The Downside of Diversity

Economist, January 21, 2014

The closest thing the business world has to a universally acknowledged truth is that diversity is a good thing: the more companies hire people from different backgrounds the more competitive they will become. {snip}

But what about the downside of diversity? {snip}

{snip}

It is far too easy to present “diversity” in one-sided terms: as a triumph of enlightenment over bigotry and creativity over closed-mindedness. But the subject is too important to be left to the cliché-mongers. Diversity can bring risks as well as benefits and perils as well as perks. There are trade-offs to be made, for example between the trust that comes from sharing a common background and the cultural sensitivity that comes from employing people from different parts of the word.

Roy Y.J .Chua, of Harvard Business School, is one of the few academics to produce serious studies of this subject. Mr Chua agrees that in a world of multinational corporations and global product markets success depends more than ever on your ability to foster multicultural thinking and cross-border collaboration. But in a paper in the current issue of the Academy of Management Journal (“The Costs of Ambient Cultural Disharmony: Indirect Intercultural Conflict in Social Environment Undermine Creativity”) he goes on to note that getting people from different nationalities and cultural backgrounds to co-operate is fraught with difficulties. At best differences in world-view and cultural styles can produce “intercultural anxiety”, at worst outright conflict. The very thing that can produce added creativity—the collision of different cultures—can also produce friction. The question is whether the creativity is worth the conflict.

Mr Chua argues that creativity in multicultural settings is highly vulnerable to what he calls “ambient cultural disharmony”. Tension between people over matters of culture, he says, can pollute the wider environment and reduce “multicultural creativity”, meaning people’s ability to see non-obvious connections between ideas from different cultures. “Ambient cultural disharmony” persuades people to give up on making such connections because they conclude that it is not worth the trouble.

Mr Chua also says that “ambient cultural disharmony” has its strongest impact on people who regard themselves as open-minded. Closed-minded people expect cultural tensions. Open-minded people don’t expect them and so react to them more strongly. In another irony, Mr Chua also discovered that the only people who are not affected by cultural conflict, at least in terms of creativity, are the people who are at the heart of it. They are more likely to explain the problems in personal rather than cultural terms.

He tested this thesis in three studies. In one he surveyed participants about the amount of cultural disharmony they found in their networks at work. In a second study he asked some subjects to recall a recent conflict between two contacts from different cultural backgrounds who disliked each other. In the third he asked his subjects to watch a short video that depicted one of the following scenarios: intercultural conflict, same-culture conflict, intercultural harmony. He also measured creativity in a variety of ways, for instance by testing participants’ ability to solve word puzzles or their skills to produce products and services for different cultural groups.

In all three studies, subjects who had a greater experience of ambient cultural disharmony fell short on one or another of Mr Chua’s measures of creativity. Mr Chua says that he is not certain how much of a problem this is because his is the first study to identify it. But his results are important partly because many companies have such an optimistic view of cross-cultural pollination and partly because the second-order effects of cultural conflict (particularly among people who regard themselves as open-minded) are so hard to manage.

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