How Diversity Works

In the September 16 issue of Scientific American (http://bit.ly/1qLZR2E), Katherine Phillips discusses how diversity makes us smarter, or more specifically, “more creative, diligent, and harder working.”  While acknowledging that creating diverse work environments and promoting inclusive dialogue among individuals is difficult, research by organizational scientists, psychologists, sociologists, and economists suggest that these efforts not only support altruistic social aims, but actually make institutions more effective, innovative, and more productive.

Phillips’ article discusses two areas, in particular, in which diversity supports institutional learning and growth—informational diversity and anticipatory planning. When we surround ourselves with people from similar backgrounds, we tend to believe that we share the same perspectives. Research confirms what many of us have experienced throughout our educational and professional careers, namely that “people who are different from one another in race, gender and other dimensions bring unique information and experiences to bear on the task at hand.” The studies cited in the article demonstrate that diversity leads to improved organizational performance.

It is not just different perspectives, experiences, and information that matter in helping groups to function more productively. Group diversity also affects individual members’ planning. When placed in a context where group members realize that there will be others from different social, racial, gender (or even political) backgrounds, they anticipate the different perspectives and realize they will need to work harder to reach consensus. As Phillips notes, “this logic helps to explain both the upside and the downside of social diversity: people work harder in diverse environments both cognitively and socially. They might not like it, but the hard work can lead to better outcomes.”

Last month I attended a symposium in Washington D.C. entitled “The Future of Diversity” with board member Tracy Stanton and Director of Intercultural Affairs Jabali Stewart. The hosts invited independent school heads, board members, and diversity practitioners from around the country to discuss how to create more inclusive communities for students, parents, faculty, and staff from different backgrounds.  When I began working in independent schools over 20 years ago, schools often explained their outreach efforts to communities of color (there was much less emphasis on outreach to and support of LGBTQ communities) in terms of its social and moral value. They tended to emphasize the opportunities “we” (the schools) were providing for “them” (families of color).

It was nice to participate in a conference in which independent school educators were focusing on how inclusive communities not only supported our school missions, but how this work made for more robust and innovative learning environments. In fact, if our schools want to improve, then diversity and inclusivity will be a necessary part of our future.  I believe that The Bush School has been working on this for quite some time, and I appreciate that science supports our efforts.

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