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Great Organizations | Great Leaders

Coffee on the GO with Scott Page

The author of The Diversity Bonus makes a strong case for why diversity is more than just the right thing to do.
Coffee on the GO with Scott Page

What do organizations really gain when they strive to have a more diverse workforce? Scott Page, Professor of Complex Systems, Political Science, and Economics at the University of Michigan, and an author of two books on diversity, insists the answer is: quite a lot. In his most recent book, The Diversity Bonus: How Great Teams Pay Off in the Knowledge Economy (Princeton University Press), he lays out the logic, empirical evidence, and business case supporting diversity—all of which add up to a persuasive argument for why organizations benefit when they don’t have employees and leaders who all look, think, and act the same.

Page spoke with GO about the many benefits of diversity and why, for all the benefits to organizations, diversity is hard to attain.

GO: Let’s start with a broad question: How do you define diversity?

Page: In the book, I focus primarily on two types of diversity, which I call cognitive diversity and identify diversity. A person’s cognitive diversity encompasses what she’s learned, what information she knows, the tools she bring to bear on a problem, and so forth. Identity diversity, meanwhile, encompasses race, gender, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, those sorts of things.

GO: So, what is a diversity bonus?

Page: A diversity bonus is the improvement in performance you get when you have a collection of people who bring different cognitive tools, representations, and ways of thinking to a problem. If two people think about a problem the same way, then they are not going to be any better at solving a problem than one of them would be on their own. But, if two people think about a problem differently, then the two can be better than either of the individuals on their own. That’s what the diversity bonus is.

The reason that’s an important idea is that if you think about hiring people or bringing people on board in terms of, “let’s hire the smart people,” well, you might miss out on a lot of diversity bonuses. When you are working on a hard problem, you really want smart people who think differently. You don’t just want smart people.

GO: You make the case in your book that as jobs have evolved, especially since World War II, the types of jobs where there have been extensive growth have been the ones that can benefit the most from greater diversity.

Page: That’s exactly right. If you think about people in a logging camp, you know, chopping down trees, there’s no real bonus there. The number of trees chopped down is just the sum of the number of trees chopped down by each person. It’s additive. So, you want to hire the people who are most skilled at chopping down trees. But when you think about curing diseases, designing a supply chain, or designing hyperloops, these are really complex cognitive tasks, so you want diversity.

As we moved from a physical economy to a cognitive economy where most of the value people add comes from thinking, not physical work, we’ve entered an era where bonuses matter. If we’re trying to think about the need to market a product to a wide variety of people and we’re looking to hire two people on a team to make it happen, I’d probably want two people who come from different places, identity-wise.

GO: Even though, as you say, there isn’t always going to be a diversity bonus, to what extent does it make sense to employ a diverse workforce even in jobs where there aren’t diversity bonuses, simply because it’s the right thing to do?

Page: There are three reasons. One, yes, it is the right thing to do. Two is that younger people, whom you’ll need to attract and recruit, find diverse work environments appealing. And then, the third thing is that your rank and file employees oftentimes move up the chain, right? If you want to have more diverse leadership ranks, which will produce diversity bonuses later on, you’ll want diversity in your frontline jobs that may not produce bonuses.

In sum, if you want your organization to be exceptional, the evidence says you need diversity. And, that’s not so much an opinion as it is a fact. It’s an empirical regularity based on strong logical foundations.

GO: Another point you make is that as our collective knowledge and expertise has grown, it’s become impossible for one person to know it all. Can you explain that?

Page: It used to be that someone could be an expert in neuroscience or chemistry or physics, or what have you. But now, in these fields there are literally tens of thousands of academic papers written every year. So, any one person might know no more than a small slice of any one discipline.

That means someone looking to hire an individual for a more cognitive role should be like, “Woah, you look different than me and you think different than me. You were trained in different places, I should hire you,” which is kind of the opposite of how we would normally think.

GO: Given all the evidence and logic that support diversity, and the understanding that diversity is important and increasingly necessary, why do organizations still struggle when it comes to implementing successful diversity and inclusion programs?

Page: To get better at working in diverse teams takes practice, like anything else. And, I think the challenge here is we live in a segregated society where there aren’t as many opportunities for practice as maybe there should be.

If I work with people who all look and think like me, they’re likely to agree with me. And, I’m likely to think, “Wow we’re really smart,” right?

Then again, if I work with a group that includes people who don’t look like me and people who don’t think like me, then I am not always going to win every argument. And so, when I don’t win, and by win I mean my decision isn’t the one we follow or that somebody changes or tweaks my idea, I may be less happy.

But through this type of give and take you can become a better person and your teams perform better. It’s kind of like broccoli. It isn’t as much fun to eat as ice cream, right? But, a lifetime of eating broccoli is going to put you in a much better place than a lifetime of eating ice cream.

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Scott Page’s book, The Diversity Bonus: How Great Teams Pay Off in the Knowledge Economy, is available through bookstores and major online booksellers.

Talk to an Expert: Coffee on the GO with Scott Page
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