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Having a diverse workplace is a worthy investment

Google Sundar Pichai speaks at annual Google I/O Developers Conference in May 2016. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

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It may feel like the topic of diversity in the workplace pops up all the time. So many industries seem to struggle with it — Hollywood, media, Silicon Valley. And then we have the now-infamous Google memo controversy, which is still getting strong reactions.

But when companies do hire a diverse workforce, it can be linked to better business practices and outcomes, including helping a company’s bottom line. It takes a lot of work, but that’s where we can tap into the expertise of Katherine Phillips, a professor at Columbia Business School. She’s been researching organizational and leadership behavior for nearly two decades. Her research shows that diversity makes us smarter by creating stronger decision-making groups. And she challenges organizations to try harder to make diversity actually work. She joined us to discuss the issue. 

Lizzie O’Leary: You know, when something like the Google memo happens, and this sort of controversy surfaces, you are the go-to voice. I want you, for our listeners, to lay out your kind of groundbreaking research from 2010, “Better Decisions through Diversity.” What did you find?

Katherine Phillips: I’ve done research for the last 15 or so years looking at diverse decision-making teams and comparing them to homogeneous teams. I bring people into a room, and I videotape their discussions so that I can understand exactly who’s saying what and to whom. And what I’ve discovered is that when you have a group that has some social diversity present — everyone knows that there are some differences between the individuals in the room — they are more likely to share their information, that unique information that’s in their heads. They are more likely to utilize that information, and they’re more likely to get the right answer than the homogeneous groups — the groups where everyone in the room thinks that they’re the same, they’re from the same social group. Now one of the things that was really striking about that research is that when you ask people, after they have gone through this group discussion and they’ve made their decision about what they think the right answer is, the homogeneous groups consistently say that they were more effective. That they are more confident that they have the right answer, despite the fact that the objective data tells us the complete opposite — that the diverse groups performed more effectively. So I know that there’s a potential for diversity to be beneficial, but people don’t see it. People don’t necessarily enjoy the work that has to be done to really get the benefits from diversity.

O’Leary: In other words, it’s good for the bottom line but it makes people feel uncomfortable sometimes in the process?

Phillips: That’s right. Exactly. The way that I like to think of it is kind of with an analogy of “pain and gain.” You know, you go to the gym, and when you go to the gym, you work out. And you’re looking for a little bit of twinge in your muscle, a little bit of pain, to actually make sure that you’re getting some benefits from going to the gym. It’s the same thing with diversity. When you go into a room with people who are different from yourself, who you assume have some different perspectives than you do, you have to engage with them. And that might be uncomfortable at time,s but you know that when you feel that little discomfort, that’s exactly where the benefit is coming from.

O’Leary: Do you think your research helps explain why companies in the tech sector, or even frankly in the media sector, talk a good game when it comes to diverse hiring practices or mentoring young people, but then when you look at who’s in the top rung or when you look at who is on the masthead — it doesn’t actually look that different from who was there 15 years ago?

Phillips: Yeah. For a long time we have been trying to make sure that the leadership of organizations understand the value of diversity. But the people who are the middle managers, right — who are doing the work every day, who are making the decisions about who should be hired and who shouldn’t, and what work people have an opportunity to be involved in, and who should work with whom — they’re all kind of grappling with this discomfort that they’re constantly feeling. They watch the diverse groups interact and they see that, you know, they’re actually having some conflict. They’re not agreeing with each other. It’s not so smooth. And they want to avoid that. So you end up with the biases and the concerns about diversity really showing up in the day-to-day decision-making that’s being made by the people who are on the ground. And the leaders are, you know, saying that this is a great thing, but the people that are on the ground aren’t necessarily feeling that way, and they’re not following through.

O’Leary: So let’s flip this around a little bit. Let’s take this, you know, memo from Google — I’m pretty sure we could argue that James Damore did not expect this to blow up in the way that it did. It sparked a lot of uncomfortable conversations. What are the merits in, say, keeping someone who has a viewpoint that is offensive to other colleagues, and talking about it, and learning from it? And what are the merits to saying, “Yeah, that’s not welcome here, goodbye.”

Phillips: Certainly, as I’ve said, social diversity is really important, and it’s very important to recognize that people will have different viewpoints, different perspectives, and that those should be embraced in some real meaningful ways. But there’s also something about culture and values that have to be espoused very clearly by organizations when they bring that diversity in. Because, you know, you have to have some level of agreement about what the company is here to do and what our values are. And it actually turns out that a lot of diversity in values and what it is that we’re really trying to accomplish here is not that beneficial for the organization. And so I think at that point, there is a decision that has to be made. And it’s always a fine line because there’s that question of “fit,” the “organizational fit” which oftentimes has been used to keep people who look like me out of organizations. They don’t “fit,” right?

O’Leary: Right, that’s a code word.

Phillips: Yeah, it’s a code word: “they don’t fit here.” It’s like, well, what does that really mean, “they don’t fit here”? They don’t look the part? That’s very different than “they have values that are inconsistent with the values of this organization.”

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