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Jun.-Prof. Dr. Pisitta Vongswasdi
07/09/2021

Realizing the Value of Diversity

Assistant Professor Pisitta Vongswasdi on diversity beliefs

In recent years, diversity has gained increased attention, both in organizations and in academic research. Just as 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 toward diversity. Through her research, she has identified two drivers that positively influence diversity beliefs.

Diversity is a double-edged sword

In public debate, diversity is often considered advantageous and beneficial for organizations. Professor Vongswasdi points out that people with differing backgrounds bring new ideas, opinions, and perspectives to the table. This, in turn, increases creativity and innovation within working groups, thus strengthening an organization’s competitive advantage. In a study released in 2020, McKinsey & Company found that organizations with higher degrees of gender diversity are 25% more likely to perform above the industry average in profitability. For ethnic diversity, this number increases to 36%. That being said, despite this positive influence, diversity can have adverse effects on organizations. What Professor 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 people place others into subgroups based on visible, surface-level characteristics. The evolving in-group-out-group dynamic, Professor Vongswasdi explains, can lead to polarization and conflicts within diverse teams. Thus, the question arises: How can we regard diversity as an asset rather than a liability? And how can we use that to our benefit?

Influencing diversity beliefs through brief interventions

One decisive factor are diversity beliefs, or rather, people’s attitudes and behaviors toward diversity. Professor 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, thereby creating an atmosphere of insecurity and avoidance. Professor Vongswasdi suggests changing how this is framed and assuming that aforemention promotion focus instead. According to this approach, organizations should push their employees to think of the potential benefits of diversity and the synergies that can be born in diverse atmospheres. Moreover, Professor Vongswasdi suggests making the topic more personal. When employees hear about the advantages of diversity, they might be more convinced of its importance. Evidence suggests, however, that this does not necessarily translate into behavioral change. So, instead of being factual about diversity, Professor Vongswasdi recommends going to a personal level and asking employees about their previous experiences. For example, during a diversity training session, an instructor could ask the participants to recall an interaction with an individual with a background different from their own and encourage them to reflect on the lessons learned.

The importance of individual contributions

However, organizations are not the only ones that can change people’s attitudes toward diversity and foster an inclusive working culture. Employees can act of their own accord as well. “If I had to identify one thing that a person can do,” Professor Vongswasdi emphasizes, “it is to model curiosity.” As she explains, modeling curiosity goes beyond pure diversity beliefs. It also includes being open-minded toward individuals with backgrounds different from their own, 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 notes, “it’s not just something you tick the box on.” According to her, this is an ongoing process that requires a long-term commitment from both the organization and its employees. “The value of diversity is best realized through genuine beliefs in its importance from every individual, organization, and the society.”

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