We Need To Learn How To Bridge Difference To Drive Creativity And Innovation
I have a friend who was once ambushed on a TV show panel. Being confronted with a clearly offensive remark, she was caught off-guard, said something that was probably unwise (but not untrue or unkind), and found herself at the center of a media-driven scandal. It would cost her enormously, both personally and professionally.
I often think about the episode and not just because it hurt my friend, but also because I wonder what I would have done if put in similar circumstances. My friend, who is black, muslim and female, is incredibly skilled at bridging differences and navigating matters of race, gender and religion. If she fell short, would I even stand a chance?
We are encouraged to think about matters of diversity in moral terms and, of course, that’s an important aspect. However, it is also a matter of developing the right skills. The better we are able to bridge differences, the more effectively we can collaborate with others who have different perspectives, which is crucial to becoming more innovative and productive.
The Challenge Of Diversity
There is no shortage of evidence that diversity can enhance performance. Researchers at the University of Michigan found that diverse groups can solve problems better than a more homogenous team of greater objective ability. Another study that simulated markets showed that ethnic diversity deflated asset bubbles.
While those studies merely simulate diversity in a controlled setting, there is also evidence from the real world that diversity produces better outcomes. A McKinsey report that covered 366 public companies in a variety of countries and industries found that those which were more ethnically and gender diverse performed significantly better than others.
However, it takes effort to reap the benefits of diversity. Humans are naturally tribal. In a study of adults that were randomly assigned to “leopards” and “tigers,” fMRI studies noted hostility to outgroup members. Similar results were found in a study involving five year-old children and even in infants. Group identification, even without any of the normal social cues, is enough to produce bias.