The Real Question Facing Voters in 2016: How Best to Manage Diversity

As the race for the presidency heats up, candidates have begun to differentiate themselves not just on  economic policy and foreign relations, but on how to manage our increasingly diverse society.­

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Based on research by Adam Galinsky, A. Todd, A.C. Homan, Evan Apfelbaum, Stacey Sasaki, Jennifer Richeson, J.B. Olayon, and W. Maddux
Illustration by James Steinberg

The 2016 race for president begins in earnest next month with the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary. While much still remains uncertain with 10 months still to go before election day, one thing has emerged as surprisingly clear: for many Americans, the decision will turn on questions of diversity.

From mounting concern over terrorism and refugees to the Black Lives Matter protests, from the opening of all combat positions to women in the armed services to marriage equality and religious exemptions, the question of how best to manage a diverse society — and whether it is even possible to do so — has emerged over the past year as a central issue in the 2016 race.

Donald Trump has unquestionably taken the lead in voicing the anxieties felt by some Americans — most notably in his call to ban Muslims from entering the United States, a promise that he recently doubled down on in his first television ad. But even centrist candidates have expressed reservations, as when Jeb Bush joined Ted Cruz in advocating that only Christian refugees should be admitted to the country. On the democratic side, the Clinton campaign is increasingly taking heat, both for what some view as Hillary Clinton’s divisive approach to gender and for Bill Clinton’s past indiscretions. Bernie Sanders has also been the focus of criticism from activists associated with the Black Lives Matter movement, who disrupted campaign events over the summer.

Those anxious over our increasingly diverse country and ever more connected world have good reason to be, Katherine Phillips and Adam Galinsky explain. “Managing a diverse country, like managing a diverse organization of any kind, isn’t easy,” Phillips says. Diverse groups in particular suffer from greater conflict and greater disengagement, both of which can significantly hamper group performance. “Across a range of tasks, diverse groups have the worst outcomes,” Galinsky continues. “But they also have the best.”

Katherine Phillips, Senior Vice Dean and Paul Calello Professor of Leadership and Ethics, explains how organizations, and nations, can benefit from diversity.

The reason, according to Galinsky and Phillips, is that being part of diverse groups doesn’t just change what people think, it changes how they think. “Seeing diversity on the surface leads people to dig deeper,” explains Phillips, who studies group diversity. “In the right setting, the mere presence of social category diversity changes the behavior of everybody in the room. You get more out of them.”

Studies have consistently demonstrated that diverse groups consider a wider range of perspectives and process information more thoroughly than homogenous ones, leading diverse juries, for example, to make fewer inaccurate statements, and diverse trading markets to more accurately assess pricing information, preventing the growth of asset bubbles. In sum, groups with greater diversity make better decisions.

Correlational studies point to benefits in the broader economy, as well. Between 1970 and 1990, residents of cities with rising immigrant populations saw substantial gains in their own wages. After 1990, when the H1-B temporary visa program for highly skilled workers was introduced, the number of H1–B workers in a geographic area predicted wage growth for domestic residents. On the other side of the economic spectrum, a study from Georgia published last year found the presence of undocumented immigrants actually boosted pay, albeit moderately, for authorized workers.

The research offers a partial answer to Chief Justice John Roberts, who mused during oral arguments in last month’s affirmative action case, Fisher v. Texas: “What unique perspective does a minority student bring to a physics class?” Even without offering a unique perspective, the presence of minority students can enhance learning for all. Just as importantly, Phillips asserts, the case against affirmative action isn’t based on recognizing the uniqueness of each student, but in downplaying one axis of difference. “The benefits of diversity are really about the different experiences that individuals bring to a problem,” Phillips explains. “Race is just as important for shaping a person’s experiences as their gender, the school they attended, or their extracurricular activities. Why not consider race the same way you consider other attributes?”

The importance of diversity for group performance is further mirrored at the individual level, according to Galinsky, who has documented, for example, that fashion houses led by designers who have spent significant time abroad produce fashion lines that are consistently rated as more creative. Critically, Galinsky finds, it’s not just that individuals are exposed to new ideas or simply combine pre-existing ideas from different places. Instead, he explains, “what actually changes is that people become more integratively complex in their thinking, leading to what we call a ‘domain-general’ boost in creativity.”

Just as the benefits of group diversity are not automatic, for individuals, reaping the rewards of diversity requires more than simple exposure. “The benefits depend not just on encountering unfamiliar situations,” Galinsky says, “but on wanting to learn about and integrate them.”

The importance of that perspective for individuals further suggests one way to minimize the pains of diversity. The past year, of course, was marked not just by heated rhetoric from politicians, but by scenes of tragic intergroup violence, from the Charleston church shootings to the attacks in Paris (both last January and in November) to the San Bernardino shootings. While the latter two have ignited a controversy over immigration and asylum, all involved citizens targeting fellow citizens of their own countries, revealing deep and painful internal rifts.

Facing the current global crisis of multiculturalism, Galinsky points out that simply ignoring the issue is unlikely to produce any better results than the current pitched debate. “A coping strategy based on suppression doesn’t work,” Galinsky explains. “It actually makes stereotypes more accessible. It makes people more uncomfortable interacting with diverse groups.”

Instead, what’s needed are greater opportunities for intergroup contact and, just as importantly, a culture of respect for difference. As Phillips and Galinsky note, active engagement rather than avoidance is key to mitigating the worst outcomes of diversity. In a recent paper, Galinsky, Phillips, and their co-authors propose a range of policies designed to meet that challenge, from expanding and simplifying the visa application process for foreign workers, to ending the income tax on Americans living abroad, to promoting transparency and accountability in hiring and promoting workers.

While the federal government can have only limited impact on private business without action from Congress, which remains unlikely during this election year, Galinsky and Phillips point out that the president can still lead by example. With approximately 2.6 million workers, making it one of the world’s largest employers, the executive branch alone can have a significant impact on American workers by adopting policies that foster greater transparency and accountability when it comes to diversity in the workplace. And in so doing, it would offer a strong example to the wider business community.

The policies outlined by Galinsky and Phillips are no panacea to the challenges and deep divisions facing the country, but they offer critical opportunities for interaction between groups that can foster a new, enlarged sense of community. Phillips explains: “It takes a while before a new group actually becomes a real part of the fabric of who we are, whether as an organization or a nation. But then we can’t imagine them not being here.” As the president pointed out earlier this week in his State of the Union address, and Gov. Nikki Haley affirmed in the Republican response, the U.S.’s uniquely diverse society has not only won the country international prestige, it has also laid a firm foundation for future economic prosperity.

None of this is to suggest that the experience of living and working in diverse communities, or managing them, will be easy. Phillips likens the experience to working out in the gym: “The fear that people feel, the discomfort that comes from being challenged, from being stretched by something new — its’ not just a negative byproduct of diverse environments, it’s the very thing that leads to positive outcomes.”

About the researcher

Adam Galinsky

Adam Galinsky is the Paul Calello Professor of Leadership and Ethics at the Columbia Business School.

Professor Galinsky has published more than...

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