How Does Diversity Spur Innovation?

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How Does Diversity Spur Innovation?

Research from Beyond Bias Summit Keynote Speaker Katherine W. Phillips reveals the connection

by Kristine Kilanski on Friday, March 24, 2017 - 3:22pm

Commitment to diversity does much more than benefit an organization's image. In fact, research suggests that organizations with more diversity have higher levels of innovation. For example, authors of one recent study found that businesses with more diverse leaders were more likely to report that they increased their market share and captured new markets in the past year than businesses with less diverse workforces.

However, Beyond Bias Summit speaker Katherine W. Phillips, Senior Vice Dean of Columbia Business School and the Paul Calello Professor of Leadership and Ethics at Columbia Business School, noticed a problem with this method of researching the link between diversity and innovation: this research fails to tell us whether more diverse leaders and workforces create more successful businesses or whether greater business success leads companies to hire more diverse people. 

Using laboratory experiments, Phillips and her research collaborator, Clayman Institute affiliate Margaret Neale, analyzed the connections between race and innovation. They found that racially homogeneous groups tend to fall into the trap of “group think,” or a situation that occurs “when a group values harmony and coherence over accurate analysis and critical evaluation.” The authors argue that being around others who are similar tricks us into thinking everyone else shares the same information and perspectives. Group think can lead individuals to ignore missing information or alternate explanations that force the development of creative solutions. Furthermore, the consequences of group think are that people are not inclined to contribute individual insights that veer from the group norm or the group’s accepted thoughts. This is especially true of women and minorities, who already are often outsiders and are often underrepresented in many workplaces; to offer criticism risks the potential of being seen as not a team player. 

However, as Phillips, Neale, and other researchers have found, when a group is more socially heterogeneous, people are more likely to contribute their unique perspectives and knowledge to the table, leading to better decision-making. Not only are people more willing to share what they know when they are in heterogeneous settings, being confronted by difference also sparks individuals to adopt a more holistic and sympathetic approach to problem solving by priming them to place themselves in other peoples’ shoes. In other words, says Phillips, “diversity makes us smarter.”

That said, creating a diverse team is not enough to spur innovation. Organizations sometimes take an “add and stir” approach to diversity—that is, increasing the number of women and racial minorities on their teams without changing the nature of the environments that excluded them. Social science, however, shows that for members of marginalized populations occupying this “token” status tends to carry negative consequences. For example, when a member of a marginalized population offers a different opinion from the group, this individual risks being perceived as not a natural fit in the environment.

There are effective strategies for creating the type of environment that increase the potential for contributions by minority team members.  For example, Sapna Cheryan, an Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Washington, and a current Beyond Bias Fellow and former Graduate Dissertation Fellow at the Clayman Institute, has found that social objects and décor affect an individual’s sense of “ambient belonging” in the workplace. This demonstrates the extent to which workplace environments influences team members’ comfort level.

Unproductive team dynamics can also hinder innovation. The Clayman Institute has conducted research on and developed a workshop to provide strategies for avoiding some of the most common missteps. One strategy for team leaders to adopt is to start each meeting by asking every team member share at least one thought or idea. This strategy ensures that everyone at the table contributes at least one perspective to the conversation. Moreover, research suggests that when people share early in a meeting they are more likely to share again later.

It takes intentionality, hard work, and an ongoing commitment to create team and workplace environments where every worker feels free to contribute their perspectives. Research proves the connection between diversity, inclusion, and innovation. In fact, because diversity spurs innovation, inclusive workplaces benefit businesses, communities, and society as a whole.

Kristine Kilanski
Postdoctoral Fellow 2015-17

Kristine Kilanski is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Clayman Institute for Gender Research. Her previous work examined how gender inequality is embedded into 21st century work organizations, the effectiveness of corporate diversity programs for increasing the inclusion of women and racial/ethnic minorities, and how poor people respond to violence in their communities. Kristine’s dissertation...