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Organisational development: Vive la difference?


Is diversity management heading in the right direction? Professor Daan van Knippenberg has his doubts but offers some new insights into how to do it effectively. Mike Levy reports.

The Professor of Organisational Behaviour at the Erasmus University in Rotterdam, spends a lot of his time studying the leadership of diverse teams. His own diverse team has developed a complex model, the Categorisation-Elaboration Model (CEM) which looks at how processes and variables within an organisation are affected by the way diverse groups work together.
"There is a growing awareness that society is getting more diverse. There are important business implications to this," says van Knippenberg. A lot of attention he says is now being focussed on gender diversity, the integration of people from wider ethnic backgrounds and the management of an ageing workforce. The challenge is certainly on for leaders to manage diversity effectively. But are they doing a good job and are trainers and coaches on the ball?
So how does van Knippenberg define 'diversity'? "I would say it is the extent to which differences exist between people in the workplace. These differences are not just about ethnicity: diversity can encompass a whole range of issues from attitudes, age, gender, experience, social background, culture, language and more." The professor’s point is that diversity within teams can be found even when everyone looks and sounds alike on the surface.

Effective Leadership

Effective leadership, he contends, involves recognising and drawing on all the diverse strengths of team members. Note that he emphasises drawing and tapping into diverse strengths; Van Knippenberg goes far beyond what he feels many diversity trainers do: acknowledge and respect difference. If the desired outcome is one of measurable benefit to the organisation, then respecting difference and promoting toleration of others is, he says, necessary but not sufficient in achieving that objective. In other words, his research points to a rather weak effect of managing diversity simply by encouraging understanding, tolerance and inclusion.

"Diversity can encompass a whole range of issues from attitudes, age, gender, experience, social background, culture, language and more."
Those attributes are highly desirable and, indeed, necessary in promoting a cohesive team. But they are not sufficient in producing high quality outputs.
Nor, he believes, should it be the goal of diversity leadership to convince team members that in fact, they have lots in common and should work as an homogeneous group. In other words you can’t be sure that traditional diversity training is associated with positive effects. "The picture from the research is less than clear," says van Knippenberg.
There are interesting examples of how to do the right thing in the R&D world. Here, says van Knippenberg, there is an accepted culture of cross-functional teamwork where difference between people is recognised, accepted and exploited. Good leaders of such teams know how to identify difference and help people play to their strengths. But does it matter what kind of diversity you are leading?
Diversity, says van Knippenberg, can be seen as a double-edged sword. It is a source of valuable expertise, knowledge and experience; it can be a source of synergy by integrating different perspectives to produce more creative products and services. At the same time, diversity can be a source of tension: there is a basic human tendency to be more trusting and empathetic to people who are more like us. If someone is different from us then any tension between us is easily attributed to those differences. Looking at the research, these tensions seem to be in place regardless of the source of those differences: demographic, functional or otherwise.

Combatting negativity

"The negative attributes of diversity are more likely to arise where we carry certain stereotypes about that person" says van Knippenberg. "If a person has sexist ideas or believes in racial stereotypes, then he or she is much likely to attribute problems in team building to those perceived differences. This is far less likely to happen where the key differences are perceived as educational and functional – members of a pharmaceutical team of chemists, biologists and geneticists are far less likely to attribute difference to any stereotype about each other’s function. Tensions within such a team are far less likely than one where difference is based on accepted beliefs about race, gender, culture, class, age and so on."

"It is the different perspectives, diverse takes on things that lead to more creative outcomes or bring about a higher quality of decisions. Leadership should not just point to differences then sit back and relax."
Van Knippenberg’s insights into diversity come out of his quantitative studies both in his Rotterdam lab and out in the field. His recent studies have looked at what kind of leadership strategies work well for diverse teams. “The problems arise when a leader does not like difference and where he or she wishes to build common ground so that everyone is moulded in their image."

 These kind of leaders favour homogeneous teams and see it as their role to iron out differences (albeit to recognise, celebrate and tolerate them first). They will try to build a shared identity and emphasise things we have in common. "What we argue is that this makes sense but only up to a point. This is not the optimum way to lead diverse groups. You may indeed prevent the negative effects of diversity in this strategy but you won’t bring out the positive, measurable outcomes that the organisation would desire.

Encouraging synergy

If you wish to promote synergy within the team, you don’t do this by emphasising similarities but differences. It is the different perspectives, diverse takes on things that lead to more creative outcomes or bring about a higher quality of decisions. Leadership should not just point to differences then sit back and relax. Effective leaders should emphasise and encourage toleration of difference and then go on to capitalise on the richer wealth of experience, viewpoint and knowledge that arise from diversity."

Trainers and coaches have a big role to play in building on the research led by van Knippenberg and his peers. The professor is not wholly confident that the industry has woken up to the fact that diversity leadership means more than identifying, celebrating or tolerating difference. The 'Vive la difference' philosophy should benefit everyone.
Professor Daan van Knippenberg is associate editor of the Journal of Organizational Behavior and lectures at Rotterdam School of Management

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