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I believe it is important to recognize that diversity is hard…Groups are composed of people, and people are far from perfect. The people have to engage with one another in some meaningful and productive ways to garner the benefits of that diversity.
Katherine W. Phillips
Page’s contribution to Our Compelling Interests has offered us an in-depth explanation of how diversity can provide a bonus under the right circumstances—when problems are sufficiently difficult. He has used simple and compelling logic, and provided numerous examples from the boardroom to the classroom to Hollywood studios, to explain how bringing a set of people with cognitive and identity diversity together can lead to better performance on complex tasks or difficult problems. Important to note is that Page does not use the word will or the word should in his statements. This is not an exercise of precision or guarantees, nor is it an exercise of morality. Instead, it is an exercise of functionality and utility—when and where is it possible for diversity to provide unique benefits over homogeneity? By understanding the possibility of diversity’s benefits, we might then understand what society is striving toward, so we can make some assessment of whether it is worth it to try to get there. I believe the logic and the evidence support the potential for a “diversity bonus,” and there is no doubt that it is worth it for organizations and for societies to try to capture that bonus.
I would like to add to the discussion of Our Compelling Interests and Page’s diversity-bonus premise by providing three contributions. First, Page mentioned that identity diversity’s bonus might emerge not from the direct connection between identity diversity and cognitive diversity but instead from indirect effects of the mere presence of diversity. Empirical research in this area reveals that identity diversity has an effect that is independent of its connection to cognitive diversity. I believe this is worth exploring further here, as it relates to the assumptions we tend to make about the value of diversity. Page argues that organizations must open opportunities for those who have traditionally been underrepresented in organizations so that cognitive diversity can enter, as in the example Page used about disabled employees being integrated into the federal government. I expand on one argument that goes a step further to say that identity diversity also benefits organizations because of the influence it has on every individual in the organization. Diversity makes people work harder, and that benefit can happen even if the identity diversity is not directly connected to new cognitive perspectives. My comments here lead to the fundamental question, what is the resistance to diversity in organizations? If diversity bonuses exist and can be captured, as postulated by Page and supported by empirical literature, why is it so hard for organizations to achieve them consistently?
We should understand that diversity and inclusion are not “something nice” to do in addition to our “real work,” but are central to mission success."
Charles F. Bolden Jr., NASA administrator
Second, I believe it is important to recognize that diversity is hard. Diversity bonuses do not automatically emerge simply by putting diverse groups together. Groups are composed of people, and people are far from perfect. The people have to engage with one another in some meaningful and productive ways to garner the benefits of that diversity. Moreover, these groups of people are embedded in systems, in organizations, in historical times, that influence the potential for that diversity bonus to be reached. Even under the best of circumstances, when cognitive and identity diversity is in abundance, there are numerous factors that may facilitate or undermine the emergence of a diversity bonus. I use the example of functionally diverse groups—filled with cognitive and identity diversity to work on difficult problems, the basic prerequisites of Page’s model—to explore a few situational factors that might be important for facilitating diversity bonuses in organizations. In many of the successful examples used throughout Page’s book, I would postulate that an examination of those situations would find many of the features that are fundamentally built into the best practices of cross-functional teams. Without the right set of situational circumstances, it is difficult for any team to succeed. Teamwork is hard, and many teams fail to reach their potential. This is especially true when the teams are dealing with complex, difficult problems that require interdependence, coordination, and collaboration between a diverse set of individuals. Although organizations strive to facilitate these circumstances, they often fall short and might erroneously conclude that diversity does not work. It is not diversity that has caused the failure; it is a lack of organizational leadership, implicit and explicit biases, improper structures, and poorly designed processes that have caused the team to fail. The potential of the diversity bonus is still there.
Finally, I will challenge the reader with my own, somewhat philosophical, set of questions and assumptions: Why is it necessary to prove the benefit of diversity? Is there an equal push to prove the benefits of homogeneity to organizations and society? Why do some people (for example, women, minorities, the disabled, the old, the young, transgendered people, homosexuals, and so on) have to prove that their presence in a given environment is “beneficial” for the bottom line and others (that is, white people, males, cisgendered people, and heterosexuals) do not have that same burden of proof? There is power in framing and in the questions we ask. This raises explicit issues of representation, power, and status that are often left untouched by diversity researchers, including myself. The reality is that there is a power in the status quo that motivates the desire for “proof” of the business case for diversity—we all see homogeneity as the norm, which perhaps gives it more power than it deserves.
This post was excerpted and adapted from Katherine W. Phillip's commentary “What is the Real Value of Diversity in Organizations? Questioning Our Assumptions” in The Diversity Bonus (Princeton University Press, 2017).