Companies promote diversity in the workplace as a moral imperative with “bottom line benefits.” But research on the value of diversity is mixed. Some studies have found diverse teams—meaning workgroups comprised of employees of different races, genders, and backgrounds—promote creativity, nurture critical thinking, and tend to make better, more thoughtful decisions because they consider a wider range of perspectives. Other studies indicate diverse teams fuel interpersonal conflicts, reduce cohesion, and slow the pace of learning.
The trouble with past research is it assumes only diverse settings are capable of changing how people behave, form impressions, and make decisions. The research has created a convention in which homogeneous groups are considered a “control condition.” Think, for instance, about how we talk about topics related to diversity—we ask whether diversity influences perception, decision-making, and performance. When we digest results, we focus on whether diversity helped or hurt, strengthened or weakened, increased or decreased a given outcome. On the other hand, we view the homogeneous condition as a baseline: a reference point from which we can understand how diversity has changed behavior or what type of response is “normal.”
Homogeneity, however, is not a baseline. My colleagues, Katherine Phillips at Columbia Business School and Jennifer Richeson at Northwestern University, and I recently sampled 240 research articles on group diversity. We found that while the vast majority of research pays no heed to the effects of homogeneity, it may play a profound—and at times negative—role in shaping group behavior. Studies show, for instance, that homogeneous groups tend to make oversimplified judgments that can result in over-confident, even objectively inaccurate, decisions.
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