Uncovering the paradox of diversity: better results, lower satisfaction

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While people say that the like the idea of a diverse workforce, and evidence suggests that diverse teams perform better than homogeneous ones, but nonetheless, people report higher job satisfaction when they are on teams of the same gender. At least that is the result of a recent study by economists Sara Fisher Ellison and Wallace Mullen, Diversity, Social Goods Provision, and Performance in the Firm.

The researchers looked at data from a large professional services firm, including eight years of revenue data and employee surveys that measured morale, satisfaction, cooperation, and attitudes about diversity. They included some groups that were diverse — mixed male and female — and some of only one gender. Apparently, mixed gender work situations lead to lower job satisfaction, but the revenue figures show they were more effective.

This lines up with other research on diversity. I wrote last year about Katherine Phillips’ research, Is the Pain Worth the Gain? The Advantages and Liabilities of Agreeing with Socially Distinct Newcomers, undertaken with fellow researchers Katie Liljenquist and Margaret Neale. The diverse groups in their study performed better, but found the experience uncomfortable:

The researchers found that the social awkwardness that arises in groups when outsiders are introduced to established groups leads to more careful reasoning and improved group performance. They selected group members with some affiliation irrelevant to the task — like sorority or fraternity membership — and then introduce newcomers who are non-affiliated.

The tension arises when insiders agree with newcomers, or, as the researchers put it,

We argue that these individuals, who are in agreement or allied with socially dissimilar group members, will feel insecure, and this alliance will threaten their social ties with the other in-group members on the team. Because they feel threatened, allies with socially dissimilar group members should be motivated to reconcile the differing opinions in the group. The motivation to resolve the discrepancy in opinions should benefit group performance as members dig deeper into the alternative perspectives in an effort to reconcile the divergent opinions. A critical issue here though is that this improved performance may still come at a cost. Group members may not recognize the improved performance and may feel that the interactions in surface-level diverse groups are more uncomfortable and less effective than in homogeneous settings where they receive support from socially similar others.

As the authors point out, the diversity leads to better group performance on the tasks set, but the member may not think so. The psychological friction involved colors the experience.

I suggest that the same effect is at work in Ellison and Mullen’s study. Trying to reconcile opinions in diverse groups leads to deeper examination of alternative perspectives, which is more work, and often involves having to confront personal biases. So, the paradoxical result: better results, but lower job satisfaction.

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