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Article: Thursday, 29 August 2019

The popular media and business press can present an oversimplified and misleading picture of diversity and its potential for improving team and organisational performance, argues Associate Professor of Organisational Behaviour Dr Meir Shemla of Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM). As a result, managers and organisation are often surprised and disappointed when their diversity efforts and policies do not lead to the expected positive outcomes. They shouldn’t be, says Shemla, researcher in diversity: if diversity is not carefully managed, it is more likely to cause problems than increase performance.

“The story in the more popular media is that diversity is great, diversity is wonderful, you just bring people together who are different from each other and you're going to see amazing results,” says Shemla. “That’s a very positive story but it has almost nothing to do with what we find in the scientific literature — where, consistently, we show that diversity offers some potential, but more often than not brings more problems.”

Dr Shemla unravelled the nuances and complexities of managing diversity, beginning with the vital differentiation between diversity for the sake of equality and diversity for the sake of performance. Managers do not often recognize, he says, that these are two very different types of diversity that are often in conflict with each other.

"Diversity policies across an organisation don't work very well because they have conflicting goals.”

Equality versus performance

“In 2018, we published a paper reviewing diversity policies,” says Shemla. “What we found is that diversity policies across an organisation don't work very well because they have conflicting goals.”

In the pursuit of equality and fairness, diversity ensures that different types of people have the opportunity to join teams and organisations, which is obviously commendable. However, he warns, managers and organisations make the mistake of believing the popular narrative that more equality translates into better performance … a narrative that clashes with the reality in the field.

“I'm not against having equality in the workplace and equal representation,” Shemla emphasizes. “Of course we need to make sure that there is no discrimination and people can thrive as individuals regardless of their background. However, I think that those measures [of equality and equal representation] are misleading in the sense that they conflate two different outcomes: one is equality, another one is performance. And although the story usually told is that equality brings better performance, it's not what we find.”

If the goal or desired outcome of the organisation’s diversity policies is equality, then hiring a diverse workforce or including a diverse group of people in a team achieves that goal. However, as Shemla explains, if the goal or desired outcome is performance, then diversity comes with baggage: a set of problems that undermine performance and that have to be recognized and resolved. “I think a lot of the diversity policies focus on how can we become more diverse, and ignore the fact that you actually need to manage that diversity, which requires a different set of processes and actions,” he says.

Three problems with diversity

Dr Shemla identifies three core problems that diversity engenders

1. Perception of Reality

“The first problem with regard to diversity is that people who are different from each other perceive reality, experience reality, and understand reality in different ways,” he says. “For example, they understand the task in a different way, they interpret data in different ways. It makes it very difficult to work together if you don't perceive the task or what is expected of you in the same way.”

2. Cohesion

The second problem is the problem of cohesion. “In teams where we have different people or where diversity is very high, we find that the cohesion tends to be low and can be very low,” he says. “That is a problem in teams because as a result you have less trust and more conflict.”

3. Information sharing

This leads to the third type of problem with diversity. The strength of diverse teams, he explains, is a wider pool and greater range of information, opinions, and ideas; this advantage is lost, however, because “more often than not, what we find is that people don't express those ideas. So information is actually not shared and not integrated in the way that you can really realise the benefits of the diversity.”  

A team or organisation is going to benefit from its diversity “only to the extent that they can share information, share different views and integrate that information in whatever form it’s offered to create something new and different,” Shemla says. As a result, anything that undermines the sharing and integration of this information, also known as ‘information elaboration’, in essence sabotages the benefits of diversity.

Different perceptions of diversity

So what is a manager or organisation to do to ensure that information is shared and integrated? According to Dr Shemla, whether such information elaboration takes place in diverse teams depends in large part on whether team members identify with the team as a whole. With team identification, he explains, “you identify yourself as part of that group, you're not separate from it. You feel that the success or the failure of the group is your success or failure, you’re proud to be part of that group, you’re committed to the fate of that group and you want to contribute. So it's an emotional attachment to a group.”

The reason this team identification with the group is so important, he says, is that it strongly influences how the team members perceive the diversity in the group. Some team members might view the diversity of the group as a positive heterogeneity in which team members benefit the team through their unique individuality. Some team members, however, may perceive diversity in a negative light. “Another way of perceiving diversity is that diversity means we are split into subgroups,” he says. “Taking education diversity as an example, we've got people who've studied marketing, people who've studied psychology, people who've studied finance, and each of us belong to a different subgroup. This is a very harmful way of looking at diversity.”

Thus, some people perceive diversity as destroying or undermining the cohesiveness of the team, thus weakening the team; others perceive the heterogeneity of the team as an asset that strengthens the team. Whether you perceive diversity positively or negatively depends, Shemla’s research shows, on whether or not you identify with the team as a whole. The higher the collective team identification, the average of the team members’ identification with the team, the more likely team members have a positive perception of diversity and are thus more collaborative and successful.

Managing diversity

Shemla’s research lays the groundwork for how to manage diversity. “It's not enough to just think, ‘Okay, we are diverse,’” he says. “We also have to think about how that diversity is perceived. Managing the perception of diversity — that's really where managers can start making a difference and shape the effects of diversity on outcomes.”

As a first step, he says, “You need to make sure first of all that they feel like they're part of one team.” Whether you are talking about an organisation as a whole or a business unit or team within an organisation, everyone must feel that “they're not working against each other, but rather that they're working for the same team, they're working towards the same future, the same goals, the same vision. That’s number one.”

To build that identification with the team, begin by highlighting the differences in the team. “If you're a manager of a diverse team,” he says, “and you would like to realize the potential of diversity, but also minimize the harms of diversity, you need to make sure that people perceive that they are different, realise that there are differences, realise that they don't perceive reality in the same way, that they think about things differently. Put the problems on the table.”

Once team member recognise the differences among them, emphasize the positive attributes of these differences. “Make them perceive those differences as something that is great — it's not only a challenge, but it's great, because each of us is unique, each of us brings a different angle,” Shemla says. “So, we are all part of that team, but we are also different from each other, and our differences contribute to the team.”

“So, we are all part of that team, but we are also different from each other, and our differences contribute to the team.”

Don’t talk about categories

Shemla notes that it’s important to avoid a mistake that many managers make when speaking about diversity. “Usually, when we talk about diversity, we talk about men and women, we talk about nationalities, we talk about social categories,” he says. “We should really refrain from attaching individuals to those social categories. We should make sure that individuals or team members perceive themselves to be unique, bringing something unique, and not think of themselves as ‘I'm female, I'm male, and that's what makes me unique.’ Everyone is unique as an individual, not as a representative of the social category.”

In sum, Dr Shemla is a firm believer that diversity, whether it is a diversity of education, gender, national origin, cultural background or any other attributes or characteristics that make individuals unique, is a powerful tool for improving organisational and team performance. However, it is not a mathematical tool, he says — for example, a team of 50 per cent men and 50 per cent women does not ensure better performance — and it is not automatically beneficial, despite what the news reports and consultancy white papers might say. Diversity can benefit performance if it is managed — and the first step is to realise that it needs to be managed. Reinforcing team identification and a positive perception of the contribution of diverse and unique individuals while combating negative perceptions of diversity as a dividing factor will ensure that diversity lives up to its oft-touted but seldom-met promise.

Dr. Meir Shemla

Associate Professor

Rotterdam School of Management (RSM)

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