Opportunity & Access

Equity by Design: How Diversity Ignites Creativity

In this episode, Professor Adina Sterling discusses how we can foster more diversity for healthier social networks and stronger high-performing teams.

February 28, 2023

If we want healthier companies, schools, and teams, Associate Professor Adina Sterling says investing in the health of marginalized groups “can have enormous spillover effects for everyone.”

Sterling is an organizational theorist and economic sociologist whose research explores how human relationships affect organizations and markets. As she says, “The outcomes that individuals, groups, and organizations experience have to do with the social networks that they have.”

In her class and lab, Equity by Design, Sterling explores the structural and cultural drivers of workplace inequality. In this episode of Think Fast Talk Smart, she and Matt Abrahams discuss how organizations can leverage social networks, DEI efforts, and better communication to create better outcomes for individuals and the collective.

Think Fast, Talk Smart is a podcast produced by Stanford Graduate School of Business. Each episode provides concrete, easy-to-implement tools and techniques to help you hone and enhance your communication skills.

Full Transcript

Matt Abrahams: There is one catalyst that can amplify your organization’s creativity and ignite its impact. Today we will talk about the importance and value of diversity in our social networks. I’m Matt Abrahams, and I teach Strategic Communication at Stanford Graduate School of Business. Welcome to Think Fast, Talk Smart: The Podcast.

Today I am super excited to be joined by Adina Sterling, who is an Associate Professor of organizational behavior at Stanford GSB. Adina studies the causes and consequences of human relationships in organizations and markets, and she teaches a popular elective class called Equity By Design and runs a lab by the same name. Welcome, Adina. I’m super-excited to get a chance to talk with you.

Adina Sterling: Thanks, Matt. It’s great to be here.

Matt Abrahams: Yes. Well, thanks for being here. So let’s go ahead and get started. A lot of your work focuses on social networks. For many of us, social networks refer to applications, like Facebook or Twitter and LinkedIn. What do you mean by “social networks,” and what types of insights can you learn from them?

Adina Sterling: Right. So that’s a great question to begin with. And you’re absolutely right: We hear “social networks,” and we think about Facebook and LinkedIn and Instagram and things that 12- and 13-year-olds are more savvy at than we are.

Matt Abrahams: Yes.

Adina Sterling: So what they are are the patterns of interactions [and] communication that happens between various entities. So social scientists will study social networks that occur between individuals, between groups, between teams, between societies, organizations, institutions. And so social networks is a construct that travels different levels and levels of analyses.

And we care about them because a lot of the outcomes that individuals, groups, and organizations experience have to do with the social networks that they have, where they are within this pattern of relationships. And so oftentimes we get a lot of our social resources from social networks, and so they can be awfully important.

Matt Abrahams: I see. So a social network is, essentially, a way of mapping the different connections and relationships we have within groupings of people?

Adina Sterling: That’s right.

Matt Abrahams: As you know, Adina, this podcast focuses a lot on communication, so I’m wondering: What role does communication play within social networks? And have you been able to determine any best practices that organizations use to maximize the impact of communication within their networks?

Adina Sterling: So communication in social networks [are] foundational to why social networks exist. So if I can’t communicate effectively to you or you to me, our social tie goes away. So a lot of the way that we understand social ties is the transfer of information, advice, care, social support and, of course, being able to communicate those aspects of life effectively. So the care that somebody would express to another depends on their ability to communicate that in a way that’s empathetic and real. And so communication is foundational to social networks.

What can organizations do to help employees communicate and help employees communicate with clients and other stakeholders? I always here, Matt, go back to the importance of culture. So if the organization can put into place the right norms, the right expectations, the right language so that people can communicate and they sort of know where the boundaries are and what the – you know, where not to cross boundaries, those can be really helpful ways of helping employees communicate their wants and needs, their ideas to one another and to other stakeholders.

Matt Abrahams: Wow. So I just learned that I’ve been a social-networking researcher for all these years, and I didn’t know that that’s who I was.

Adina Sterling: You have, that’s true. That’s exactly right.

