Steve McEllistrem

The Devereaux Dilemma

The Benefits of Diversity

It’s well known, at least in the fields of psychology and sociology, that diversity is better than uniformity in business, education, and even life. But achieving diversity can be hard, even when we know it’s the right thing to do.

First of all, we’re all tribal. We all want to belong to groups that accept us, and once we do, we immediately begin to see those outside our groups as “others” – people who don’t think or act like us and who therefore aren’t entitled to the same benefits we deserve. Family and friends take precedence over strangers.

We modify our behavior to fit in with whatever group we happen to be involved with at any given moment. Who we present ourselves as will vary depending on whether we’re with our work friends or our school friends or our grandparents. We’re never the same person all the time.

Add to that the fact that humans are lazy. We seek comfort. We like being around people like us so we don’t have to work so hard at presenting ourselves to the world. That can be exhausting. So our default state is non-diversity. We’re happiest among our own.

Studies have shown that liberals think they know more about conservatives than conservatives know about liberals. And not surprisingly, conservatives think they know more about liberals than liberals know about conservatives. Thus, both sides think they have superior knowledge and their arguments ought to be weighted more heavily than their opponents.

What does this have to do with diversity?

If you’re a white, male, middle-aged engineer trying to solve an extremely tricky problem with only white, male, middle-aged fellow engineers, you’re likely to all have similar ideas about what needs to be done. You’re all part of the same tribe, after all. But if you bring in a black, female, young chemist and an elderly Asian biologist, you might actually solve the problem quicker because those folks look at the world differently.

They might come up with ideas you never considered. They might question things you take for granted, which could force you to reconsider why you retain the beliefs you do. You’ve now been pushed out of your comfort zone. And this is a good thing.

It’s not that the chemist and the biologist are necessarily going to come up with a solution, but that you’re more likely to question them and they’re more likely to question you. Everyone becomes a bit more skeptical of others’ viewpoints. More questions get asked. More explanations are offered. Thoughts get clarified. Results flow more easily.

Diversity doesn’t always bring about success, of course. But when everyone is on the same page all the time and a crisis occurs (as crises are wont to do) the ability to overcome that crisis is often impaired by a kind of groupthink.

So, consider looking outside your immediate tribe on occasion. Be friendly to people who are different than you. If you’re a boss, hire people who aren’t clones of your existing workforce. Good things will start to happen.

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