Harnessing the skills power of diversity

If the morality of D&I isn't enough there's a skills case - it boosts creativity, lateral thinking and problem-solving


Diversity is an important dimension of corporate and social responsibility, but did you know it’s also good for you? New research has revealed how diversity ‘exercises’ the brain in ways that are beneficial for creativity, productivity and performance.

What’s new

One of the challenges facing HR departments is how to foster greater engagement with diversity initiatives. Maybe it is such a politicised issue that we lose sight of its value beyond the obvious ethical case. However, this research has illuminated a whole new dimension to diversity, one that offers the potential to radically change how diversity training is introduced and managed in the workplace.

We now know that diversity stimulates parts of the brain that are key to attaining personal and professional goals; in effect creating the potential for ‘brain training’ in our working environment. In doing so it has confirmed the strong business case for investing in diversity, to complement and enhance the ethical and moral case.

Key findings

Let’s start with why we seem to need diversity training at all. Stop to think for a moment – why is it so hard for us to all just ‘get along’? Psychologically speaking, diversity cuts to the core of what our social brains are all about. Our social brain is the part of us that deals with relationships. We use it every second of every day, whether it’s interacting with our family and friends, driving to work, presenting to the board, or teaching a class – every action and reaction we have involves influencing others or being influenced ourselves. The social brain has to handle this huge mass of information in the most efficient way so it’s predisposed to avoid overexertion wherever possible. There is just so much information to process it ends up wanting everything to be simple, clear and structured.

So what does this mean for diversity? Well of course diversity is anything but simple; it blurs the boundaries between ‘us’ and ‘them’ and challenges norms, stereotypes and conventions. Take the debate over immigration. The very notion of a multicultural society disrupts that simple, clear idea of what it means to be ‘British’. An increasingly diverse Britain means the social brain has to throw out a load of old preconceptions (and misconceptions) and start again. ‘British’ no longer means white and Christian. It now means black, white, Muslim, Christian, Sikh, and so on. That’s a dazzling mixture of identities to contend with, and for a lazy social brain it’s hard work – hard work that it often tries to avoid. It is this predisposition to favour simplicity and stereotypes that can explain why it’s taken us so long to make progress on diversity issues.

Does this mean we are fundamentally unable to deal with diversity? Not in the slightest. As the saying goes ‘nothing worth doing is ever easy’, and in the case of diversity it’s precisely the hard work it entails that reveals its full potential.

When we try to get to know someone from a different background or culture, when we make a mental leap beyond our comfort zone, that triggers some very specific psychological processes. These involve taking other groups’ perspectives on board, seeing things from different cultural standpoints, making compromises, and putting aside one’s existing stereotypes and prejudices. Importantly these leaps literally give the mind a ‘work out’. The consequence is, just like an athlete training their legs to run faster, the mind will subsequently work better, faster and more efficiently.

Research results

Studies from my laboratory have found just this: subjects’ creativity, lateral thinking and problem-solving skills were enhanced after experiences with people who challenge stereotypes (in this case people who subverted gender stereotypes, such as female engineers or male midwives).

This is also the case for people who themselves go against existing stereotypes. For instance, in another study I found that women who had entered male-dominated fields (such as engineering and mathematics) performed better on a problem-solving task when asked to recall their experiences as a woman in that field. This can help explain the reported benefits of gender diversity in company boardrooms. Diversity stimulates the social brain, and with this brings flexibility, fresh perspectives and the propensity to see things differently from how they’ve traditionally been viewed.

Research from my lab has also pinpointed why diversity experiences have this particular benefit for creativity. It’s because both activities use the same part of the brain. In other words, the same mental ‘muscle’. To illustrate, imagine you’ve been tasked to come up with a new marketing campaign for the product your company sells. What do you do? The first thing – the crucial part – is to put out of your mind all the existing marketing campaigns you know about (otherwise, by definition, yours won’t be original). Now consider what happens when you get to know someone from a different cultural background to yourself (a diversity experience). The first thing you need to do is put aside your existing prejudices and preconceptions.

