Plenty of organizations try to hire a diverse workforce. There are many reasons to do so—to comply with laws, to reflect a firm’s clients and customers or to act fairly and provide equal opportunity. But what exactly does diversity get you in terms of how people perform on the job? A large academic literature attempts to answer that question and comes to mixed conclusions. Sometimes diversity helps and sometimes it hinders. All the same, a few big-picture lessons emerge.
Diversity is about how you think, not who you are
The word “diversity” tends to conjure notions of race, gender, ethnicity, maybe even age, religion and national origin. Yet as University of Michigan social scientist, Scott Page, argues in his book The Difference, what really matters is people having different approaches to generating ideas and solving problems. When you put together a group of people who think differently from one another, they’re more likely to see a broad range of solutions and potential pitfalls. Of course, hiring people for their “cognitive differences” can be tricky. One approach Page recommends: asking applicants to talk through how they would figure out the answer to a difficult question.
That said, who you are affects how you think
While differences in traits like race, gender, ethnicity, and age might not be productivity-boosting per se, demographic characteristics do often act as markers for underlying cognitive differences. That’s not to say people from different backgrounds implicitly think differently, just that one’s demographic make-up frequently goes along with a particular set of life experiences—and those life experiences differentially shape how people think. Growing up in a different decade, or in a different country, or with a different set of social and cultural expectations can produce a different perspective. And that perspective might help a person see something that co-workers don’t.
Believing that diversity helps is key to diversity helping
Throwing together a diverse group of people doesn’t automatically make a team perform better. The organizational rationale for promoting diversity matters too. Harvard Business School professors Robin Ely and David Thomas interviewed workers at professional services firms and heard three common explanations for why employee diversity matters: to mirror the diversity of a firm’s customers and clients, to ensure justice and prevent discrimination, and to tap the insights unique to particular groups of people. The researchers found much greater returns to diversity, and fewer downsides, when the last explanation pervaded employees’ thinking. Organizations that promote diversity as a way to get the job done better are the ones that most benefit from having a diverse workforce.
Context matters just as much as individual people
A work environment is often a delicate ecosystem, and introducing diversity can throw it off. Adding just one or two people who are clearly different doesn’t necessarily produce the benefits of diversity. Reviewing 39 studies conducted inside workplaces, Aparna Joshi and Hyuntak Roh, organizational scholars at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, found that team performance generally suffered when women appeared in male-dominated settings. The researchers found a similar effect when minorities worked in settings overwhelmingly made up of white people. Yet when women and minorities were not so dramatically out-numbered, their presence was associated with better team performance. Diversity works, but not when it’s half-hearted.