Matt Abrahams: No, that’s great. So thank you for sharing that communication is absolutely critical in understanding social networks. And it sounds like organizations that put a priority on helping people communicate, the value of communication, and allowing people to feel that notion we’ve talked about before on this podcast of psychological safety, to feel comfortable communicating —

Adina Sterling: That’s right.

Matt Abrahams: — can be much more effective.

Adina Sterling: Do you mind if I add one further piece to what organizations can do?

Matt Abrahams: Oh, please. Yeah.

Adina Sterling: What you just tee’d up made me think of this. Another important part of communication that organizations can tap into is the notion that it can be multifaceted.

Matt Abrahams: Oh?

Adina Sterling: So verbal communication, of course, is one way of communicating auditory communication, but it’s not the only way. And so especially organizations that recognize neurodiversity, for example, will do things in a team setting like take pauses, give people think time, allow people to write down ideas in the middle of a meeting, so that people’s natural strengths — because we all have different strengths — don’t all dominate, so that only certain people don’t get to communicate their ideas. Organizations that do this well collect ideas from many different people and allow for communication to come through many different mediums.

Matt Abrahams: I love that idea, and it brings us really nicely into my next set of questions around what you teach in your Equity By Design class and in the lab that you run. So it’s really important, from what I’m hearing you say, that organizations don’t just lock into one way of communicating — that they be very open to multiple ways, and they put a priority on communication.

I will often recommend that organizations take time to reflect on their communication at the end of meetings or one-on-one interactions, spend a few minutes just talking about the quality of the communication – not rehashing what was said, necessarily – and also, as part of performance reviews and other big meetings, talk about communications.

And what you add so nicely to it is it’s not just one monolithic thing; there are lots of different ways to communicate, and we want to make sure that everybody can bring their best selves to that communication.

Adina Sterling: That’s right.

Matt Abrahams: Can you share with us some of the concepts you teach in your Equity By Design class as well as the topics you study in your Equity By Design lab? What role does communication play in these efforts?

Adina Sterling: Sure. So my class, as you mentioned, is on diversity, equity and inclusion, and those are really three different ideas.

Matt Abrahams: Absolutely.

Adina Sterling: In thinking about the importance of communication, it is awfully important for diversity. So let me say a little more about that.

Matt Abrahams: Please. Please.

Adina Sterling: We’ve now had several decades of work done by social scientists on what diversity buys you. “What is the diversity bonus?” has been the question. And when people from different backgrounds, that have different ideas come together, what research has shown is that they tend to outperform, from a creativity and an innovation standpoint, groups that are more homogenous. But the key to having those benefits come about is the ability for people to be able to communicate. So you could have a really diverse group —

Matt Abrahams: Right.

Adina Sterling: — and if everybody shuts down and nobody is communicating, it becomes really hard to build off of each other’s ideas to have those creative breakthroughs. You need people to be willing to share their thoughts and their ideas. And so that’s one way communication is really key.

Matt Abrahams: The importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion are critical for many aspects of an organization, for sure, and I’m curious to hear even more. But in terms of communication, they drive creativity and innovation. And it seems to me that it’s so important for organizations to recognize that and celebrate it and to encourage it. Have you seen best practices, or do you teach best practices to really help leaders amplify the diversity that they have so they can get those results that they’re looking for?

Adina Sterling: Mm-hmm. Yeah. So for my class, Matt, I have what I call a “better practices playbook.” So we spend —

Matt Abrahams: Oh, I love it.

Adina Sterling: Yeah.

Matt Abrahams: So tell me — well, first, before you go: Why “better practices” and not “best practices”?

Adina Sterling: Oh, okay. So that is a good question. The reason is that when it comes to this topic, what I’ve found is that sometimes the great can be the enemy of the good. And so when I first began teaching this topic at Stanford, I had people say to me: “Oh, my gosh. One of the things I like about your class is that we’re taught to incrementally just get going.” We don’t have to have the perfect plan for diversity, equity, and inclusion. What we can do is begin and have better practices from where we’re at. So anyway, it’s the idea that the great shouldn’t be the enemy of the good. Let’s just get —

Matt Abrahams: I love it. I’m calling them “better practices.”