The mental mechanics in both of these examples are essentially the same. In the first case you’re ignoring existing knowledge of marketing campaigns, and in the second you’re putting aside existing stereotypes. This is why diversity enhances creativity – it literally uses the same mental muscle that we need to utilise when we’re being creative. And when we use any muscle repeatedly it gets stronger, fitter and more efficient.

Psychologists refer to this process as cognitive inhibition – the ability to not think about something and put it out of your mind. It turns out that cognitive inhibition is not only of benefit to creativity and lateral thinking, but also a whole range of other work-related activities.

What do we need to do in negotiations? We need to inhibit our own perspective as well as see things from the point of view of the person we’re negotiating with. What do leaders need to do to successfully build a sense of commitment in their team? They must encourage individuals to inhibit their own self-interest while thinking about the collective interests of the group. What do we need to do to be a confident public speaker, or speak up in meetings and make our voice heard? We need to inhibit our anxieties. In our working lives we need to use this inhibition muscle all the time – and it’s precisely this muscle that benefits from diversity experiences.

It’s even an ability that helps maintain wellbeing in our personal lives. For instance, cognitive inhibition is needed in financial management. It’s why some people max out their credit cards and end up in financial difficulty: they can’t inhibit the impulse to buy when they see a ‘bargain’. Cognitive inhibition is also involved in a healthy lifestyle. People know the risks of poor diet, lack of exercise, unprotected sex, UV exposure, smoking and excessive drinking – yet they often seem unable to engage in the preventative behaviours needed to mitigate these risks. Here again people are failing to rein in their immediate impulses rather than imagining the negative consequences of their current actions.

If diversity trains our capacity to inhibit impulses and unwanted thoughts then it may not only help us be more effective in our working lives, but also help us break out of negative cycles, habits and norms in our personal lives too.

From research to reality

So diversity is a readily available, easy and effective way to train our social brains. But if the benefits of diversity are so clear, why do we need diversity training at all? Why is diversity not so obviously important to us as taking daily exercise?

The answer is that diversity per se is not enough. Greater diversity inevitably increases the complexity of interactions between individuals; if it’s not managed greater diversity just makes things harder for the lazy social brain that likes things to be simple and structured. This means that before you get close to the benefits I’ve described above, the social brain has shut down, closed itself off and hidden away from the hard work needed to embrace, challenge and reappraise what diversity means for its model of the world.

However, with some straightforward changes to how diversity is introduced and managed we can effectively foster its positive impact. Just as having a personal trainer and dietary regime can kickstart a positive gym habit, so social psychology can provide tips and techniques to help train our social brains.

This is a large area of interest in behavioural science, and one that is ripe to have a significant impact on HR policy and practice. More than 500 studies on diversity have identified the conditions that must be met for its benefits to be realised. Translating these into a roadmap for managing diversity in corporate culture reveals a number of key conditions (see box below).

In summary, just ticking the ‘diversity box’ is no longer enough – we need to manage, foster and develop diversity in our businesses, schools and communities. We have to be mindful of our corporate cultures, and create conditions conducive to drawing out the dividends diversity can provide. Without these conditions diversity may either be ignored or provide the ‘fault lines’ around which differences can create conflict. With these conditions in place a diverse environment can be absolutely integral to promoting productivity, innovation and growth.

Medical science has shown us that physical exercise is good for our bodies, so we do it. Perhaps now it’s time to listen to the psychological science that tells us diversity is good for our minds. A new generation of diversity-based training techniques can help us not just promote fairness and equality, but do so in a way that stimulates the core workings of the social brain. In doing so, diversity may ultimately prove central to enabling progress and prosperity in our working lives.

Richard Crisp is 50th anniversary chair in behavioural science and director of the Behavioural Science Laboratory at Aston University's Business School