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Diversity can be a double-edged sword when businesses don’t have systems to harness it

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Andrew Barnes
2017-07-04

There’s a lot of research into diversity and its impact on the workforce. The main message that’s currently broadcast is that diversity is a great thing and beneficial to business.

It can be a good thing, but it can also be problematic. I looked into both these aspects in my recent PhD into diversity in business. Understanding how and why diversity can have positive and negative effects is an important step in understanding how to create more effective and efficient teams.

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Different types of diversity

Diversity can take many specific forms, such as differences in age, gender, ideology, geography, and many other attributes.

Research suggests that greater levels of diversity are critical when pursuing creative endeavours. Socially and professionally diverse groups have been shown to be more innovative than homogenous groups. Coming up with new ideas unsurprisingly benefits from a diversity of perspectives.

But in other pursuits, greater homogeneity may prove to be a quicker way of getting the job done. When it comes to implementing a task, diversity can introduce communication ‘overheads and other forms of friction.

So what then is a manager to do?

How to benefit from diversity

I believe there’s a way of having our diversity cake and eating it too. The solution comes from implementing systems and processes that minimise the overheads associated with diversity.

To illustrate this abstract concept, imagine that you are working in a two-person team, and that you’re tasked with drawing a map of the world from scratch.

You might have a pretty good idea of the region around Australia. Perhaps you can add in New Zealand and parts of Asia too.

If you’re paired with a person who is similar to you, you’ll be able to work together and quickly add more detail to the parts of the world that you both know well. As you start drawing countries further from home you might struggle a bit more and the shapes will probably get a little less accurate.

Then imagine being paired with someone who is from another country instead. The chances are that they’ll be able to fill in some of the gaps that you’re not sure of. Together you’ll be able to produce a better overall map of the world.

However, it’s more likely than not that the person you’re paired with in the second scenario doesn’t speak English. Progress might be slower as you try and coordinate and communicate. Perhaps communication is so difficult you can’t even communicate that it’s a map you’re trying to draw.

This is the double-edged sword of diversity.

Bridging differences

If we added a translation service into our hypothetical map drawing project, then nine times out of ten, the more diverse team is going to end up with the better product. Without this bridge, the barriers to communication and collaboration could mean it goes either way.

There is much that needs to be done to improve diversity for many workplaces. This includes obvious forms of diversity, but I think we should also be aware of the less obvious examples of diversity too.

Fortunately, it is not difficult to implement systems and processes that help harness a diversity of perspectives. Rotating staff between teams is just one simple strategy to share ideas and experiences. Another effective approach is to run hackathons or other events which break people out of their normal paradigms and environments. And of course, having a strong organisational culture that spans roles and locations makes it easier for people to work together.

This article was originally published by HR Magazine

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