Adina Sterling: Yeah. “Better practices,” right.

Matt Abrahams: All right. What are some from your class?

Adina Sterling: Yeah. So one important one is to understand that, because diversity has benefits, sometimes you need to do things differently as a leader. The thing that diversity really helps you with is sometimes slowing down to take the time to be creative, to make better choices, and have better solutions.

So there was this terrific study done that was actually looking at juries. And they found, these researchers, that juries that were more diverse, they were more deliberate. People came more prepared and better able to argue their ideas, and outcomes generally reviewed as being better when there are these more-diverse groups. And so, really, it’s about buying in and understanding that it might take a little bit longer to build a diverse team, but that has some benefits in the long run.

Matt Abrahams: So taking the time and being thoughtful about putting the team together, and then giving the team space to actually leverage the diverse perspectives that they bring, can be really helpful.

Adina Sterling: That’s right. That’s right.

Matt Abrahams: A lot of business is so much about rushing and being first and fast.

Adina Sterling: That’s right.

Matt Abrahams: And it sounds like what I’m hearing you say is sometimes being more deliberate and slowing down can give you an advantage, as well.

Adina Sterling: Mm-hmm. Yes.

Matt Abrahams: Great.

Adina Sterling: Yeah, and then also building up the right culture around the team becomes key.

Matt Abrahams: Right. So helping people feel connected and safe, and that their voice has value.

Adina Sterling: That’s right. Exactly. Yeah. Yeah.

Matt Abrahams: Yeah. Great. Many of those listening in to our podcast today work for organizations that are in various stages of implementing their DE&I programs. Based on your experience, what are some of the best ways to implement, assess, and reinforce these programs?

Adina Sterling: Sure. So I like to say: If you can, get buy-in from the top.

Matt Abrahams: Sure.

Adina Sterling: Oftentimes there are grassroots efforts within organizations that are terrific around DEI, and leadership can feel as though they’re responding to DEI efforts. And that’s fine. But if there can be leadership from the top and a collaboration with employees on what their DEI needs are — and B needs are — that can be a really effective way to go about things.

The other concept I would just add here is that I do like to talk about, within organizations, what I think of as edge cases. So we all think about innovation and kind of being at the bleeding edge. The analogy doesn’t quite work the same way, but traditionally there are more-marginalized groups within organizations. And so sometimes sitting with and taking the temperature of those groups and figuring out how to implement policy changes that are effective there can have enormous spillover effects for everyone.

So for example, if an organization goes in and surveys all recent parents — mothers, fathers, and the like — about time-off policies, they’ll hear a lot of things in there that could also help older individuals that are taking care of their parents, individuals that have family that are further away. And so organizations that sit and listen to more-marginalized groups oftentimes can use those insights and blow them out and have effective policies for multiple groups within organizations.

Matt Abrahams: That’s really fantastic. It starts with listening, and then collaboration. And it has to come not just from the grassroots but also from the top. And that’s what leads to success. More and more, as I do these podcasts, the role of listening and taking the time to hear what others are saying is really a key ingredient to success in many aspects, and it sounds like DE&I is no different.

Adina Sterling: Mm-hmm.

Matt Abrahams: I wanted to address another area of your research that I found really fascinating. You’ve identified something you term the “confidence gap” as a potential contributor to gender differences we see in the workplace, such as equity in pay. Can you explain what the confidence gap is? And how can it be addressed?

Adina Sterling: Sure. So I’m glad we’re chatting about this because sometimes the confidence gap can be misunderstood. So I’ll first explain it —

Matt Abrahams: Please.

Adina Sterling: — and then talk about where it comes from because that’s a real key to this. So the confidence gap, that idea came from a study that I and some researchers here at Stanford did, where we tracked the outcomes of college students in engineering programs at 27 institutions. It was a longitudinal study.

So we were interested in people’s what we called “soft efficacy”: how much confidence they had in their ability to do engineering and STEM and mathematics type problems early on, how that changed over time, where they were with respect to self-efficacy as they were entering the workplace, and then what happened after they entered.

