THE closest thing the business world has to a universally acknowledged truth is that diversity is a good thing: the more companies hire people from different backgrounds the more competitive they will become. Diversity helps companies to overcome talent shortages by enlarging their talent pools. It helps them to cope with globalisation by expanding their cultural horizon. It stimulates innovation by bringing together different sorts of people. And so on.
But what about the downside of diversity? It does not pay to ask this question. Many countries have equal-opportunity laws on their books. American universities (and many others as well) are institutionally committed to the idea that diversity promotes learning and creativity. Most important perhaps, nobody wants to come across as unsympathetic to minorities or unappreciative of cultural variety.
Yet a glance beyond the corporate-diversity statements suggests a more complicated picture. It is notable how many of the world’s best companies, such as McKinsey and Apple, have cult-like cultures—probably because they are also very diverse: they need a strong culture. It is also notable how many of the world’s best companies are rooted in small towns: think of Lego (Billund) or Walmart (Bentonville). Distinctive religious groups such as the Mormons in America and the Parsis in India have also made an outsized contribution to corporate life.
Mr Chua argues that creativity in multicultural settings is highly vulnerable to what he calls “ambient cultural disharmony”. Tension between people over matters of culture, he says, can pollute the wider environment and reduce “multicultural creativity”, meaning people’s ability to see non-obvious connections between ideas from different cultures. “Ambient cultural disharmony” persuades people to give up on making such connections because they conclude that it is not worth the trouble.
Mr Chua also says that “ambient cultural disharmony” has its strongest impact on people who regard themselves as open-minded. Closed-minded people expect cultural tensions. Open-minded people don’t expect them and so react to them more strongly. In another irony, Mr Chua also discovered that the only people who are not affected by cultural conflict, at least in terms of creativity, are the people who are at the heart of it. They are more likely to explain the problems in personal rather than cultural terms.
He tested this thesis in three studies. In one he surveyed participants about the amount of cultural disharmony they found in their networks at work. In a second study he asked some subjects to recall a recent conflict between two contacts from different cultural backgrounds who disliked each other. In the third he asked his subjects to watch a short video that depicted one of the following scenarios: intercultural conflict, same-culture conflict, intercultural harmony. He also measured creativity in a variety of ways, for instance by testing participants’ ability to solve word puzzles or their skills to produce products and services for different cultural groups.
In all three studies, subjects who had a greater experience of ambient cultural disharmony fell short on one or another of Mr Chua’s measures of creativity. Mr Chua says that he is not certain how much of a problem this is because his is the first study to identify it. But his results are important partly because many companies have such an optimistic view of cross-cultural pollination and partly because the second-order effects of cultural conflict (particularly among people who regard themselves as open-minded) are so hard to manage.
The whole thing here.
Hmmm. Maybe different peoples are different and those differences should be recognised?