Increasing the social diversity of your teams isn’t just a way to score points with your PR department. Research shows socially diverse groups are more innovative than homogeneous groups. It isn’t controversial to say that a group of individuals with different areas of expertise would be better at solving complex problems than a homogeneous group, but science shows socially diverse groups also gain the same benefits, this is called the diversity bonus. People with different backgrounds bring different experiences and information to the table. Interacting with people who are different forces team members to prepare better, plan for alternate and counterpoints, and not take consensus for granted. This results in higher performing teams.
What is diversity
In its simplest form diversity refers to the set of dissimilarities that distinguish individuals in a group. In the US the term diversity is strongly associated with racial diversity, but that is just one aspect. There are many factors which contribute to the diversity of a group, from people’s genes, upbringing, education, society, etc. It is the inclusion of these differences in a group or organization. Diversity can be classified in different ways but the most common classifications include the following:
Internal. The things a person can’t change like age, ethnicity, race, sexual orientation, etc.
External: The things people are able to change like our jobs, education, beliefs, etc.
Societal: The things that change based on the society people live in. One person may be discriminated against in one society but be part of the dominant group of another.
Cognitive: The thought processes and mental repertoire of the person. Someone may be part of a non-dominant group based on their internal circumstances but act and identify (even be treated) as a member of the dominant group.
The thought processes that allow you to maneuver through the world influence the way you think and the way you approach and solve problems. In other words, you can use internal, external, and societal diversity as a proxy for cognitive diversity. It’s a vapid truism that everyone contributes to the diversity of a team. The question is how much are they contributing. It’s not that a man doesn’t contribute to the diversity of an all male team, it’s that a woman, in general, will contribute more.
Diversity is good for the bottom line. A study from McKinsey found companies with a diverse executive board perform better than their less diverse peers. For the purposes of this study a diverse board meant one with women and or foreign nationals. Businesses with the most diverse executive boards generated 53% higher return on equity, on average, than the ones with the least diverse boards. A similar study from Credit Suisse found companies with at least one woman on the board outperformed their peers with no women on their boards by 26%. The study also found little difference in the boards during periods of economic growth, but during financial crises companies with women on their executive boards strongly outperformed those without any women on their boards.
A study from Tufts University set out to measure the observable effects of diversity on performance. They didn’t look at business directly, instead they used mock juries to analyze the decision making process of the individuals. In that setting panels with mixed races deliberated longer, discussed more facts about the case, and engaged in broader deliberations. The study pointed out the significant applications for businesses and other institutions which grapple with complex issues.
The diversity doesn’t have to be racial or gender based. A study from Northwestern, Brigham Young, and Stanford universities found merely adding someone perceived as an outsider made groups more effective at solving problems. The study points out the interesting fact that homogenous groups were more confident in their conclusions, even though they were more likely to be wrong. The mixed groups were less confident, even if they were more likely to be right.
Diversity prediction theorem
Study after study finds diversity to be such a positive driver of innovation and growth that researchers are now studying the reasons it has such effect. One key insight in explaining the positive aspects of diverse teams is that today’s problems are ever more complex and require the collaboration of many people, even many teams. Breakthroughs coming from individuals are rarer and rarer. From advertisement to aerospace innovation comes from the concerted effort of many individuals.
We can talk about the benefits of diversity in terms of performance and ask the question “does diversity increase the performance of a team?” By performance we mean the quality and correctness of the solution an individual or team produces. In other words, given a best solution, how far from it are the proposed solutions. We may not have a definite answer, but there are degrees of correctness. All we need is an objective way to compare solutions and see if one is better or worse than another. This can be a person, test, set of criteria, etc., in other words, an oracle we can use to measure solutions. Instead of performance we can also use error to convey the same information, how far a solution is from the hypothetical best one, from the oracle’s perspective.
The diversity prediction theorem states that the team’s error (how bad a score the oracle gives them) is equal to the average individual error minus the diversity of the group.
Team error = Average individual error – Diversity of the group
In essence this formula says that the diversity of a team is equally important as the performance of the team. If you’re interested, the proof of this equation is at the end of this article.
Caveats of the diversity prediction theorem
The diversity prediction theorem applies if the following conditions are me:
- It’s a collaborative effort. If everyone works in their own bubble then there won’t be cross pollination of ideas. In that case the most important factor is the performance of each individual.
- It’s a product of the mind. Sometimes you don’t ask a team to solve a problem, you ask them to implement a particular solution. In that case the important thing is for the individuals to follow orders.
- The problem is hard. If it’s an easy problem then the average error for the individuals will be so low that diversity wouldn’t matter.
- There’s an objective way to rate solutions. You need an objective set of criteria to measure one solution against another. This is your oracle.
Implications of the diversity prediction theorem
Diversity reduces team errors.
The less diverse a team is, the more talented each individual needs to be.
The more diverse the team is, the higher individual errors it can tolerate.
If the individual performance stays the same, increasing the diversity reduces the team error.
Q: Does that mean a highly diverse group of incompetent people will perform better than a highly competent group low on diversity?
A: Not at all. If the individual error is so high, it doesn’t matter how much diversity you have, it will never catch up to the average error. On the other side of the spectrum, if you had someone with the perfect solution, you wouldn’t need a team. You’d have an individual error of zero and diversity of zero as well.
Q: So would you take a person of average talent that increases the diversity of a team, over a highly talented one that doesn’t?
