Studies: Diversity Spurs Workplace Creativity

A growing body of research suggests that diversity in the workplace not only helps companies stay in tune with their customers, but also adds to the diversity of ideas and attitudes. Columnist Shankar Vedantam addresses the issue in The Washington Post this week.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The Civil Rights Movement that Martin Luther King led and that is celebrated on this holiday was very much a moral campaign, but this morning we're going to talk to someone who says it's had an economic effect on many businesses. He's Shankar Vedantam. He writes the weekly "Human Behavior" column for the Washington Post and he's on the line. Welcome to the program.

Mr. SHANKAR VEDANTAM (Washington Post): Thanks so much for having me, Steve.

INSKEEP: A lot of businesses since the 1960s have been forced or have decided to have more diverse workforces. How has that affected their business?

Mr. VEDANTAM: Well, this has been a big question for a long time. As you say, the argument in favor of diversity has long been a moral argument, but it's only fairly recently that social scientists have started looking at this question as an empirical question, which is can you actually show whether diversity has a positive or negative effect on the functioning of companies?

So a sociologist called Cedric Herring has just completed a very interesting study that obtained data from 250 representative companies in the United States that looked at both their diversity levels as well as various measures of business performance there. And he finds that with every successive level of increased diversity, companies actually appear to do better on all those measures of business performance.

INSKEEP: How could that be?

Mr. VEDANTAM: Well, this is a question that the data has not yet answered, which is asking what is the effect of diversity? The conventional argument made by many advocates for diversity, is that people with diverse backgrounds bring different things to the table, and companies that have more perspectives are going to do better. But there is also contrary, or in some ways contradictory information that comes from psychology, which suggests that part of what diversity may bring to the table is not just this range of ideas and information, but just the fact of having a diverse workplace changes the way that everyone in the workplace thinks and acts.

And what the social psychologists are finding is that if you have two groups of people, and one of the groups is, say, all white, and the other group is diverse, and you present them with various cognitive challenges, the group that's all white thinks differently and reaches different conclusions than the group that is diverse.

INSKEEP: Oh, my goodness. Did this study have an example of how white people are thinking differently just because black people are in the room, say?

Mr. VEDANTAM: Yes, I think there are several experiments that actually show this, and the social psychologist whom I quote in the column today, Sam Sommers at Tufts University, believes that it's mostly an unconscious process. But here's one experiment that he conducted. He had two groups of people essentially pretend to be juries. And he presented them with information about a crime and information that was somewhat ambiguous, and they had to make judgments about whether the person involved was guilty or innocent. And what he found was that when the group sitting around the table was all white, the group reached a conclusion that the defendant was guilty 50 percent of the time. And when the group was diverse, the whites in the group reached the conclusion that the defendant was guilty only 33 percent of the time.

Now, what's interesting is that in both cases the groups were not allowed to discuss the case before coming to their conclusion, but the fact that whites were sitting around the table with minorities as opposed to sitting around the table with other whites prompts them to come to a different conclusion.

INSKEEP: It wasn't even that someone was there who was African American at the table who said, you know, a lot of people in my neighborhood are in prison and a lot of things unfair happen with the police - it wasn't even anything that direct.

Mr. VEDANTAM: Precisely. That's sort of the "Twelve Angry Men" model of, you know, what different people can bring to a jury, which is that, you know, one person with a different point of view can end up changing the views of the whole jury. What this seems to suggest is that people are influenced by the groups that surround them, and what Sommers argues is that the effects of diversity on a workplace are not just because of what people of color bring to the workplace, but because the very fact you have people of color in the workplace changes the way that everyone in the workplace thinks.

INSKEEP: Hmm. Well, Shankar Vedantam, thanks for forcing us to think about this this morning.

Mr. VEDANTAM: Thanks so much, Steve.

INSKEEP: He writes the weekly "Human Behavior" column in The Washington Post.

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