Leveraging Diversity the Right Way

A number of studies* in recent years have demonstrated that diverse groups come up with better solutions than homogenous groups in a variety of different types of problem-solving and decision-making tasks. The more complex the task, and the more creativity required, the greater the advantage of diverse groups over homogenous groups. This is not particularly surprising. When each member has something unique to bring to the table, the group has a larger pool of experience and skills upon which to build. A solution subjected to input and examination from multiple perspectives is also apt to be more robust. Given the evidence, and the logic to support it, it’s clearly in the best interests of businesses to leverage diversity in their workforces.

There are many types of diversity. As a society, we’ve become much more focused on categorical diversity than individual diversity. We go to great lengths to acknowledge and embrace every category of diversity imaginable. The government provides incentives and even sometimes quotas to ensure diversity in our workplaces and educational institutions, and certain “protected classes” of people cannot be terminated without consulting the legal department first. But are we focusing on the right kind of diversity, and are we doing it in the right way?

The original purpose of diversity legislation was to remove barriers for qualified individuals who belong to certain categories that have been subject to discrimination based on negative stereotypes. However, by creating quotas, special protections, and diversity incentives, we induce employers and others to think in terms of categories rather than the unique merits of each individual. That was clearly not the intent of these policies, but the result is nevertheless predictable. Policies that don’t accomplish their intent are, at best, ineffective and, at worst, detrimental.

Attempts by the government to promote diversity can indavertently encourage employers to “lower the bar” for individuals who happen to belong to a targeted category when they need to fill a quota or qualify for an incentive. This is harmful in two ways. On an individual basis, the person who is accepted with lesser qualifications than his or her peers is not made aware that their qualifications are inadequate, depriving them of the opportunity to improve their qualifications before entering the field. This puts them at a greater risk of failure than those who had to meet a higher bar to get in. This phenomenon, taken on a large scale, ensures that a greater proportion of people from the targeted categories will be less successful than their peers, reinforcing (or even creating) the same sort of negative perceptions the diversity measures were intended to counteract.

A rational way to address this problem would be to focus on individual diversity rather than categorical diversity. The value in each individual lies in what’s unique about them rather than what they have in common with others. An individual may belong to multiple categories (whether by birth, by choice, or by circumstance), and each one may contribute in different ways to their overall identity. But each individual is far more than the sum of the categories to which they belong, and should be judged solely according to their own unique merits.

If we truly value individual diversity, then all other types of diversity follow without need for special designation. The studies referenced above show that it’s in the best interest of employers to hire individuals who are not only highly qualified, but also have diverse backgrounds and experiences. Employers who hire the best resources available, and know how to leverage diversity, will be more successful than their competitors who don’t. If diversity leads to success, then success will lead to more diversity. It’s not necessary for the government to legislate that businesses act in their own best interest. If the government gets out of the diversity business, the free market will accomplish it more effectively.

*Sources:  Stanford Graduate School of Business, Leiden University, Tufts University, University of Michigan

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Published in: on February 2, 2008 at 11:06 pm  Comments (2)  
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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Well-put! The emphasis upon diversity is misplaced when it is deployed to a numerical game dependent upon categories. That approach is nothing more than institutionalized racism.

    Dr. King had it right, in that people would be judged by the content of their character. Unfortunately, “celebrating diversity” today is more about the color of one’s skin.

  2. […] presents Leveraging Diversity the Right Way posted at Government is not your Daddy […]

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