A: Talent and diversity are equally important. Someone can have talent so above your team’s average that you may not care about diversity. If the person has roughly the same talent as the rest of your team, then their contribution to the diversity of the team is more important.
Q: Is a team better off with a mediocre person that increases the diversity of the team?
A: No. If the person’s talent is so low that it raises the team’s average error too high, then it doesn’t matter how much they contribute to the diversity of the team. Talent and diversity are equally important.
Empathy is driven by how close we perceive someone or something is to us. It’s why we empathize more with a whale than we do with an ant, and why we feel sad for a robot which displays human-like qualities. This has a couple of implications. The bad news is the more different we feel a person is from us, the less we’re going to empathize with them, the less understanding we’re going to be, and the less patience we’ll have with them. The good news is that upon close inspection, viewing other humans as different than us is a social construct. Think of any group which you might characterize as “other” and then think of someone in your life from that same group which you see as “one of us”. That means we can overcome our biases, start seeing ourselves in others, and reap the benefits of diversity.
Culture of diversity
It’s one thing for a company to have a diverse group of individuals and another for it to have a culture of diversity. The company’s culture shows how things are really done in the company and it drives much of the interactions that happen within it. Having a culture of diversity goes beyond acknowledging (or worse, “tolerating”) other people’s differences. It is the deliberate effort to understand and appreciate people’s backgrounds and differences, practicing mutual respect for qualities and experiences other than our own, recognizing institutionalized discrimination which supports privileges at the expense of others, and building alliances to combat all forms of discrimination.
Promoting diversity in the workplace
Diversity in the workplace doesn’t increase by chance. It requires the conscious and concerted effort of hiring managers. Consider that most positions are filled by referrals. That form of hiring makes sense for companies because if they’re presumably happy with an employee and that employee recommends someone, there’s a good chance the new person will perform at the level of the referrer. The problem is that people tend to mingle with others like them. That means for companies who rely on referrals for hiring, the diversity composition tends to stay the same or worse. For these companies, even if there isn’t a single bias in the hiring process, the result is the same as if they were actively trying to discriminate against people not like the ones in the company.
A way to increase the diversity of a company is by engaging with hiring managers to make them active participants in the solutions. Even if the person isn’t on board with the idea of increasing the diversity of the company, if you ask them to act in ways that will result in more diversity, that person will experience a cognitive dissonance which they’ll have to resolve. This often results in the person shifting their point of view and going from compliance to advocacy. One way to make managers invested in increasing the diversity of the company, and thus becoming active participants in the change, is by implementing mentorship programs. In these programs, managers train and advise their counselees, they give them the tools to develop and advance their careers, and become advocates of their success. As they do this they internalize the merit of their counselees, regardless of their background.
Increasing your diversity
The concept of diversity not only applies to teams but individuals as well. As it turns out your brain is more like a committee that agrees on ideas rather than a monolithic block which unilaterally decides what to do. You can use different techniques to increase the diversity of your thinking committee, so to speak. Doing so will give you a wider range of options for you to work with. Here are some things you can do to increase your diversity.
- Categorize things. Whenever you see a group of things, try to come up with as many different ways to categorize them as you can. The categories should be different enough that you can tell what thing belongs in which category. If something doesn’t fit in your categories, think about why that is, maybe you need a different set of categories. This will get you into the habit of looking at things from different perspectives.
- Learn skills from a different profession. Acquiring a new skill within your profession can only increase your mental repertoire so much. You want to experience what it’s like for someone else to do their jobs. Think of a skillset which you know nothing about but have always been intrigued by it and start dipping your toes.
- Put yourself in someone else’s shoes. Everyone has a different experience going about the world. Never pass the opportunity to think of how someone else would experience the same situations as you do. For example, if you rarely feel unsafe walking on the streets at night, think of what it would be like to have to worry about your safety. If you’re able bodied and you’re in a building, think of how you’d get out in the event of a fire if you were bound to a wheelchair.
Proof of the diversity prediction theorem
Warning: Math ahead. This section may look intimidating but all you need to understand is basic algebra and the use of the summation sign (sigma). Feel free to skip if it isn’t your cup of tea.
Time to defend the formula:
Team error = Average individual error – Diversity of the group
Let’s say we assign a value of X to the best solution (in theory) and relative values x1, x2,… xN to the individual solutions. We can then come up with the team’s “average” solution. The word average is in quotes because we’re measuring relative levels of correctness. We can’t put different solutions in a blender and get an average of them, but we can tell if a particular solution is better than another (it’s the reason having an oracle is a prerequisite).
So we have the following formula:
Another way of representing the sum up to xN is with the sigma sign:
It essentially says the team average is the sum of all answers divided by the number of answers.
Now that we have the team average Ta we can calculate the team error, or how far the team average is from the best solution X, squaring it to get the distances (how far off it is):
We can take the team error formula and use it as a template to calculate each individual’s error, then use that to get the average error. I will be the sum of how far off each individual’s solution is to X, divided by the number of individuals.
The diversity then becomes the distance of each individual’s solution from the team average. In other words how different are the solutions, on average, from the rest of the group:
With all these pieces we can finally write:
This equation is true if we’re able to replace each term and confirm the left side equals the right side. So let’s replace the terms:
Now we’re going to work with the left side and see if in the end we get something equal to the right side above.
This is the same as the right side (average error – diversity). This means the diversity of a team really contributes just as much as the performance of the individuals.