“Diversity is not diversity is not diversity”

Measuring diversity in terms of broad demographic categories such as gender, race or age fails to take into account the underlying dynamics that can play a more decisive role within groups of people – diversity in attitudes, skills, knowledge and power, for example. “It’s hard to just say ‘oh, there’s a group whose members vary in their age’ and to really understand what that dynamic will be,” says Katherine Klein, Professor of Management at Wharton.

It is this failure to distinguish between these different types of diversity that has resulted in variations in results of studies into the effects of diversity. “There’s a confusion about diversity – what it means. There’s an array of findings that suggest that diverse groups – however defined – do better; sometimes they don’t do better or worse; sometimes they do worse,” she says. “So we have a lot of confusion in the research literature. We have a lot of theories that suggest diversity should be a real resource; it doesn’t always seem to be the case.”

Leading groups with diverse values

Klein’s research focuses on leadership of groups which consist of people with diverse core, fundamental values – groups where conflict is likely and it is difficult for the team to focus on a common goal. Klein specifically studied teams with diversity in work ethic- with some members who were hard-working, driven and internally motivated to accomplishing the task at hand, and other members who were more relaxed and not so motivated; as well as teams that varied in terms of respect for authority and traditional values.

What Klein found is that task-oriented leaders – those that focus the group on the task by assigning roles and deadlines, and providing a lot of structure to the team – can effectively lead values-diverse teams to perform well. “If a leader doesn’t provide structure, then you have trouble.”

Less successful in leading values-diverse teams are relationship-oriented leaders, who tend to be warm and caring toward individual team members. “You can imagine that that would be really helpful. Everybody would feel heard, everybody would feel included … What we find (though) is that it backfires. So when you have a leader that’s very warm, very considerate, and you have a very diverse group in terms of these values, it tends to exacerbate conflict.”

Leveraging diversity

Research into how best to leverage diversity for positive gains is still in its infancy, but Klein says diversity can provide advantages in the form of variety, new ideas and different knowledge sets.

“We know that there are things that leaders can do that can make a real difference, to allow that variety to be beneficial … Once a leader has said ‘I’m in favour of this course,’ it tends to silence other people’s input. And so even just the most basic group process things like for the leader to hold back and say I want hear everybody’s views, hear everybody’s contribution, before I weigh in with my views, are going to be more effective in encouraging people to speak up.”

Klein says leaders of diverse teams need to achieve a balance between listening and adding weight or credibility to the views of their diverse team members, as well as using structure to keep the team focused on a common goal.

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