Academic Track Paper: Are Culturally Diverse Teams the More Creative Ones

Impressions from the 2017 SIETAR Europa Congress

Joanna Smit on “Are Culturally Diverse Teams the More Creative Ones?”- Academic Track Paper presentation by Dr. Daniel Scheible

You look at any large corporates website nowadays, and chances are you’ll find “Inclusion” or “Diversity” in bold letters somewhere in their “About Us”, “Why choose Us” or “Our Values” section.

The thinking goes that promoting diversity at work is not only part of our corporate social responsibility, it actually also makes business sense. After all the bad rep capitalism and global corporates have endured in recent years, the message that “Being good = being successful” is certainly a catchy one.

But, are we really sure that ‘More diversity = More profits’? Dr. Daniel Scheible, professor at Rhine-Waal University in Germany, might be able to shed some light on the answer with his paper “Are Culturally Diverse Teams the More Creative Ones? – a literature review”.

In short, his answer to the question is: ‘Well… that depends’. His research shows that to get innovation from a diverse workforce, you actually need to put some effort in. If you’re not careful, putting a group of very different people into ‘one room’ and expecting them all to get along naturally can actually lead to terrible results.

So, what are the ‘moderating factors’ that ensure diversity actually helps, rather than hinders your business? Before getting into those dynamics, let’s look at his methodology.

First off, instead of conducting one single analysis, he looks at a large number of existing research related to diversity and creativity. It is very refreshing to see that he deliberately only references papers published in the last 20 years.
 So much comprehensive cross-cultural research has been conducted in the 60s and 70s. But let’s look at what else was still happening in the 60s. Women in Portugal and Switzerland weren’t allowed to vote. Racial segregation was legal in the US until 1964. Homosexuality was a criminal offence in Austria, Finland, California and Hong Kong and classed as a mental illness in many more places.

Focussing on more recent research enables us to better grasp today’s concept of ‘diversity’ and makes Daniel’s findings very relevant for contemporary use.

Next, he breaks things up into different categories that are too often lumped together. Not only does he look at ‘Does diversity actually lead to more innovation?’, he also questions ‘Does more innovation actually lead to better performance?’.
 And even though the link between innovation, quality and performance does not represent the primary focus of his research, for me, that question certainly was a lightbulb moment. Especially as some of the evidence showed that more ideas did not always mean better ideas. Yes, I can come up with 20 different ‘innovative’ ways of getting from my house to the supermarket down the road.

But why bother going through all the effort, when I can just walk in a straight line from A to B in 1 minute?

And finally, he concentrates only on empirical studies with a business context. If we are going to apply the insights in a business setting, it makes sense to emphasise research taken from a business environment.

So, what other influences are necessary to ensure that diversity is a creative success? His paper does not provide a definitive list but here are some good starting points: a corporate culture focussed on innovation, members that are ‘open’ (to experience), active management of difficulties arising from different communication styles, an optimal size of diverse networks, a high degree of participation in team decision-making,…

In short, he concludes that team diversity is a ‘double-edged sword’ and that to make it work, careful facilitation is a must.

Daniel’s presentation was one of the best highlights for me at the conference. I enjoyed his analytical way of thinking, his modern and comprehensive approach with a clear focus on empirical and practical business implications. So, I really look forward to no doubt reading or hearing more from him in the cross-cultural circles in the future!

More impressions from the 2017 SIETAR Europa congress can be found here.