And what we found is that women and men did differ in the level of self-efficacy they felt or they reported. So this is a self-perceived measure, if you will, of your own confidence in your ability to solve engineering problems, so on and so forth. So we did find a gender gap. We found that men had higher levels of confidence than women. We found that this effect held within specific kinds of engineering programs. And so engineers… I was an engineer as an undergraduate at Ohio State. There’s a lot of engineering snobbery.

Matt Abrahams: Oh?

Adina Sterling: So sometimes it’s like: “Oh. Well, the aerospace engineers are this smart, and the electrical are this smart, and the chemical are this smart.” So anyway, we wanted to look within “engineering major,” and we still found this effect. So it wasn’t that women were only going into some engineering fields and then others and that was leading to this difference in the confidence gap; it remained within engineering major. It also remained with… We looked within GPA. So when we looked at only those with sort of a 3.9 GPA or above, which, believe it or not, a number of students in our study had that GPA, it remained there. It remained within every GPA category.

And so one of the things we then did, Matt, was say: “Okay, does this help explain the gender wage gap?” And we found that it did. We did a mediation analysis on the first salaries that people received, and it did. It turned out that once we accounted for the level of self-confidence people had, most of that gender gap could be explained away. Now, the thing I want to emphasize, though, is that this gap doesn’t come from the sky.

Matt Abrahams: Right.

Adina Sterling: It comes from our society that provides expectations and norms about who can be an engineer, who should be confident in their ability to be an engineer. So I want to be really careful that this is not about blaming women that they’re less confident. This is coming from a society that conditioned women in different ways from men to be confident in their abilities. So one of the things that sometimes I’ll get asked is: “Okay, what can we do about this?”

Matt Abrahams: Right.

Adina Sterling: And I’m really quick to say: “Okay, this is not a fix-the-women kind of thing.”

Matt Abrahams: Right. Right.

Adina Sterling: There’s lot of things that we can do, especially within STEM, where our study focused. We know that when you diversify the faculty and you have more female faculty, that can be an important signal — that can have important signaling value for women and increase their confidence. You can structure teams in ways that there’s greater gender balance.

And so something that can happen in engineering — and this doesn’t necessarily reflect my experience, but some research and also anecdotes I’ll share: that in engineering programs, you’ll have five-person teams, sometimes one woman, and then that one woman is the note-taker.

Matt Abrahams: Right.

Adina Sterling: So there’s all sorts of small, daily kinds of interactions and ways of communicating within groups that can lead people to have different levels of confidence in their abilities, and we just need to figure out ways to stop all of this.

Matt Abrahams: There’s been an underlying theme in our conversation today, Adina, around the impact of the culture and the norms within organizations or, in the case of what we just discussed, society. What I’m taking away — and I’d love for you to verify this — is that to make the kind of change that you’re talking about, we’ve talked about in other episodes here, it’s really about looking at the larger factors that are influencing the communication or behavior. And that’s where you have to adjust and adapt and focus to have the kind of impact that we’re talking about.

Adina Sterling: Mm-hmm.

Matt Abrahams: And while that can feel daunting, I think you’ve got some evidence, and I know in what you teach some better practices, for how to go about doing that. So thank you.

Adina Sterling: You’re welcome.

Matt Abrahams: Before we end, I’d like to ask you the same three questions I ask everyone who joins me. Does that sound all right?

All right. If you were to capture the best communication advice you have ever received as a five- to seven-word presentation-slide title, what would it be?

Adina Sterling: What a question. What came to mind, for me, is: Paint a picture, tell a story.

Matt Abrahams: Oh, I love it. Paint a picture, tell a story. So we’ve talked a lot about storytelling here, but give me some more detail about painting a picture. I like it.

Adina Sterling: Sure. Sure. So when people are hearing your story that you’re communicating, if they can put themselves in your shoes or your sets of experiences, that’s the picture I’m talking about. And I do think so much of DEI comes from perspective-taking and empathy for those that might be different from us. And so that ability to say, “Here’s how I felt in this moment and why,” that can be, I think, an effective way of communicating.

