How Does Workplace Diversity Impact Team Performance?

Employer Articles / September 28, 2007

In a series of recent studies conducted at prestigious research institutions ranging from Rutgers University to MIT’s Sloan School of Management, the tangible outcomes of diverse workplaces have been subject to rigorous analysis. On almost every measure, workplace teams that are comprised of staff members from a variety of different racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds function more effectively than work groups that are homogenous or comprised mostly of staff members with similar backgrounds.  

According to Scott E. Page, author of The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies, some of the most striking divergences can be seen in the areas of problem-solving, conflict resolution, and creativity. In these three crucial skill sets, diverse groups have been shown consistently to outperform their homogenous counterparts.

Although researchers are still working to better understand the why and how of these results, most agree with the preliminary theory that diverse groups perform better because they bring a wide variety of perspectives, experiences, and attitudes to the table. When combined, the diverse staff generates a unique team dynamic that is more wide-ranging in its scope, breadth, and depth, and thus better equipped to tackle complex problems and challenges.

How Can Your Organization Realize the Full Potential of a Diverse Team? 

Even as researchers continue to study the effects of diversity in work groups, real-world managers and other practitioners have been devising new ways to help organizations tap into the performance-boosting strengths of their diverse work groups. Here are some basic strategies to help you get started.

Understand the Nature of Creative Problem-Solving.

The process of innovation in a diverse workplace is not always pretty. In fact, it’s likely to be non-linear, irregular, and at times, downright messy. Whenever possible, just step back and give your diverse team the time and space necessary to work things out in their own unique way.

Push Your Team Past the Herd Instinct.

We tend to gravitate toward people who share our views, opinions, and backgrounds. It’s human nature to seek validation from others who are similar to us. But in order to truly reap the benefits of workplace diversity, it’s important to shake things up a bit. Create cross-disciplinary teams that cut across cliques, departments, and social groups. This is the kind of environment where truly meaningful innovation can take root.

Cultivate an Organizational Culture that is Genuinely Open to New Ideas.

Even the most diverse team won’t be able to inject innovation and creativity into your organization if they sense that new ideas aren’t welcome. If your company has a traditional, hierarchical structure and culture, it may take some time to get to the point where subordinates feel comfortable exercising their creative problem-solving skills. You can facilitate this process by lavishly praising and, more importantly, respecting your staff’s input, feedback, and suggestions.

Expect Conflict — and Plan How to Overcome It.

Workplace diversity research tells us that great new ideas are often borne out of the clash of different perspectives. On a surface level, this collision of different worldviews and attitudes can often result in conflicts between employees. It’s best to take a proactive approach to address the unique challenge of conflict in a diverse workplace. For example, it may be beneficial to train your staff in the basics of effective cross-cultural communication. Also, agree on an organization-wide game plan for resolving workplace conflicts in a civil, compassionate manner.