The Cognitive Benefits of Diversity—and Inclusion

February 21, 2017

In 2014, Katherine W. Phillips wrote an intriguing article for Scientific American titled “How Diversity Makes Us Smarter.” The article was republished by Scientific American in the wake of President Trump’s executive order on immigration, so we thought we’d revisit it as well.

Phillips starts out by acknowledging that diversity is not always easy. “Research has shown that social diversity in a group can cause discomfort, rougher interactions, a lack of trust, greater perceived interpersonal conflict, lower communication, less cohesion, more concern about disrespect, and other problems,” she writes. “So what is the upside?”

 

Informational Diversity

 

Informational diversity is the idea that “when people are brought together to solve problems in groups, they bring different information, opinions and perspectives.” Logically, the more diverse the group, the more diverse the information, opinions and perspectives. Having a broader range of inputs can help groups and organizations reach better decisions. It’s hard to reach an optimal solution if it’s never presented in the first place.

 

Stimulating Creativity 

 

In addition to bringing a variety of experiences and information to the table, diversity may also make us more open with that information. “Being with similar others leads us to think we all hold the same information and share the same perspective,” says Phillips. Even if a group of white men has vastly different knowledge and perspectives on a particular issue, they might not share as much as they could because they may subconsciously assume the rest of the group already has the same information and mindset. “Diversity jolts us into cognitive action in ways that homogeneity simply does not,” says Phillips.

 

Impacting Expectations

 

Phillips points to research suggesting that putting people in diverse groups and environments has benefits driven purely from their expectations of what they will experience in a diverse setting. “Diversity is not only about bringing different perspectives to the table,” she writes. “Simply adding social diversity to a group makes people believe that differences of perspective might exist among them and that belief makes people change their behavior.”

Phillips also suggests that homogeneous groups can make members cognitively lazy, which is obviously not something we want to see in our organizations. “Members of a homogeneous group rest somewhat assured that they will agree with one another; that they will understand one another's perspectives and beliefs; that they will be able to easily come to a consensus.”

 

Phillips’ article references multiple studies that are interesting for a deeper look at her main points, so the article is certainly worth a read. Her article (and the title) focuses on the concept of diversity, but it’s important to emphasize that diversity’s benefits can’t be fully achieved without ensuring inclusion as well.

 

Yes, it’s important to build a workforce that is representative of your target market. But, if you’re not being inclusive of the input that your workforce has to offer, you’re not reaping the benefits of that diversity. Inclusion is a business imperative!

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