Diversity in the workplace can increase conflict. But research also suggests that if teams lack diversity, they will be more susceptible to making flawed decisions.
Many companies today understandably focus on workplace diversity — issues such as how to increase diversity, how to foster sensitivity to it, and how to manage a diverse workforce. But, according to MIT Sloan School professor Evan Apfelbaum, managers should also be cognizant of another, related topic: the problems associated with homogeneity. Recent research, including Apfelbaum’s own, has found, for example, that racially homogeneous groups are less rigorous in their decision-making — and make more mistakes — than diverse ones.
Apfelbaum, the W. Maurice Young (1961) Career Development Professor of Management and an associate professor of work and organization studies at the MIT Sloan School, spoke with MIT Sloan Management Review editorial director Martha E. Mangelsdorf. What follows is a condensed and edited version of their conversation.
MIT Sloan Management Review: You’re an expert in research on diversity and how it affects group decision-making. And one thing you and others have found is that diverse groups often do better in decision-making than more homogeneous ones. Can you tell us a bit about some of the important studies in that area and what they found?
Apfelbaum: Sure. A good way to think about it is that diverse groups have the potential to do better than homogeneous ones. In reality, there are a number of examples and reasons why that often doesn’t happen. But I do think there’s a unique advantage to diverse groups in certain areas.
I’ll start off by talking about cooperative decision-making scenarios, where people are trying to work together to come to some best solution. Early work from several decades ago provided the first evidence that diverse groups yielded more creative solutions, and that spurred much of the more recent research in that area.
One paper that was particularly important and useful took place in a legal setting, with jurors. In that study, a researcher now at Tufts University got access to a real jury pool and randomly assigned jurors to deliberate in six-person, all-white or racially diverse juries. The groups all considered the same fictitious case, and their deliberations were recorded on video.
In general, the diverse juries were far more rigorous in how they approached their decisions. The racially diverse juries spent a longer time deliberating. They considered a wider range of perspectives and angles with respect to the case — different things that could have happened or might have been important.