A Scientific Look at Diversity, With Business Results

Diversity seems like a concept that’s difficult to quantify, and yet, according to Katherine Phillips, more and more fields take it into account. As the senior vice dean and professor of leadership and ethics at Columbia Business School, Phillips devotes her research to answering two big questions: what is the value of diversity, and what are the barriers hindering organizations, work teams and society from reaping its advantages?

Phillips provides insight into group dynamics, ongoing changes in hiring practices and ways people can become allies to bolster diversity efforts — all with the aim of optimizing group performance.

Diversity Executive had the opportunity to speak with Phillips. Below are edited excerpts from the interview.  katherine_phillips

How would you define diversity? What is the science of diversity?

Diversity is such a broad term and, in common use, people often think immediately of race and gender. When I talk about diversity in my work, I refer to the many ways that two people can determine that they are different from one another. This diversity can come from a variety of groups to which people belong that shape their personal experiences such as their race, ethnicity, nationality, culture, gender, sexual orientation, economic class, disability status, marital status, veteran status, etc. In a given context, some characteristics may be more important to people than others. Beyond these often surface-level characteristics, I also include people’s knowledge, information, opinions and perspectives about the task at hand into my definition of diversity. This task-relevant diversity is critical to include in the definition. 

The science of diversity involves taking an empirical approach to examine the benefits and potential costs that increasing diversity may have across all domains of our society. Given the often political and emotional aspects of diversity, understanding diversity as a science should allow important conversations to happen.

What are the main positive effects of diversity in the workforce? Are there possibly any negative ones?

The science of diversity is a burgeoning field, and there’s a lot of great work across the social sciences that highlights the benefits of embracing diversity. Some of the most reliable findings to come out of this research show that diversity can enhance creativity and team performance, especially when the task benefits from the sharing of unique information and perspectives. 

For example, people in diverse teams engage in more critical thinking and are less susceptible to groupthink compared to teams with more similar group members. However, there is research that shows that diversity can sometimes have negative effects. When people have conflicting viewpoints and ideas, which is more likely in diverse teams, those conflicts can be misattributed as personality conflicts. Personality conflicts tend to undermine team performance.

A critical focus for diversity researchers is to figure out how to maximize the positive consequences of diversity while minimizing its potentially negative consequences. Likewise, it should be noted that homogeneity is not all positive either; it too has its downsides. No matter what the composition of the group, effective leaders have to maximize group potential deliberately.

What are some of the barriers that prevent organizations and teams from working well with diverse members? What gets in the way of perspectives and unique backgrounds of each person?

One of the main barriers is that there isn’t a straightforward language to talk about differences. People fear that if they acknowledge differences it will be more difficult to work together. For instance, when people acknowledge others’ differences, they may unintentionally lead them to feel like they have to speak for their entire group. That can create a lot of pressure, especially for underrepresented minorities. On the flipside, if people try to downplay others’ differences or pretend that they don’t exist, then they may be denying a part of the person that they value. The lack of a straightforward way to talk about difference can unintentionally promote a hostile environment because people from different backgrounds must tiptoe around these important conversations. The fear itself is handicapping and causes a lot of damage in diverse environments.

To overcome this barrier, we must develop a way of communicating with each other in a way that respects that people are individuals and members of diverse groups at the same time. Every aspect of a person is important and helps shape them into who they are.

How can people on the ground level promote diversity in the workplace? What can they do to ensure a collaborative work experience?

To cultivate a culture of inclusion for all, employees at all levels of the organization must participate in promoting diversity. One of the simplest ways to participate is to be an ally. Allies are people who seek to dismantle the barriers that have historically led to the exclusion of underrepresented groups. Ally work spans a spectrum and can simply be about educating oneself on the barriers to inclusion and why they exist to more involved work, such as advocating for structural changes (e.g., proposing the creation of employee resource groups or participating in sponsorship programs). This kind of ally work can help people build greater self-awareness and the ability to take others’ perspectives. These two skills are crucial for helping people develop harmonious relationships with others, especially when those others come from backgrounds that are different from one’s own.

What do you attribute to the recent increasing number of women (or the desire to have more women) in the workforce, as cited in the SHRM International Diversity Report?

I think there are many reasons people desire to diversify the workforce so I’ll focus on the first two that come to mind. First, I think more people understand that fostering diversity makes for good business. Not only does diversity have benefits within the organization (as previously mentioned), but it also allows organizations to better relate to their customers. Second, I think people desire to diversify the workforce because they believe it’s the right thing to do. People understand that members of underrepresented groups need and want to be a part of the workforce, but they have trouble getting in due to social forces that continue to exclude them. As for the specific desire to increase the representation of women, I believe the rise of social media, recently published books and the rise of successful female leaders is allowing more people to participate in the national dialogue on gender equality, which is expediting change.

How has your own background influenced you in pursuing studies on diversity? What are some of the changes you’ve liked the most over your years of study?

I have always found myself with a foot in two worlds — I am a bridger, or some might say a broker. My experiences growing up in Chicago fueled my interest in diversity. From my family structure — being the youngest of six children I bridged between two generations of siblings and nieces and nephews; to my high school and college days — I was a student athlete and a nerdy kid. I knew all of the local kids in high school because I was one of them, but I also knew all the bused-in “gifted” kids — I was one of them too. I learned how to fit into every group and I also witnessed a lot of ignorance and racial strife in my young life. It wasn’t until later in life that I realized just how my entire life had led me to the pursuit of diversity research. In my research, I always strive to think about how to create a better environment for all to thrive in — I am an optimist at heart. I don’t let myself get too bogged down in how far we have yet to go. 

Some of the changes I’ve liked the most over my years of study have been the increase of diversity — in particular people of color — pursuing Ph.D.s in the field of management. It has helped fuel significantly more research on diversity-related topics. I’ve also appreciated the increase in interdisciplinary conversation and collaborations around diversity. Diversity is no longer a niche topic for a few to study — it is for everyone to study, from psychologists, economists, sociologists, lawyers, management scholars, etc. It has been a joy to bring together some of these brilliant minds from across different boundaries to do diversity work. I hope to see more of that over the years.