer all of the questions.

Cultural/Ethnic Diversity May Not Equal Cognitive Diversity

My 15-year-old daughter attends a private high school which attempts diversity by enrolling a certain number of girls from many countries around the world, all over the U.S., and locally. At the end of the year, separate surveys are put out by the school asking which things on a prepared list are the most important to the students and parents. One of the check items on the list is “Diversity.” As we were completing our surveys together, I asked my daughter, who has befriended girls from several countries, if diversity was important to her. I was surprised when she said, “There really isn’t really any diversity there”. “But, there’s girls from all over the world!” I exclaimed. “Yes”, she said, “There’s a cultural difference, but everyone pretty much thinks alike on everything we talk about”.

Aside from the fact that I was somewhat surprised by the fact she recognized that attribute in her classmates, it goes to show that just because you are from a different country or are of a certain ethnicity, it may have little bearing on diversity when it comes to certain types of group thinking.

As I mentioned in the beginning, years ago my boss hired an older woman into a building mainly full of 20-30-something guys. Though in this particular case we usually did not collaborate daily on the core function of our job, we did collaborate on group direction and overall system improvements for the department. The woman’s years of experience added to the value of the group as far as being a competent employee, but two things come to mind when I think back on the experience when it comes to the subject of diversity. The first issue was the mere fact of my boss’s nervousness and apprehension in hiring someone “different” from the rest of us; he was nervous enough to buy us lunch over it! It makes me ask the question as to just how hiring attitudes and practices may have changed or not changed in regards to diversity in the last 15-20 years.

The second thing that came to mind was an unexpected attribute coming from her existence in our group. In the early 1990s the PC was a relatively new and mysterious tool in the workplace. Since I could see the value of automating many of the repetitive tasks we had to perform for our daily job, I set out to write software tailored to what we did every day. I was no software engineer, but neither was anyone else in the company except a few mainframe programmers in the MIS department upstairs. To shorten the story let’s just say that because of her age, training and other factors, this older woman made the best software tester/debugger you could ever imagine. If she couldn’t screw it up, no one was going to screw it up. She could inadvertently stumble upon the most obscure problems and combinations of things leading to error that I would never have thought of when writing the program and testing it myself. It’s strange when rampant ineptitude by a person in a particular subject or discipline winds up making the end product better, and thereby the function of the group better as a result.

As far as my old boss’s nervousness goes, I suppose it’s natural to want to stick with hiring people within your own social comfort level. No one can know beforehand what the effect of hiring a diverse person might be, even if the result of the Brigham Young research is taken to heart. However, it could be these unknown dynamics having the potential to add unquantifiable values in unexpected ways. Perhaps this potential should be a consideration when interviewing different people for employment. The “ineptitude” scenario is probably an inferior example for displaying these values, but it does show one of many unexpected ways in which diversity might possibly benefit the whole group.

Some Questions

If the results of the Brigham Young research along with Scott Page’s findings are indeed accurate, what does this say about corporate hiring practices for team oriented employment? How does a hiring manager ensure he keeps a cognitively diverse group that can solve problems without being so “preferentially diverse” the whole situation just explodes? When diversity of preference overrides cognitive diversity there is a high likelihood of that happening. Or rather, in your own experience, is the tendency to still just stick with the old status quo and continue to avoid diversity when possible? Core competency in whatever business or technical discipline still needs to be primary in applicant consideration, but how does one gauge the diversity part of the equation accurately? Finally, on the social level, has anyone had the Dwight Shrute experience, which somehow made things work out better at your workplace? Or (as often depicted in the comedy “The Office”), does the discomfort and non-work related issues coming from socially diverse people actually provide enough distraction to negate any psychological benefits that have been provided?


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Information This article was edited after publication by the author on 18 Jul 2009. View changes.

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