Jun 26

The power of diversity

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The power of diversity

Whilst the current focus on diversity is rightly concerned with equality, that isn’t the full picture. There is a huge advantage in diversity in its widest sense and there is plenty of evidence that this is the case.

An example

In 2009, Phillips, Liljenquist and Neale challenged groups of students to work together to solve a murder mystery problem. Having been given various materials about the murder (such as witness statements) their task was to work out who committed the crime. The groups were deliberately mixed with some being based on the same college fraternity, others being made up of three friends and a stranger.

The groups that included a stranger did a better job of finding the murderer.

It was apparent that the stranger provoked the friends to raise their game. They were more careful about exploring their own conclusions, paid more attention to the newcomer, focused more on the task at hand and were more willing to change their views. Assumptions that friends might not have challenged were examined more carefully under the scrutiny of a stranger.

It wasn’t a small effect

This was a question that Philip Tetlock started to ponder back in 1984. The groups that had to accommodate a stranger were significantly more likely to reach the correct conclusion. They did so 75% of the time versus 54% for a homogenous group.

That wasn’t the surprise

When the different groups were asked how well they had done, the results were very interesting. People in the diverse teams were unsure that they had the right answers and felt socially uncomfortable. In the teams composed of friends they enjoyed the process more and were more confident that they had the right answer. As above, they were completely (and measurably) wrong.

That wasn’t the surprise

As Tim Harford explains in his book Messy, we prefer cohesion over openness. We’d prefer to be in a group where we all get along, have the same influences and generally share the same world views. Cohesion makes us feel more comfortable even though the evidence would suggest that it detracts from our performance. As Harford says:

“We mistakenly think diversity is getting in the way, even when it is helping”


This seems to be that we don’t enjoy the disruption and the uncomfortable feelings that disruption creates. We favour environments that we are comfortable over environments where we feel off-center. Yet a McKinsey Report in 2015, noted companies that are more racially and gender diverse not only outperform their competitors but also gain larger market share. Given the experiment above on cognitive diversity, noting the introductory comments above, it seems that the evidence is that diversity in its broadest sense (ethnicity, gender, cognitive, age etc.) is good for the bottom line.

What does that mean?

We should accept that embracing diversity means we are making a statement that we DO want to create extraordinary results. Again, as Harford says:

“People think harder when they fear their views may be challenged by outsiders”

If diversity makes us feel uncomfortable, instead of framing diversity negatively, perhaps we need to look at ourselves? Why are we afraid of being pushed or tested? What do we think is going to happen?

After all if diversity is good for the bottom line, don’t we all win? Is your team or organisation diverse enough? If not what are you going to do about it? Status quo at the very least signals lack of ambition… who wants to work with organisations like that?

If you want to explore what you might be taking for granted or to #changesomething, why not give us a call?


Harford, T. (2016) Messy, Great Britain: Abacus.

Phillips K., Liljenquist, K. and Neale M. (2009) Is the Pain Worth the Gain? The Advantages and Liabilities of Agreeing with Socially Distinct Newcomers, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 35, no. 3, pp.336-50.

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