A growing body of research indicates that diversity and inclusion are not just matters of corporate social responsibility, but in fact have benefits that strengthen an organization’s culture and can boost the bottom line. One of these benefits is that diversity is thought to enhance creativity and innovation by diminishing groupthink and exposing employees to a wider range of ideas and experiences from their colleagues.
A study last year found that 81 percent of tech startup founders believed that a diverse workforce enhanced creativity and innovation—although most of their companies did not have diverse workforces. This connection is particularly salient in creative industries like advertising, where clients have been pushing agencies to diversify their creative teams so that they more closely mirror the customers they are trying to reach.
The precise relationship between diversity and creativity is not so clear-cut, however: Tomas Chamorro-Premuzik weighs the evidence at the Harvard Business Review and warns that employers who hope to use diversity as the key to unlock their teams’ creative potential may end up disappointed:
There’s a difference between generating ideas and implementing ideas. While diverse team composition does seem to confer an advantage when it comes to generating a wider range of original and useful ideas, experimental studies suggest that such benefits disappear once the team is tasked with deciding which ideas to select and implement, presumably because diversity hinders consensus. A meta-analysis of 108 studies and more than 10,000 teams indicated that the creativity gains produced by higher team diversity are disrupted by the inherent social conflict and decision-making deficits that less homogeneous teams create. …
Although the question of whether diversity can foster creativity is both interesting and important, it is important to note that there are many other more influential drivers of creativity. As a seminal meta-analysis of 30 years of research showed, support for innovation, vision, task orientation, and external communication is the strongest determinant of creativity and innovation; most input variables, including team composition and structure, have much weaker effects. Likewise, developing expertise, assigning people to tasks that are meaningful and interesting, and improving creative thinking skills will produce higher gains in both individual and team creativity than focusing on diversity will.
“In short,” he concludes, “there are probably much better reasons for creating a diverse team and organization than boosting creativity. And if your actual goal is to enhance creativity, there are simpler, more effective solutions than boosting diversity.”
It is important to note that Chamorro-Premuzik is not arguing against diversity as such, but rather pointing out that employers should not use it merely as a means to an end of making their staff more creative. In this regard, his argument is similar to that of Todd Pittinsky, who disputed the “business case for diversity” at HBR last year, suggesting that the link between diversity and financial performance is not as direct as we are often led to believe and arguing that organizations should pursue diversity for the social good it brings, rather than hoping for immediate financial benefits.
Pittinsky also noted, however, that there is a sound business case for diversity—it’s just not the oversimplified one that we often hear. A diverse and inclusive workplace challenges employees’ unconscious biases and prejudices and teaches them to not only respect or tolerate people who are different from them, but to actually like them. Increasing the level of allophilia—positive attitudes toward a group other than one’s own—in an organization does improve communication and the capacity for innovation, but this is a long-term project. In other words, the short-term social impact of diversity translates in the long term into stronger businesses and economies.
The lesson here is that D&I is not just a tool businesses should use as a quick fix for their cultural problems or creative ruts, but pursuing it genuinely, for its own sake, can make the organization perform better in the longer term. Employers who expect their investments in diversity to show an immediate return, however, may be setting their D&I initiatives up for failure.