The social divisions that have followed the US election draw into sharp relief how difficult it is to create a real sense of belonging and inclusion for everyone.

For those of us concerned with inclusion, how do we bridge the faultlines in our own organizations and communities, and help unite rather than divide? What can we do to maintain the momentum towards more inclusive organizations?

I’m leaving the big picture on what’s happening in our broader society to others better qualified; my lens is zooming in on what we know about how divides occur within groups, and what can be done to both minimize and bridge them.

The promise of diversity in groups is greater innovation, as we introduce new and different information, talk about and elaborate on it differently, identify different errors and problems, and solve problems in new ways. However, research, as well as our experience, shows that the diversity in groups can divide as easily as it can unite.

Most of us, consciously or unconsciously, prefer to work with similar others. We have an affinity bias, that is, it is more comfortable to work with people who are most like us. When diversity is first introduced into groups, eg, one or two women join a male-dominated team, social identity for existing members may be disrupted, and subgroups form.

Subgroups may create ‘faultlines’.

Subgroups can interfere with information sharing and may create tension and conflict. When we talk about men and women, we draw attention to subgroups, which widens the faultlines as we focus on the differences between.

For example, the introduction of women into male-dominated symphony orchestras was initially very difficult. It only occurred when blind auditions were held. The increased presence of women led to declines in orchestra member satisfaction and social functioning. Not the desired result. However, when the proportion of women reached around 50%, the initial dissatisfaction plateaued or reversed.

But differences aren’t a guarantee of faultlines.

Whether or not faultlines are created depends on how people in the group feel about diversity, and on how salient the diversity is.

How people feel about diversity depends on how open they are to difference. This is one of the ‘Big 5’ personality factors. People high in Openness like difference. They promote discussion, exchange and elaboration of knowledge, insights and ideas relevant to the task, which enables thorough processing of diverse information. This helps group problem solving and contributes to innovation. Diverse teams that score high on Openness perform better than diverse teams low on Openness.

People high in Openness buck the affinity trend. They’ll be excited by and play with the differences that emerge from the diversity of the group, in which case, salience of diversity should be magnified.

The team leader plays a critical role is assessing the team’s composition, understanding the level of Openness and then making a strategic choice: amplify difference if members are high in Openness, reduce it if low or you aren’t sure.

Three ways to reduce diversity salience

Diversity salience is reduced by creating an overarching identity for the group, and one of the most powerful ways to do this is by providing meaningful rewards to team members on the basis of their collective rather than individual effort. Rewarding a team based on team outcomes decreases the salience of inter-group differences and emphasizes the collective identity of the team. How do we all work together to achieve our goals?

Another tactic for working with a team low in Openness is for the leader to use the power of their position to advocate pro-diversity beliefs to encourage team members to be more open, stimulating greater information exchange. This helps us to face our differences with a more open mind.

Finally, cross-cutting, that still highlights individual differences but reduces the salience of subgroups, is another effective tactic. Cross-cutting involves identifying as many kinds of diversity in the group as possible. It makes the categorization of people into distinct sub-groups more complex, which interferes with the automatic processing that can lead to bias.

Cross-cutting increases the chance of overlap between people, which reduces comparison between groups. If people are seen as members of multiple groups, such as gender, age, place of birth, cultural background, hair colour, handedness, etc then a large gender-based faultline is harder to create and sustain. We’re still working with differences here, but not large, highly salient or threatening subgroup differences. We can minimize what divides, and maximize what unites us.

Can we still talk about gender? Yes. Here’s how…

This emerging understanding of faultlines creates a dilemma; how to pay attention to gender/race/cultural under-representation and imbalanced leadership and targets for such groups, without amplifying faultlines?

At an organizational level, we should still be concerned with setting targets and focusing on efforts to create inclusion and this will mean collecting the data, calling out imbalances and identifying specific targets.

When it comes to group interactions, assess the group’s level of Openness and then work to either amplify or reduce the salience of diversity using the tactics above.

Diversity and difference may set people apart, yet it is also a source of inspiration. From an organizational perspective, the innovation dividend makes it smart to work out how to work with the diversity you have in the room.

Let’s keep the focus on the long game.


Photo credit: astrid westvang ‘bridge’ Flickr CC


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