The first thing to recognize about diversity is that it can be challenging. Even mentioning the word "diversity" can cause anxiety and conflict in the United States, where the inclusion dialogue is relatively advanced. The justices of the Supreme Court do not agree on the advantages or the best approach to achieving diversity. Corporations spend billions of dollars to attract and manage diversity both internally and externally, yet they continue to face discrimination lawsuits, and the business world's leadership ranks remain overwhelmingly white and male.
It is a fair question to wonder what benefits we receive from having a diverse population. Diverse expertise has obvious benefits—you wouldn't build a new car without engineers, designers, and quality-control experts—but what about social diversity? What benefits are racial, ethnic, gender, and sexual orientation diversity? According to research, social diversity in a group can lead to discomfort, rougher interactions, a lack of trust, higher perceived interpersonal conflict, lower communication, less cohesion, increased concern about disrespect, and other issues. So, what's the catch?
Diversity is a catalyst for creativity. It encourages learning new things, improving one's ability to make choices and solve problems. Diversity is good for a company's bottom line because it can lead to unrestrained discoveries and game-changing innovations. Being exposed to different perspectives can cause a shift in perspective. Decades of study by specialists in organizational science, psychology, sociology, economics, and demography have led to this conclusion.
Information diversity promotes innovation. The concept of informational diversity is crucial to understanding the positive impact of diversity. When people work in groups to solve problems, they bring various information, opinions, and perspectives.
This makes intuitive sense when considering the diversity of disciplinary backgrounds—consider the interdisciplinary team building a car once more. The same logic holds true for social diversity. People who differ in terms of race, gender, and other dimensions bring unique perspectives and experiences to the task at hand. A male and female engineer may have perspectives as different as an engineer and a physicist—which is a good thing.
“We need diversity if we are to change, grow, and innovate”
Dr. Katherine W. Phillips
This essay was first published in Scientific American in 2014. Katherine Phillips revised and updated it in 2017 to include new research.