Understanding diversity to live together in peace at work

By Matheus Viana

Whether for moral purposes, to increase performance or to achieve a better quality of life at work, living together has become a major challenge for our companies and more broadly for our societies. Living and working in a diverse context brings difficulties, but is a real promise of success.

Diversity is a complex phenomenon which has an ambivalent impact on work teams. Therefore, understanding diversity is an essential step towards building a workplace where we can work together in peace. Action plans can be developed at all companies’ levels to enhance or create this kind of workplace. That’s why, first, we will look at the complexity of diversity and, second, we will address how to build a more inclusive workplace.

The complexity of diversity

Frances Milikens and Luis Martins, researchers in organisational behaviour, describe diversity as a “double-edged sword” [1]. Diversity does not have an overall effect on the functioning of work teams that would be either necessarily positive or negative. Its effect is twofold: positive and negative [2; 3].

On one hand, diversity brings an abundance of ideas, perspectives, knowledge and visions. This variety of available information empowers the work and stimulates what psychologists call “information processing”. It increases team’s performance and creativity, and companies’ productivity and innovation.

On the other hand, diversity promotes “social categorization”, our natural tendency to classify people we meet between those who are like us and those who are not. Under certain conditions, this process creates dissension within the team and interferes with the smooth running of teamwork.

These two sides of diversity act together and interact with each other. This has been proposed and subsequently demonstrated by Daan Van Knippenberg, Carsten De Dreu and Astrid Homan, a Dutch research team [4; 5]. According to them, diversity has an overall positive effect on the work team. But relational difficulties can hinder this effect. In other words, if they are too strong, these difficulties prevent the team from taking the full advantage of the richness of its diversity.

Fortunately, these difficulties can be overtaken. Living together peacefully is largely achievable and makes it possible to unleash the full positive potential of diversity at work.

Tilting the scales in the right direction

Achieving a good living-together can be done at several levels: at the company, the team and the individual levels.

Concerning the company as a whole, improvement can be accomplished through corporate culture and the work climate that results from it. It is not just a question of diversifying the workforce. It’s about building a work environment where everyone feels included and recognised, whether they belong to a minority or a majority group. Such a context emphasizes that everyone is part of the company, but at the same time that everyone is accepted in his or her uniqueness and difference [6].

This principle can be also applied at the team level, where it rests in the hands of management. By implementing inclusive leadership, the manager stimulates the feeling of belonging to the team, while valuing the specificities of its members [7]. He or she accomplishes this by encouraging communication within the team, adopting more democratic decision-making or ensuring fairness, for example.

Even without being a manager or a business leader, each of us can take action to interact better with different others and thus to contribute to unleashing the richness of diversity. It is up to us to learn to discover our biases in order to overcome them, to take the time to understand the others and ourselves, to accept what brings us together as much as what separates us. This can be achieved by developing our intercultural intelligence. This can be done by adopting a more open-minded and reflective attitude, by learning from the others or by developing skills such as adaptability [8].

While action can be taken at several company’s levels to unleash the positive potential of diversity, these actions must take into account the complexity of the phenomenon. An improperly constructed pro-diversity policy can have negative consequences for the company and its members [9]. Of course, this can be avoided with a clear understanding of the processes involved and a good assessment of the working context.

Conclusion

Diversity is an asset for companies and societies. But its impact on work teams is complex and has ambivalent consequences. Fostering living-together climate is essential to unleash the full potential of our diversity. If companies and managers can promote it, we can also act at our own personal level. By developing our ability to interact with different others, we support a “living together in peace” future and the growth of our societies.

References

  1. Milliken, F. J., & Martins, L. L. (1996). Searching for common threads: Understanding the multiple effects of diversity in organizational groups. Academy of Management Review, 21(2), 402–433. https://doi.org/10.5465/AMR.1996.9605060217
  2. Stahl, G. K., Maznevski, M. L., Voigt, A., & Jonsen, K. (2010). Unraveling the effects of cultural diversity in teams: A meta-analysis of research on multicultural work groups. Journal of International Business Studies, 41(4), 690–709. https://doi.org/10.1057/jibs.2009.85
  3. Guillaume, Y. R. F. F., Dawson, J. F., Otaye-Ebede, L., Woods, S. A., & West, M. A. (2017). Harnessing demographic differences in organizations: What moderates the effects of workplace diversity? Journal of Organizational Behavior, 38(2), 276–303. https://doi.org/10.1002/job.2040
  4. van Knippenberg, D., De Dreu, C. K. W., & Homan, A. C. (2004). Work Group Diversity and Group Performance : An Integrative Model and Research Agenda. Journal of Applied Psychology, 89(November 2015), 1008–1022. https://doi.org/10.1037/0021-9010.89.6.1008
  5. van Knippenberg, D., & Hoever, I. J. (2018). Team Diversity and Team Creativity: A Categorization-Elaboration Perspective. In R. Reiter-Palmon (Ed.), Team Creativity and Innovation (pp. 41–60). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  6. Stevens, F. G., Plaut, V. C., & Sanchez-Burks, J. (2008). Unlocking the Benefits of Diversity: All-Inclusive Multiculturalism and Positive Organizational Change. The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 44(1), 116–133. https://doi.org/10.1177/0021886308314460
  7. Shore, L. M., Randel, A. E., Chung, B. G., Dean, M. A., Ehrhart, K. H., & Singh, G. (2011, July). Inclusion and diversity in work groups: A review and model for future research. Journal of Management. https://doi.org/10.1177/0149206310385943
  8. Fantini, A. E. (2000). A central concern: Developing intercultural competence. SIT Occasional Papers Series, 1, 25–42.
  9. Verbeek, S. (2011). Employment equity policy frames in the literature: “good practice” versus “bad idea.” International Journal of Human Resource Management, 22(9), 1942–1962. http://doi.org/10.1080/09585192.2011.573972

Cover photo by : Matheus Viana

French PhD in social psychology ● Writing about inclusion, diversity and discriminations, in the light of social sciences.

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Benjamin Pastorelli, PhD

Benjamin Pastorelli, PhD

French PhD in social psychology ● Writing about inclusion, diversity and discriminations, in the light of social sciences.

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