Workplace diversity is here, but it’s not what we expected


There is plenty of data to show that diversity is good for the workplace. But in general we don’t really create it for ourselves, because we like to work with people who are similar to us.

“In terms of innovation, diverse teams way outperform non-diverse teams, but people are very comfortable working with people they have worked with in the past or people who are like them,” says Frans Johansson, author of Medici Effect: What Elephants and Epidemics Can Teach Us About Innovation.

Before you start commenting about how you are the exception, and your office is diverse, let’s be clear on what diversity is. The research about diversity at work is about diversity of experience, perspectives or work styles. This means that teams you might assume are diverse may not be – for example a multi-racial team of prep-school and Ivy-league graduates might have had a homogenous experience. This also means that places we typically think of as diverse, like San Francisco, are actually more homogenous than we realize (#6).

Diversity is a popular idea, but we misuse the idea of it all the time. We can learn a lot about diversity from preschools, by way of politics.

Wisconsin recently voted to ban gay marriage. Voters of Madison, where I live, strongly opposed this measure. The sentiment here is indignanation that their own state passed such a discriminatory law. Yet gay marriage is not about diversity in Madison. Gay people are part of the mainstream here, and are widely accepted.

A better gauge of Madison’s ability to accept diversity is whether their school system is willing to spend the money to comply with the Individuals with Disabilities Act at the preschool level. And the answer is a resounding no. The school system violates case law precedents and no one is standing up for the kids who are different and demanding that they receive fair treatment under the law.

Another preschool example: New York City preschools cost more than $10,000 a year. Most offer no financial aid, and on top of that, the admissions process is so difficult and grueling that many parents hire consultants to help get their kid in. (I hired a very popular one for $4000.) Almost all the schools talk about the importance of diversity, but how you can have diversity among people who will pay $10,000 a year for preschool? You have already eliminated 99% of the U.S. population.

Do you know where there are truly diverse preschools? In Head Start, where kids come to school speaking no English, where some kids have parents with Ph.D’s, and some have parents who can’t read. And you know what? These classrooms are very, very difficult to manage, because diversity is very difficult to manage.

And this brings me back to Johansson, who says that truly diverse teams are not easy. “Making diversity work requires a lot of effort up front. So you won’t get results as fast as you’re used to.” People must know this instinctively because we talk about diversity all the time, and create it only rarely. “People talk about it because they know they should,” says Johansson, “But they just don’t believe it.”

So what can you do to change things?

1. Understand that we each have an inherent bias against diversity.

2. Test your team for diversity. Did you mesh right away? Then you’re probably not coming from such different perspectives.

3. Embrace the multi-generational workplace. The reason generation is such a big issue in the workplace today is that in many instances, it creates diversity that you can’t escape. Usually you can decide to not to work with the person who would bring diversity to your team. You don’t need to give a reason, you just choose someone who is more like you. But what do you do when a whole generation is not like you? You have to learn to work with someone who has different pespectives.

So, the bad news is that we’ve been talking about diversity for twenty years, and accomplishing very little. The good news is that the fireworks at the multigenerational workplace are not just conflict, but the first signs of widespread diversity at work.

27 replies
  1. august
    august says:

    What data, exactly?

    I am glad that you are pointing out diversity of life experience is far more beneficial than diversity of skin color. I am glad that you’ve noticed that a multi-generational workforce is generally better for all concerned.

    What I am worried about though, is the faddishness of diversity as a concept. In the educational world, for instance, many schools seem more interested in creating diversity than they are in actually educating anyone.

  2. Dave
    Dave says:

    I’m glad you are making the cognitive diversity distinction…it parallels my recent blog entry inspired by reading James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds.

    I think 99% of the people who write about diversity have the wrong idea, namely that it’s just about hiring lots of minorities to achieve color balance in the office. Then, when people ask “why?” they are branded as racists. So nobody asks why and no one really believes diversity works…they just tolerate it as a concession to appease white guilt. But you help make the point here about how more complex the issue is and how it cuts across many other boundaries–income, age, etc.

  3. christin
    christin says:

    very interesting information here. As I read your article I realized that my office of only 10 people or so is incredibly diverse. While in general terms, you might look at us and call us diverse (two swiss men, one indian woman, one mexican, 6 caucasians), when you really get to know us we still maintain that title. Some of us are college-educated, some have only high school diplomans. some come from a formal engineering background, others just learned on the shop floor and worked their way up. Some come from corporate backgrounds, others from the mom-and-pop family owned businesses. We’re half white collar, half blue collar. We are incredibly diverse. And it’s true, it is sometimes more difficult to always get this kind of a group to agree (even when it’s a small group) but when we do figure out how to mesh, we are usually a well-oiled machine. (no pun intended; i’m in the machining industry.)

    been reading this blog for a few weeks now, it’s on my favorites list. Thanks for the posts. I’ll definitely continue to read and chime in when I can.

