WHU General

Realizing the Value of Diversity

Assistant Professor Pisitta Vongswasdi on diversity beliefs

In recent years, diversity has gained increased attention in both organizations and academic research. While organizations have begun to realize the potential for and importance of diverse and inclusive work environments, researchers have begun to explore its underlying factors and moving parts. In her research, Pisitta Vongswasdi, Assistant Professor for Diversity at WHU – Otto Beisheim School of Management, puts an emphasis on what organizations can do to change people’s attitudes and behaviors towards diversity. Through her research, she has identified two drivers which positively influence diversity beliefs.

Diversity is a double-edged sword

In public debate, diversity is often seen as advantageous and beneficial for organizations. Vongswasdi points out that people with different backgrounds bring different ideas, opinions, and perspectives to the table. This, in turn, increases creativity and innovation within working groups and thus strengthens an organization’s competitive advantage. In a study released in 2020, McKinsey & Company found that organizations with higher gender diversity are 25 percent more likely to perform above the industry average in profitability. For ethnic diversity, this number even increases to 36 percent. However, despite this positive influence, diversity can also have adverse effects on organizations. What Vongswasdi refers to as the “dark side” of diversity are social categorization processes that can undermine a team’s effectiveness. Social categorization is a natural cognitive process where we place individuals into subgroups based on visible, surface-level characteristics. The evolving in-group out-group dynamic, Vongswasdi explains, can lead to polarization and conflicts within diverse teams. Thus, the question arises of how we can regard diversity as an asset rather than a liability and leverage its benefits.

Influencing diversity beliefs through brief interventions

One decisive factor are diversity beliefs or rather, people’s attitudes and behaviors towards diversity. Vongswasdi argues that organizations can influence their employee’s perception of diversity by making use of brief interventions. Based on an experiment, she found that organizations should hold a promotion focus rather than a prevention focus. In traditional diversity training, organizations often focus on educating their employees on what not to do, cautioning them on how to be politically correct, and therefore create an atmosphere of insecurity and avoidance. Thus, Vongswasdi proposes to change the framing and take on a promotion focus instead. According to this approach, organizations should make their employees think of the potential benefits of diversity and the synergies that can be created by working in diverse atmospheres. Moreover, Vongswasdi suggests making the topic more personal. When employees hear about the advantages of diversity, they might be more convinced of its importance. However, evidence suggests that this does not necessarily translate into a behavior change. So instead of being factual about diversity, Vongswasdi recommends going to a personal level and asking employees about their previous experiences. Taking the example of diversity training, an instructor can ask the participants to recall an interaction with an individual with a diverse background from their own and encourage them to reflect on the lessons learned.

The importance of individual contributions

However, not organizations are not the only ones that can change people’s attitudes towards diversity and foster an inclusive working culture. Employees themselves can act as well. “If I had to identify one thing that a person can do,” Vongswasdi emphasizes, “it is to model curiosity.” As she explains, modeling curiosity goes beyond pure diversity beliefs. It also includes being open-minded towards individuals with diverse backgrounds, being willing to learn from them, and valuing their opinions. Moreover, team leaders should actively solicit voices from minority team members so that their arguments are heard. “When it comes to diversity,” Vongswasdi emphasizes, “it’s not just something you tick the box on.” It is an ongoing process that requires a long-term commitment from both the organization and its employees. “The value of diversity is best realized,” she continues, “through genuine beliefs in its importance from every individual, organization, and the society.”