Ethnic diversity is a fact of life in many if not most nations, and ethnic strife can cripple a society’s chances for peace and prosperity.
But ethnic diversity also has its advantages. Combining the strengths of people from different backgrounds can improve a group’s creativity and problem-solving abilities.
So what’s the best way to manage diversity? Is it better to be “color-blind,” to minimize differences and enforce the assumption that everybody is similar? Or is it better to recognize and even celebrate the value of cultural differences?
An innovative set of experiments conducted in Kenya, funded in part by Stanford Institute for Innovation in Developing Economies (SEED), offers some concrete answers that have implications for workplaces in the United States and other developed economies.
“We are seeing a global increase in ethnic and cultural diversity the likes of which we’ve never seen before, and these are irreversible changes,” says Sangick Jeon, a recent Stanford GSB fellow who carried out the research as part of his PhD in political science at Stanford University. “Historically, diversity has been associated with conflict, and for that reason it has often been a scapegoat for leaders who blame problems on outsiders and immigrants. But there are benefits to diversity.”
Jeon tested two deeply competing approaches to managing diversity. The first is based on assimilation, in which people are trained to submerge their differences and to identify themselves as members of a common team with a shared mission. Think of the crew in Star Trek aboard the starship Enterprise.
Perhaps not surprisingly, research over the past two decades has shown that assimilation tends to increase social cohesion. People trained in an assimilationist perspective are more likely to show individual restraint and to cooperate with one another.
But critics have argued that assimilation has downsides. They contend it discourages people from talking about race or ethnicity, effectively papering over differences in ways that can actually increase tension. In addition, critics have argued that the assimilation approach can lead to “groupthink” that stifles innovation.
That’s a critical issue for companies and regions almost anywhere in the world, given that innovation is increasingly the main engine of economic growth.
The competing approach to diversity management is based on multiculturalism, in which people recognize and even celebrate each other’s ethnic or cultural differences. That may lead to more arguments, but supporters of the multicultural approach argue that it can also foster innovation by allowing groups to tap a wider array of perspectives and skills.
Jeon, now a data scientist at the car-sharing firm Uber, recruited nearly 400 Kenyan adults from a wide range of tribal and ethnic backgrounds. The participants were assigned to three-person teams that would compete in a series of four problem-solving games. The team that did best in the games would win the equivalent of $120.
The games were each designed to gauge a different kind of problem-solving ability. For example, in a “paper tower” game, to test problem-solving and innovation, teams were asked to build the highest possible free-standing tower from one sheet of paper and a short strip of masking tape.
In another exercise to test the ability to think up unorthodox uses for familiar products, teams were given a box of thumbtacks, matches, and a candle and then asked to find a way of attaching the candle to the wall so that it would neither drip wax nor burn the wall. (The solution: Use the thumbtack box as a platform for the candle, and tack the box to the wall.)
Jeon assigned the teams to different “treatment groups” that emphasized one of the two approaches or a mix of the two.
In the assimilationist group, teams went through a group exercise of selecting their team names. They then wore nametags with those team names, part of establishing what Jeon calls a “super-ordinate” team identity. The assimilationist teams were also advised that everybody was capable of solving the puzzles, and that teammates would fare best if they were patient and cooperated with each other.
In the multiculturist group, people were not asked to select names for their teams. They were also told that, in the past, teams with greater diversity had generally done “far better” because they had a wider range of useful skills and perspectives. “Don’t be afraid to disagree,” the teammates were advised.
The results were striking: Teams that had the multicultural prompting outperformed those that did not on most of the games. The multicultural approach had a strong impact in groups where two people were from one tribe and the third from a different tribe, though it had very little impact when all three team members were from different tribes.
“We’ve had theories for a long time about how diversity could produce beneficial outcomes, but they have been heavily debated and empirical evidence has been weak,” Jeon says. “The importance of this research is that I was able to experimentally verify the gains.”
To be sure, the color-blind or assimilationist approach did reduce ethnic tension and increase cooperation. Jeon tested that in two ways. The first was to measure each participant’s level of cortisol — a hormone that correlates with stress — through saliva samples before and after the games. Cortisol levels increased much less for teams that got the assimilationist treatment.
A second test was for signs of altruism. Researchers offered individual teammates a small payment and told them they could either keep the money or share it with the rest of the team. The people in groups that were coached on assimilation were much more likely to share the money.
Looking deeper into the results, Jeon found that ethnic diversity had a stronger positive impact on group performance than other forms of diversity such as religion, gender, or education.
The benefits don’t flow from the ethnic differences themselves, however. Jeon also analyzed team performance based on diversity of geographic origins, such as whether participants came from agricultural regions, maritime regions, or urban areas — each of which emphasize different kinds of skills. The real benefit, Jeon concludes, came from tapping into the diversity of skills.
Jeon says the results open up an important opportunity for future research on precise strategies to maximize the benefits of diversity.
“What this tells us is that there are strategies that can work in real life to improve prospects for cooperation,” Jeon says. “We can do research not only to improve cooperation, but to find out which strategies work best.”
Sangick Jeon was a Stanford GSB fellow who earned his PhD in political science at Stanford University. He is now a data scientist at ride-sharing company Uber Technologies Inc.