  4. Tim Ferriss
    Tim Ferriss says:

    These are some excellent and seldom-discussed points, but I would like to propose we also ask a two additional questions:

    1. When is homogeneity a good thing?

    Depending on the environment, diversity can often present more problems than it solves. Homogeneity (visit Japan for an example of this) can both promote cooperation and decrease strife if wielded properly. “Diversity” is also so overused and ambiguous to be near meaningless. Racial diversity vs. age diversity vs. psychographic diversity, for example, are as different as they are valuable or damaging/worthless depending on the context and goals.

    2. Why is “diversity” a good thing?

    This is somewhat of a trick question and closely related to 1. Just as in 1, the question, worded in true politician-speak, contains an assumption: here, that diversity is a good thing. Well, is it? Again, it depends on the your goals, the context, and what type of diversity it is. Beware of imprecise thinking and sloppy logic when discussing emotionally-charged topics like this. It is, unfortunately, the default mode for most.

    I will end with the belief that psychographic diversity may be the most valuable for building profitable companies if — and this is key — management incorporates input from a diverse workforce. A diverse workforce is great, but what we are really looking for is better results through diverse thoughts and insight, both of which are 100% negated by unreceptive management.

    Few things are simply good or bad — with diversity as with anything else, you need to start with the end in mind and decide accordingly.

    * * * * * * * *


    Thank you for bringing up a dufferent and intelligent angle to this topic. I want to add that in my interview with Johansson, he said that in some circumstances, diversity doesn’t make things better. For example, in a startup, he said it’s more important to just get the company up and running than to worry about increasing creativity through diversity.


  5. Eric Hill
    Eric Hill says:

    Your definition of Diversity is an interesting one and right on the money. Thinking “long-term”, diversity is a good thing because it affects our way of thinking, we better ourselves and we evolve as a society. From a business perspective however, why would you want to be diverse? It’s difficult to manage, there are more conflicts, higher turnover, etc. Sure…the team may turn out premium work, but I’m not sure I want to go to work everyday knowing that it will end in frustration.

    I live and work just outside Detroit, Michigan where the automotive marketplace is going through a terrible downward adjustment and will be for the next few years. My back is only so big…now you’re telling me that my company has to integrate society as well?

    It would be helpful if you supplied some real world examples of how this definition of diversity will help corporations in the “short-run”. At this stage of the game, I don’t need a theoretical, abstract idea that will make me feel good about myself…I need to make us profitable.

  6. Carmine Coyote
    Carmine Coyote says:

    Great post again, Penelope.

    Two small thoughts to add:

    1. We get diversity whether we want it or not. Humans are, by nature, extremely diverse in size, shape, skin, hair, and eye color, outlook, sexual preferences, intelligence, interests, experiences, and beliefs. The problems is that so many people try to limit diversity and make everyone more or less like them. I wonder whether we should stop talking about promoting diversity and talk instead about allowing our natural diversity full rein.

    2. It seems to me that the true value of diversity comes from having the greatest number of different viewpoints and experiences around any important topic. Bigots typically see only one viewpoint – their own. Racists and sexists also focus myopically on their personally approved values and beliefs. The trouble with such narrowness is that it leaves so few options open. Life is tough enough without artificially limiting our options like that.

    I wrote a little more about this topic in my book: “Slow Leadership: Civilizing the Organization.” (Sorry for the shameless plug!)

  7. Tamar
    Tamar says:

    Thanks for discussing one of my favorite topics. And wouldn’t you know… I was a Head Start champion more than a decade (teacher, parent educator, pre-service trainer, education director, national consultant, blah, blah). This program born in the Great Society days and holding up since is solidly diverse in consumer population because the criterion for admission is simple: money; that is, its lack. This simple criterion allows all manner of folks to come to the party, which, as one your earlier commenters states, is naturally diverse anyway.

    Another association your post struck for me: bone marrow transplants, and getting them on time. My dearest pal Neil was diagnosed w leukemia shorty after his wedding more than a decade ago. Neil qualified for a bone marrow transplant and QUCKLY was matched w his type. This speed, he attributes to his “mongrel-like” gene pool. He was “diversified” in his genetic makeup, thus maximizing the options for a match, and ultimately giving him LIFE. To paraphrase the Hebrew Bible: choose life, and this means that to live, choose diversity.

    * * * * * *


    You always have an unexpected perspective. Thank you for a great little story about diversity.


