KERRY BOYD ANDERSON January 12, 2022
The term “diversity” has become both cliched and controversial. Some people assume that diversity is inherently good, while the idea of it makes other people uncomfortable or even hostile. Given the positive and negative assumptions about diversity, it is important to consider its meaning, as well as its benefits and challenges.
Diversity can have many meanings. Financial analysts, for example, emphasize the importance of diverse financial portfolios. When discussing people, it is common to focus on classic demographic markers, such as race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, age, education and income or wealth.
Those characteristics are all critical to diversity, but it is important to also define it more broadly. There are other elements to social diversity that are less easy to measure, such as social status, political views, lifestyle preferences, culture, marriage status, parenthood, physical abilities or disabilities, other professional and life experiences, and much more. Some experts also identify neurodiversity — an acceptance of the different ways in which people’s brains are wired — as another form of diversity.
Including diverse experiences and perspectives is valuable to any team, especially when making decisions. A diverse team can contribute to improved policymaking in government and decision-making in businesses and other organizations.
Governments need to be responsive to the needs of their populations. Diversity within any government, especially at policymaking levels, improves its ability to understand the broad range of needs and concerns among the public. Unfortunately, governments often draw from a pool of elites, particularly in key decision-making positions. While those elites usually have valuable expertise, they often lack a nuanced understanding of the daily concerns, values and worldviews of many segments of the population.
Disconnection from large segments of society can lead to inaccurate assumptions that undermine policy and reduce the effectiveness of public communication. For example, in several countries, government officials were shocked when significant parts of the population were hesitant to get the COVID-19 vaccine. However, for people with understanding of those subcultures, it was easy to predict that vaccine hesitancy would pose a challenge. If a more diverse team had been involved in planning for vaccine distribution and communication, governments could have been better prepared for obstacles. A lack of diversity in government institutions undermines policy, communication and trust in authorities.
Extensive research has demonstrated the value of diversity to businesses and organizations. Reports by McKinsey & Company have found that firms with gender diversity and ethnic and cultural diversity on executive teams are more likely to be more profitable than companies that lack diversity at leadership levels. Other research has found similar results. Studies have also highlighted that diversity is particularly important for companies that are focused on innovation.
There are many reasons why a broad range of diversity at leadership and other levels can contribute to an organization’s performance. As with government policymaking, company leadership is less likely to miss risks and opportunities when there are more perspectives in the room while making decisions. An article published in Scientific American noted that people working in homogenous groups tend to assume that their colleagues share the same information and viewpoints, while people working in a diverse group are less likely to make those assumptions and more likely to share ideas and be more deliberate in their communication. Other research suggests that diverse teams are more likely to be creative. Similarly, diversity can improve problem-solving, as people bounce ideas off each other, question their assumptions and develop new approaches.
Including diverse experiences and perspectives is valuable to any team, especially when making decisions.
Kerry Boyd Anderson
Diverse teams can help organizations more effectively appeal to a wider range of customers, clients and partners, as well as expanding their potential talent pool. Organizations with diverse perspectives internally are less likely to communicate externally in ways that appear offensive or out of touch. Diversity can help mitigate reputational risks, when there are people on the team who are familiar with the culture and interests of potential customers and partners.
Beyond institutions such as governments and businesses, diversity can enrich society and individual lives. Some research suggests that separate, homogenous groups are more likely to engage in conflict than mixed communities that have fostered connections between different groups. Educational settings also benefit from diversity in multiple ways; for example, research has found that diversity in university settings contributes to better critical thinking skills and improves students’ ability to work with different types of people.
While recognizing the value of diversity, it is important to acknowledge its challenges. Connecting with and understanding others who are different is more difficult than with those who share similar experiences and worldviews. Misunderstandings can easily occur. When diversity is not well managed, it can reduce group cohesion, complicate communications, exacerbate perceptions of conflict and fuel resentment.
Fundamentally, diversity takes work. In order to benefit from diversity, individuals must be willing to consider their own assumptions and prejudices, communicate clearly and respectfully, practice tolerance and empathy, and find productive ways to manage interpersonal conflict. In organizations and communities, managers and leaders need to highlight the benefits of diversity while avoiding zero-sum outcomes that can lead to negative forms of competition and hostility.
Living and working in diverse environments requires work and a willingness to stretch one’s mind. Few things in life produce great outcomes without hard work and an eagerness to address challenges. The societies, organizations and individuals that embrace diversity — with all its benefits and challenges — are more likely to prove creative, productive and vibrant.
- Kerry Boyd Anderson is a writer and political risk consultant with more than 18 years of experience as a professional analyst of international security issues and Middle East political and business risk. Her previous positions include deputy director for advisory with Oxford Analytica. Twitter: @KBAresearch
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