My colleague Rich Grenhart and I recently did a workshop for a major U.S. company. Instead of jumping right into the value of gender diversity in leadership, we started by defining diversity broadly and talking about the business value of diversity. We noted that working with a diverse group can be much harder than working with people like ourselves. It is less comfortable; there is more tension. But it pays!
As in most groups, these participants almost unanimously agreed that diverse groups make better decisions than homogeneous groups. They said that the reason is that a diverse group will offer more different perspectives than a homogeneous one. That is part of it. We told them about research published by the Kellogg School of Business at Northwestern University that shows more precisely why diverse groups, in fact, do make better decisions. The study showed that heterogeneous groups process information more carefully.
Think about it. You are in a group of people who look like you and tend to think like you do. You are a “homogeneous group.” In working on a problem, you tend to assume you know what the others will say. So you may as well check your text messages! When someone different from the group arrives, you aren’t sure how they think or what they will say. So you pay attention!
A recent article in Scientific American confirms this multiple times over. In this article titled “How Diversity Makes Us Smarter,” author Katherine W. Phillips reviews several research studies that confirm that diverse groups listen and process more attentively. She cites studies involving racial, gender and even political diversity.
In her own study of racial diversity, Phillips found that “Being with similar others leads us to think we all hold the same information and share the same perspective. This perspective . . . stopped . . . all-white groups from effectively processing the information, [hindering] creativity and innovation.” “Diversity,” she says, “jolts us into cognitive action in ways that homogeneity simply does not.”
She cites jury studies finding that diverse juries are “more diligent and open-minded” than non-diverse juries.
One study found that a dissenting opinion from someone like us has less impact than “when we hear dissent from someone who is different from us.” The better results of diverse groups are not because the “diverse person” always brings the right answer. “Simply adding social diversity to a group makes people believe that differences of perspective might exist among them and that belief makes people change their behavior” (emphasis mine).
This article is a must read!