Diversity Management Basics (Part 1 of 3): What's Diversity & Why's It Important?

Photo: Holger Zscheyge via Flickr
What do you think of when you hear or see the word "diversity"? Many people think about differences with respect to characteristics like gender or race. But when we look at what diversity actually means, we have to realise that this is actually an incomplete view. According to the Oxford Dictionary,
"diversity" means "[t]he state of being diverse."
Okay, so maybe that wasn't a particularly helpful exercise. Let's look up "diverse", then, maybe?...
diverse: "Showing a great deal of variety; very different."
Okay! There we go. This is actually consistent with how scholars studying diversity define the term. We usually think of "diversity" simply as "difference" or "variety". Notice how there is no specification of the characteristic or the aspect on which this difference occurs. This means that saying we have a "diverse workforce" doesn't really make a lot of sense on its own; it is technically a really easy thing to say.

The workforce could be diverse with respect to functional background (i.e. there are marketing people, accounting people, operations people, finance people, HR people, etc.--like most organisations!), but it could be homogeneous, or non-diverse, with respect to gender (i.e. an organisation consisting of all or mostly men--like a lot of organisations!).

So, if we say we have a diverse workforce, we should probably specify the dimension(s) to which we are referring. We might have a racially diverse workforce, a functionally diverse workforce, a gender-diverse workforce, etc.

Why is all of this definition stuff important?

I'm glad you asked!

This means that a lot of people's view of diversity as relating to gender and race is indeed a fairly narrow view of diversity in which there is an overemphasis on characteristics that are largely "surface level", or fairly visible characteristics.

We have to realise that there are a lot of other interesting dimensions of diversity that are deeper in nature. Deep-level diversity would include differences on not only on things like functional and educational background, but also--and perhaps more importantly--things like perspectives, values, ideas, learning styles, and so on.

Of course, an emphasis on deep-level diversity is not, in any way, meant to diminish the importance of diversity and equality issues with regards to more surface-level characteristics. On the contrary, deep-level diversity usually accompanies surface-level diversity, which is one reason (of multiple reasons!) why we should make sure we're not discriminating on the basis of such characteristics as race, gender, age, etc. Such discrimination excludes the deep-level perspectives that could be critical to the success of an organisation or work group.

Why is diversity important?

Research says that diversity (on deep-level and surface-level dimensions) is important for several reasons, some of which will be discussed in a later blog post in this series on diversity management.
It's important to note that diversity in and of itself can be valued without a business case, similar to how we might value equity, honesty, or loving one another.
But let's suppose we are also curious about the business case for diversity...

Diversity research up through the 1990s said that sometimes diverse groups and organisations would perform better than homogeneous ones, sometimes they would perform worse, and sometimes there was little or no difference in how they performed. (To be clear, research was done with respect to diversity on various surface- and deep-level dimensions.) This led scholars to do a bit more detailed research that in turn led to our understanding of how diversity affects performance outcomes. Basically, it occurs through two general processes:
  • Beneficial Processes: Diversity can lead to increased market access, enhanced creativity, and better decision-making. These things are generally good for performance.
  • Detrimental Processes: Diversity can lead to increased conflict, decreased cohesion, more communication problems, etc. These things are generally bad for performance.
And, for more visual learners (like me), here's what that would look like...

So, the overall effect of diversity on performance will depend on which of these processes is more dominant in a work group or organisation. Some organisations will see more of the good stuff, others will see more of the bad, and yet others might see a bit of both so that it all cancels out. Research then shifted to try and understand what kinds of things would make the good stuff happen and the bad stuff not happen, which takes us to answer the next question of why there is a need to have "diversity management".

But that's a question we'll address in Part 2.

By the way, feel free to get more details by looking at my published academic work by clicking here. It will also give you a head start on my next couple of blog posts!

Links: Part 1 :: Part 2 :: Part 3

This article was originally published on the Centre for Workplace Leadership blog. Read the original article.