  8. Peggy
    Peggy says:

    I like your comments about diversity. I recently read something that I thought was interesting. A few months ago HR Magazine (a publication of SHRM) reported on a study that found that when racially homogenous corporate teams were compared against corporate teams that had even one member of a differing race, the latter group was likely to be much more proactive and constructive in dealing with conflicts. The researchers concluded that in the homogenous team, people simply expected others to think like themselves, and so they were surprised by and unprepared for conflict. It seems that the visual diversity was an immediate cue to people that “we aren’t all alike here” and so they were more prepared to hear differing views and respond constructively. (Sorry I don’t have a citation for this – I gave the article to one of my students who was writing a resarch paper on the topic…)

  9. DiversityJ
    DiversityJ says:

    Just a brief comment on Frans Johansson’s assertion that people talk a lot about diversity but don’t believe in it. Talking important to get the message of the benefits of workplace diversity out there, as is believing in its importance and in that it work.

    But the most important thing is to do something. We really need to take a look at our workplaces and figure out what we need to do to increase workplace diversity.

    Juan Rodríguez

  10. diversitygirl
    diversitygirl says:

    “…diversity at work is about diversity of experience, perspectives or work styles.” This is exactly the kind of definition of workplace diversity that I’m looking for.

    I’ve often been confused by the popular definitions many diversity managers have been throwing around when asked “What is workplace diversity?” It isn’t racial variety nor multiculturalism.

    Hiring personnel shouldn’t be based on race, gender or sexual orientation alone but rather on the variety of skills and work experience that job candidates can contribute to the company.

  11. Karen M
    Karen M says:

    It may Snow in San Diego.. Rarely have I agreed with any of your posts, but this was well Done! As a firm believer in Equal Opportunity but one who is not fond of Affirmative Action (yes, I am a minority, as well as female) – and a firm believer that we should be recognized for our abilities, the Who we are, not what makes up our Gene Pool..

    Unfortunately today Diversity in the workplace still has a long way to go, as many hold onto old school prejudices and beliefs, not realizing that these prejudices actually harm economic growth, creates a stagnance, and reduces effectiveness within a corporation.

    Good Post

  12. Lisa
    Lisa says:

    I agree whole heartedly with you, Penelope. I was a history major in college and marketed myself to top financial institutions as someone who could add much-needed diversity of experience. When I was hired in December 2001 (no small task in the post-9/11 economy), I showed up for my first day and was one of two analysts in my 20-person hiring class who was not a business/finance/economics major.

    Six years later, I am one of two analysts who is still at the firm. I have been able to add a fresh perspective for my internal and external clients, but perhaps just as important, I have actively participated in diversity, recruiting, mentoring and training initiatives. Diversity helps companies in more ways than directly impacting the bottom line.

  13. Ginny
    Ginny says:

    I admire your work here. You seem to be willing to say things that many think but are, for whatever reasons, unwilling or unable to say. Thank-you so much.

  14. 1389
    1389 says:

    I am unconvinced that diversity has any real advantages to an organization at all. I think that the opposite is true. Look who conducts all the studies: they’re conducted by members of the chattering classes who have been indoctrinated from the cradle into believing that diversity has replaced God.

    Besides that, the grabbermint (at all levels) punishes organizations that don’t make a sufficiently elaborate effort to kowtow to the deity of diversity. So do the media and various lefty pressure groups.

    I think it’s all poppycock from the get-go. People who differ very much in socioeconomic background, in ideology, in ethnic or national origin, seldom can work together well enough to accomplish anything at all. Figuratively, or often even literally, they don’t even speak the same language. The amount of effort to overcome this roadblock would be uneconomic, but for the need to escape the ire of the grabbermint and of various designated-victim groups.

    Oh, and by the way, if ads show people using and enjoying a product, and those people don’t look and talk and act very much like me, I don’t buy the product, because I figure it just isn’t the kind of thing I would want or need. When advertisers pander to minorities, in order to keep from being boycotted by some pressure group, the ads become less effective in reaching the majority. Just sayin’.

  15. Mr. Tuesday
    Mr. Tuesday says:

    The only diversity that works — is that which seems diverse to the public, but to the staff seems the same old stuff.  Will that be a red cherry or white on your dish, sir?  Truth is — it’s one cherry with two sides.

  16. Michelle
    Michelle says:

    I love this–I totally agree that diversity is talked about way more often than it’s implemented. It’s definitely much more difficult than it sounds. We try to take the easy route, pulling together groups of people of different races that look diverse, yet it’s really the cultural experiences and backgrounds that make us diverse. Yet here we are still having the strong desire to work with people who are like us; it’s just easier, less time consuming, and cheaper.

    Your example of the preschools is such a great one. You’re bringing together children who have very little life experience, and haven’t except for what their parents have taught them or they have observed, so they should be able to put aside their differences; yet these classrooms are some of the toughest to manage. Even at such a young age the diversity creates challenges, yet we’re supposed to come together in the workplace because studies have shown it creates the biggest strides. It’ll be interesting to see how diversity continues to change the marketplace now that it’s here to stay.

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