We Just Can’t Handle Diversity: HBR

We_Just_Can’t_Handle_DiversityGood long read by Lisa Burrell at HBR and the difficulties in ensuring diversity given our implicit biases and automatic thinking:

Senior leaders need to recognize their organizations’ inequities—probably more than anyone else, since they have the power to make changes. But once they’ve climbed to their positions, they usually lose sight of what they had to overcome to get there. As a result, Rosette and Tost find, “they lack the motivation and perspective to actively consider the advantages that dominant-group members experience.” This is especially true of successful white women, who “reported [even] lower perceptions of White privilege than did highly successful White men.” It’s fascinating that their encounters with sexism don’t help them identify racial advantage after they’ve gotten ahead. Perhaps, the authors suggest, their hard-earned status feels so tenuous that they reflexively tighten their grip.

Beyond murkily defined concepts and somewhat defensive motivations, we have an even-higher-level conceptual obstacle to overcome: our bias against diversity itself. Recent research by Ohio State University’s Robert Lount Jr. and colleagues (Oliver Sheldon, of Rutgers; Floor Rink, of Groningen; and Katherine Phillips, of Columbia) shows that we assume diversity will spark interpersonal conflict. Participants in a series of experiments all read, watched, or listened to the exact same conversations among various groups. They consistently perceived the all-black or all-white groups as more harmonious than those with a combination of blacks and whites.

If we expect people to behave less constructively when they’re in diverse organizations or teams, how do we interpret and reward their actual performance? Under the influence of those flawed expectations? Quite possibly.

So, Is It Hopeless?

According to the renowned behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman, trying to outsmart bias at the individual level is a bit of a fool’s errand, even with training. We are fundamentally overconfident, he says, so we make quick interpretations and automatic judgments. But organizations think and move much more slowly. They actually stand a chance of improving decision making.

Research by John Beshears and Francesca Gino, of Harvard Business School, supports that line of thought. As they have written in HBR, “It’s extraordinarily difficult to rewire the human brain,” but we can “alter the environment in which decisions are made.” This approach—known as choice architecture—involves mitigating biases, not reversing them, and Beshears and Gino have found that it can lead to better outcomes in a wide range of situations. The idea is to deliberately structure how you present information and options: You don’t take away individuals’ right to decide or tell them what they should do. You just make it easier for them to reach more-rational decisions. (For more on this idea, also see “Designing a Bias-Free Organization,” an interview with Harvard behavioral economist Iris Bohnet.)

There’s still an element of manipulation here: The organization sets the stage for certain kinds of choices. But that brings us back to what most of us can agree on, at least in the abstract: Diversity improves performance, and people who apply themselves and do good work should be treated fairly.

If the members of an organization could get behind those broad ideas, would it bother them that they were being nudged to do what they wanted to do anyway? It might—and that would be another cognitive roadblock to clear.

Source: We Just Can’t Handle Diversity

Interesting that the recent public service discussions on diversity, judging by reports I have seen, show no evidence of this deeper thinking of the challenges involved (even if, judging by the numbers, the public service is reasonably diverse – see Diversity and Inclusion Agenda: Impact on the Public Service, Setting the baseline).

When making a presentation on multiculturalism and the government’s inclusion and diversity agenda this week at Canadian Heritage, my assigned ‘homework’ for attendees was to take the Harvard-developed Implicit Association Test to be more mindful of their internal biases and prejudices. It certainly was revealing to me, as it has been to those I know who have taken it:

Public Servants Get Real About Diversity in the Public Service

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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