Work group diversity. - Van Knippenberg & Schippers - 2007 - Article


What is this article about?

Groups become increasingly diverse over the years. For example, organizations have become more diverse in terms of demographic differences. Organizations are also increasingly willing to adopt work group compositions that incorporate differences in functional or education backgrounds. Work group diversity may have positive as well as negative effects on group performance. In this article, it will be discussed which processes underlie these effects and how to manage the processes that lead to difficulties.

What is diversity?

Diversity is defined as differences between individuals on any attribute that may lead to the perception that another person is different from self. Diversity research has focused mainly on differences in gender, age, ethnicity, tenure, educational background, and functional background. A key question in this type of research is how differences between work group members affect group processes and performance as well as attitudes and subjective well-being. There are two research traditions for answering this question: the social categorization perspective and the information/decision-making perspective.

Social categorization perspective

A key characteristic of this perspective is that similarities and differences between work group members form the basis for categorizing self and others into groups, distinguishing between similar ingroup members and dissimilar outgroup members. People tend to favour ingroup members over outgroup members, trust ingroup members more, and are more willing to cooperate with them. This may lead to that workgroups function better when they are more homogeneous than when they are diverse. It may also lead to that group members are more satisfied with and attracted to the group when it is homogenous. In line with this, studies have shown that when groups are homogeneous, there is higher group cohesion, lower turnover, and higher performance. The similarity/attraction perspective suggests that people prefer to work with similar others, and is complementary to the social categorization perspective.

Information/decision-making perspective

The information/decision-making perspective emphasizes the positive effects of work group diversity. A key characteristic Is that diverse groups possess a broader range of knowledge, skills, abilities, and members with different opinions and perspectives. This may help these groups to deal with problems. It may also lead to more creativity and innovation. In line with this, studies have shown that diversity is associated with higher performance and innovation.

However, evidence for the positive as well as negative effects of diversity is highly inconsistent. This raises the question of whether and how these findings can be integrated.

What about different typologies of diversity?

To improve the research on diversity, there are different typologies proposed that can be used to classify different dimensions of diversity. These typologies include a distinction between observable demographic attributes (gender, race) which are less job-related and more job-related attributes such as differences in educational or functional background. Other researchers have argued that it is also important to take into account differences that are not always observable but are also not always job-related, such as differences in personality and values. The authors choose to not structure their review by the diversity dimensions. Instead, they highlight the processes which may result from diversity and the contingencies of these processes.

What needs to be improved?

Beyond demographic and functional diversity

As noted, diversity research is mainly focused on demographic and functional/educational diversity. Other dimensions should also be attended to such as personality, attitudes and values, socially shared cognitions and affect.

Beyond dispersion

Harrison & Klein urge researchers to be more explicit about their conceptualizations of diversity (is it associated with status or power differentials?), and to choose operationalizations that are matched with their conceptualization.

Single dispersion models should also be complemented with more complex conceptualizations and operationalizations of diversity. For example, studies have shown that being dissimilar to the workgroup more negatively affects people who are in majority positions in Western organizations (men, Caucasians) than that if affects people who are in minority positions(women, ethnic minorities).

Interacting Dimensions of Diversity

Diversity research has mainly focused on the effects of different dimensions of diversity in isolation or in additive models. This means that they do not take into account the possibility that the effects of a dimension of diversity may be contingent on other dimensions. For example, studies on the salience of social categorizations and cross-categorization suggest that it might be better to think of work group diversity as an interaction of differences on different dimensions than to look only at the additive effects of dimensions of diversity.

Lau & Murnighan (1998) came up with the term ‘faultlines’, which refers to combinations of correlated dimensions of diversity that are used as a basis for differentiation between subgroups.

What are the processes underlying the influence of diversity and their contingencies?

Social Categorization Processes

There are findings that suggest that diversity may lead to subcategorization. For example, Earley & Mosakowski (2000) have shown that groups with stronger faultlines have a stronger sense of subgroups and a weaker common identity. Furthermore, they found that common identity mediates the relationship between faultlines and satisfaction, but not performance. Chatmann & Flynn (2001) found that demographic diversity was associated with lower self-rated team cooperativeness. Bhappu et al., (1997) found that computer-mediated communication in gender-diverse groups leads to less intergroup bias. There are thus a number of studies that are consistent with the social categorization perspective on work group diversity. However there are only few studies that have looked directly at the social categorization processes, and therefore results are inconsistent.

Information/Decision-Making Processes

There is some evidence for the processes implied in the information/decision-making perspective. However, studies that have assessed these processes are lacking. The role of task conflict is controversial. There thus needs to be more theoretical as well as empirical attention to the information processing and decision-making processes that are presumed to drive the positive effects of diversity.

How can social categorization processes be a moderator of information/decision-making processes?

It seems that intergroup bias as a result of diversity may disrupt group information processing and stand in the way of achieving potential benefits of diversity. However, social categorization may also stimulate group information processing. For example, it has been suggested that informationally diverse groups that contain a member who is dissimilar to the other members of the group are more likely to make effective use of their informational diversity compared to homogenous groups. This happens probably because the dissimilarity alerts the group to the potential differences in information.

Cooperation and Interdependence

Group members depend on each other. This interdependence may be cooperative or competitive in nature. Researchers have proposed that the degree and nature of interdependence between the group members moderates the relationship between work group diversity and outcomes. It seems that greater cooperative interdependence is associated with more positive relationships between diversirty and outcomes. However, there are also studies that suggest that the issue is more complex. This indicates that more research is needed on the processes that underlie the effects of cooperation and interdependence on work group diversity in a social categorization and information/decision-making perspective.

Time/Team Tenure

Working together for a longer time can help to reduce the stereotypes, because one gets to know their colleagues and can find out that their impressions were wrong. However, working together for a longer time may also lead to that you learn more about your colleague, and that you do not like this. Thus, extended team tenure is associated with less negative as well as more negative effects of diversity.

Diversity Mind-Sets

The idea that people prefer to work with similar others is a prominent idea in diversity research. Only a few studies have focused on what people think about diversity (diversity mind-sets). The idea behind this latter is that the effects of diversity should be more positive in contexts where individuals, groups, and organizations have more favorable beliefs about and attitudes toward diversity. Positive diversity mind-sets may be expected to prevent intergroup bias as well as to stimulate the integration of diverse information, viewpoints, and perspectives. This means that diversity mind-sets may moderate social categorization as well as information/decision-making processes.

What can be concluded?

Currently, there is a greater understanding of the effects of work group diversity on group processes and performance. However, there is still much unclear about the effects of diversity. There is also too much ad hoc theorizing and too little development of theoretical frameworks that are more widely applied in the study of diversity. There is also a lack of empirical attention to the processes underlying the effects of diversity. Since organizations are becoming increasingly diverse, it is important to take on these research challenges.

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