Matt Abrahams: So true. And as a communicator, if you’re looking to paint that picture so people can understand your perspective, it changes your focus. It changes what you’re going to say and how you say it. It’s going to be about emotion. It’s going to be about detail. And that’s so critical. And I think when we reflect on the speakers that move us the most, [they’re] the ones that can do that well — which leads me nicely, I think, to our second question, which is: Who is a communicator that you admire? And why?

Adina Sterling: All right, so I’m going to not directly answer this question —

Matt Abrahams: Okay, that’s all right.

Adina Sterling: — but answer it in the way that this came to me, which is: I grew up going to church. I grew up going to black churches. And within that tradition, there are wonderful — there’s just really rich linguistic styles. And so I thought about a number of black politicians today from that tradition — so Stacey Abrams, Raphael Warnock, Barack Obama.

Matt Abrahams: Right.

Adina Sterling: I could name others. You could name others. That also was a very rich oral tradition because, during various parts of history when black people weren’t allowed to be able to read and write, what you understood came from the black church on a Sunday morning. So anyway, those I really admire: that linguistic style and ways of — that way of communicating.

Matt Abrahams: Yeah. Well, thank you for sharing, and thank you for taking a very different perspective on that. When I think of the orations I’ve seen in black churches, the emotion and the ability to move those in the pews is fantastic. And while that style is very appropriate in that moment, many of the aspects of what makes if effective apply in other types of communication, as well. So I appreciate you highlighting that. Third and final question: What are the first three ingredients that go into a successful communication recipe?

Adina Sterling: Sure. Okay, so the first is: Think about your audience and think about your audience’s perspective. I feel privileged to be able to practice this as an instructor, as a professor. And for me, that was a big shift that I made in my teaching trajectory. When I stopped trying to teach and I started trying to communicate, I thought about those two things differently. And in fact, I think that communication is just king from that standpoint. The second one is: Use emotion rather than shy away from it.

Matt Abrahams: Okay. Yeah, lean in.

Adina Sterling: I think “Lean in” is fine [if] that can be effective. And then “Less is more” is my third one.

Matt Abrahams: So it does not surprise me at all that audience is something that you would absolutely see as important, and that distinction between teaching and communicating. I think all people who are really good instructors have that moment where they realize it’s not just about relaying information; it’s about connecting.

Emotion is critical. I think your other answers have highlighted that. Can you talk to us a little bit about “less is more?”

Adina Sterling: Mm-hmm.

Matt Abrahams: I agree. I’m just curious of your perspective on less is more.

Adina Sterling: So I think the degree to which you can use fewer words and communicate the same message, it’s often better. Again thinking about my own teaching trajectory, I used to write out what I would say in advance. So my first job at Wash U, I was an undergrad instructor for freshmen, and I would write out what I was going to say.

Matt Abrahams: Right.

Adina Sterling: And increasingly as I went on in teaching, I stopped doing that. Three to four bullets is about all I take now into a classroom. “Less is more” is really about, I think, not just the number of words you might say but the number of ideas that people can effectively hold in their heads at one time.

Matt Abrahams: Right.

Adina Sterling: Less is more. Say the things that are most impactful, and leave it at that.

Matt Abrahams: Right. It takes a confidence to be able to come to that place, to go in with “I’ve just got a couple ideas,” not “All of these ideas,” and I appreciate that.

Adina Sterling: Mm-hmm.

Matt Abrahams: Well, Adina, thank you.

Adina Sterling: You’re welcome.

Matt Abrahams: This has been really, really insightful and a lot of fun, and really helpful. Thank you for taking the time and for making us better and for sharing your better practices with us.

Adina Sterling: You’re welcome, Matt. It was a lot of fun.

Matt Abrahams: Great.

You’ve been listening to another episode of Think Fast, Talk Smart: The Podcast, a production of Stanford Graduate School of Business. This podcast was produced by Jenny Luna, Kevin Patel and me, Matt Abrahams, with special thanks to Podium Podcast Company. To find more episodes, visit our website at gsb.stanford.edu, or find us wherever you get your podcasts, including Youtube. For more business-related content, follow the business school on social media @stanfordgsb. You can also find the podcast and follow us on LinkedIn or Instagram.

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