Workforce diversity has become a major organizational issue for most companies in the 21st century, and with good reason; we’ve come a long way from the mono-cultural workplaces that dominated the business world just a few short decades ago. Organizations of all sizes tell us in corporate press releases and social media posts that, within their company, “Diversity drives innovation and creativity!” However, research tells us that’s not necessarily a given.
To benefit from diversity, many companies already employ “active diversity management” techniques such as diversity training to get the most value out of their teams’ diversity. However, even these methods are far from universally effective. A team of researchers from The Netherlands and Germany set out to better understand the conditions in which diversity training will benefit work teams the most.
VALUE OF NATIONALITY DIVERSITY
The root of the conflict is that research has shown that diversity can both help and hurt the creativity and performance of work teams. On one hand, the different thinking styles, beliefs, and ideas that are naturally present in diverse work teams can help to stimulate creativity by providing different perspectives on projects. It’s certainly not hard to imagine how a wider array of differing perspectives could be beneficial to creativity.
Conversely, humans are naturally prone to subconsciously categorize people. If team members view each other based on their preconceived notions of their nationalities, it can totally negate the benefits of diversity, and potentially even negatively impact creativity.
In response to this, around 70% of companies have already instituted some form of diversity training, in an attempt to ensure that the diversity within their teams adds value. Even with this training, though, it’s sometimes still not enough to ensure a positive result.
UNDER WHAT CONDITIONS DOES DIVERSITY TRAINING HELP OR HARM TEAMS?
The researchers (Homan, Buengeler, Eckhoff, van Ginkel, & Voelpel, 2015) looked to address the issue of when diversity training is actually beneficial to team creativity. Interestingly, they found that diversity training had the most positive impact on the teams that needed it the most; those with high diversity and low preexisting positive beliefs about diversity.
However, the study also found that in teams that were less diverse, creativity was actually reduced when there were low positive diversity beliefs. So, when team members didn’t believe diversity to be beneficial, and there is little diversity present, diversity training had a negative impact on performance.
The researchers also found minimal impact either way from diversity training on teams that already had a positive opinion of the value of diversity.
First and foremost, this research further supports the notion that there is value in an internationally diverse workforce. In high-diversity teams there is potential for increased creativity—or at worst, no significant change—given proper diversity training. In addition, low diversity teams who didn’t believe diversity would benefit them actually showed reduced performance following diversity training.
The research also begins to answer the question of when companies should utilize diversity training. The biggest impact occurs in teams that need it the most; those that are high-diversity, and don’t believe that diversity will benefit them. These conditions are certainly not uncommon to find in modern international work teams, so it’s reassuring for professionals to see research supporting the value of diversity training in these situations.
It’s clear that further research is still needed on how to maximize the value added by diversity within teams. However, this research reinforces the notion that there is value to be added, and that different conditions demand different approaches when it comes to diversity training.