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Why does team diversity matter?

To celebrate the launch of NHS England's new guide on how to create diverse boards (which we were privileged to author) we’re publishing a series of posts on how to make diversity part of the fabric of your organisation. All these posts are modified versions of what’s in the guide, so if you want more info make sure you download it (it’s free!).

First up – why is any of this important at all?


Because the people we work with are generally polite they don’t literally roll their eyes and groan when we talk about the importance of equality. But a lot of them come close. And why not? We’ve spent years setting out the different benefits of equality: the business case, the regulatory case, the moral case – chances are you’ve heard these arguments a thousand times.

So, in an attempt to shake things up a bit, we’re going to come up with three arguments we bet you haven’t heard before about why diversity is important.

You’ll be more fact-focused There is evidence that diverse teams are more focused on facts. For example, researchers at Tufts University in America asked participants to sit on mock juries and deliberate on cases involving a black defendant and white victims. Some of the juries were all-white and some were made up of participants from both black and white backgrounds. The researchers found that the diverse juries were more likely to raise facts related to the case and made fewer factual errors while discussing the available evidence. If errors did occur, they were more likely to be corrected during deliberation. Importantly, the researchers note that these behaviours were not attributable to just the black members of the jury. White participants on diverse juries were more likely to focus squarely on evidence than white participants on homogenous (non-diverse) juries. That is, the diversity of the team raised the performance of every member on it.

This is just one example of many showing diverse teams are more likely to be objective. By including people from a variety of backgrounds, board members are less likely to refer to their own biases and entrenched ways of viewing the world and more likely to base decisions on things that are available to all of us: real facts.

You’ll do better analysis Diverse teams are better at analysing information. In a fascinating study psychologists at Northwestern University found that teams made up of people who all knew each other – from sports clubs or because they shared a social circle – were less adept at digesting information and identifying possible responses than teams comprising of at least one person unfamiliar to all the others. The researchers point out that performance gains are generally not due to newcomers bringing fresh ideas to the table. Instead, new people stimulate the thinking of the established group. So even though these teams are often less confident about the decisions they’ve reached and less likely to say their group interactions have been effective, they are actually processing information more carefully.

You’ll be more innovative When talking about diversity, a useful distinction people sometimes make is between ‘inherent’ and ‘acquired’ diversity. Inherent diversity relates to characteristics people are born with: their ethnicity, sex, and sexual orientation, for example. Acquired diversity refers to the appreciation of difference people can gain through different experiences (living in another country, for example, genuinely engaging with people from different socioeconomic backgrounds, having friends of different ages, and so on).

A study by researchers from the Centre for Talent Management (based on a nationally representative survey of 1,800 professionals, 40 case studies, and numerous focus groups and interviews) found companies whose leaders exhibited at least three inherent and three acquired diversity traits were 45% likelier to report that their firm’s market share grew over the previous year and 70% likelier to say they had expanded into new markets. Building on the inherent diversity we all have by actively seeking to understand different experiences and points of view unlocks innovation by creating an environment where outside-the-box ideas are heard, researchers claimed.

A health warning Sometimes limiting your exposure to different views and perspectives can have catastrophic consequences. (Who predicted the financial crisis? Or Brexit? Or Trump?) So while there is a lot of talk nowadays about increasing the gender and ethnic diversity of boards and organisations, it’s important to remember the goal of our efforts is to help us think different (and not just look different). Promoting diversity is really an attempt to maximise your ability to question powerfully, challenge effectively, and see more clearly.

We’ll look more at how we can promote diversity in future posts. But remember, all this is based on NHS England’s new guide, NHS workforce race equality: A case for diverse boards. So if you can’t wait, make sure you download it here.


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