Distorting diversity: how our perceptions leave us worse off

How diverse is this crowd?

How diverse is this crowd?

Our organizations aren’t as diverse as we think. As a result, all of us lose.

Disturbing new research shows we overestimate how much diversity surrounds us. Performing several experiments, researchers at Stanford University found participants would incorrectly perceive groups as diverse along multiple dimensions of diversity based on only a single dimension.

One study asked participants to observe multiple groups of faces. Some groups had racial diversity while others did not.  All of the groups had a male-to-female ratio of 2:1. Participants perceived greater gender diversity in groups with greater racial diversity than those groups that lacked racial diversity, even though the gender ratio remained constant across all groups.

A more surprising example involves participants working in groups who either all wore the same color T-shirt or wore different color T-shirts. Participants in the groups who wore different color shirts were more likely to report that their groups were gender-diverse. They did so despite the fact that all the groups had the same gender ratio.

These common misperceptions of diversity are a result of a concept called  “spillover bias”. Spillover bias stems not from malice but from shortcuts in our thinking. We’re using inductive reasoning, but we’re generalizing far beyond the evidence.

Spillover bias leads us to think our groups have more diversity than they really do. This is bad for everyone because diversity benefits everyone.

The Costs of Lack of Diversity

McKinsey, the largest consulting company in the world, issued a report, Diversity Matters, that shows diverse companies prosper more. For example, companies in the uppermost quartile for ethnic and racial diversity are over 30% more likely to achieve financial results that exceed their national industry averages.

Companies that have at least one woman on the board outperform companies with all-male boards in both growth and returns on equity, according to a study of over 2,000 international companies conducted by Credit Suisse Research Institute.

While correlation alone does not imply causation, reasoning suggests a causal relationship. An article in Scientific American points out that diverse groups surpass homogenous groups in dealing with complex, novel problems. The author offers a compelling reason: by their very nature, diverse groups force members to better prepare because they know they’ll need to articulate their ideas to others that come from divergent backgrounds. They also need to work harder to predict objections from viewpoints that differ from theirs. Better preparation and greater efforts to anticipate differing viewpoints make people more creative and productive.

How to Increase Diversity

When we rely on more objective views about our organization’s employees, we can recognize the true state of diversity or lack thereof within the company. From there, to increase diversity, we need to address the unconscious biases that prevent the organization from being an inclusive environment.

As a recent study has shown, practicing mindfulness offers a way to mitigate these biases by making us more aware of our own thoughts, emotions, and actions and weakening our tendency to judge others. Participants in the study practiced mindfulness for a scant ten minutes before demonstrating vastly reduced bias. Ten minutes a day could transform our organizations from the inside out to make our cultures inclusive and able to embrace diversity.

The sooner we act, the better off we’ll all be.