Why our diversity efforts often fail - and what we can do about it

In my work with numerous Christian organizations I have come across a curious trend. Pastors and leaders often implement diversity initiatives that are designed to attract minority participants, but when the minorities actually participate, all hell breaks loose. Increases in diversity are often met with more strife, dissatisfaction with the organization across the board and among disgruntled minority participants.  Ultimately, the pastors and leaders throw their hands in the air and give up, saying that the challenges of diversity outweigh the benefits. (I am saddened by how quickly they reach this conclusion, but that is beside the point.) Research suggests that diversity initiatives are most likely to fail amongst Christian groups that idolize their cultural identities. Due to this idolatry, minority group members are not invited as valuable members of the all-inclusive we.  Rather (and perhaps this is unintentional) they are invited to participate in the organization as them – subordinate ‘Others’ and second class citizens who are bound to be dissatisfied. Until we relativize our cultural identities and adopt an inclusive group identity, our diversity initiatives are doomed to failure because we will never fully appreciate our diverse brothers and sisters and they will not feel appreciated.

As I've mentioned before, in many ways diverse groups are more effective groups. Specifically, diverse groups are more creative [i] and generate more feasible and effective ideas[ii]. However, this is only the case if all group members feel heard and appreciated.   Indeed, a fair amount of evidence suggests that diversity has negative consequences, particularly when minority group members do not have equal status with other group members and do not feel that they are valued members of the group[iii]. When this is the case, ethnically diverse groups often perform worse than homogenous groups, especially when the group work requires that group members depend on each other’s skills and performance[iv].  In addition, ethnically diverse group members tend to communicate with each other less[v] and react to each other with more emotional negativity[vi].  Perhaps the most troubling finding: while ethnic diversity might be uncomfortable for all group members, ethnic minorities often bear the brunt of the discomfort as they report less satisfaction with the group[vii] and less psychological attachment to the organization[viii] perceive less supervisor support and experience less procedural justice within the organization[ix].

An inclusive group identity is the key to creating a healthy diverse situation in which all group members are equally valued. For example, sports psychologist named George Cunningham[x] studied teams of ethnically diverse track and field coaches to see if a common group identity would increase group members’ appreciation for their ethnically dissimilar colleagues. He found that a common ingroup identity made all of the difference in the world.  When the coaches possessed a common ingroup identity, ethnic dissimilarity was positively related to group and coworker satisfaction.  In other words, when coaches identified with the team more than they identified with their ethnicity, they were more appreciative of the ethnic diversity amongst the other coaches and more likely to be satisfied with their fellow coaches. Further, when all coaches adopted a common ingroup identity, ethnic minority coaches felt valued and expressed more positive work experiences.  However, when none of the coaches adopted an inclusive group identity, the disadvantages of diversity were striking: strife, poor performance and dissatisfaction.

When we all adopt an inclusive group identity, we invite dissimilar others to participate in the group as first class group members who have the same rights and power that all other group members possess.  Further, we perceive ethnically dissimilar persons as fellow group members who offer valuable insights and perspective.  With an inclusive group identity, our diversity initiatives start out on solid footing.

[i] O’Reilly, Williams & Barsade, 1998

[ii] Cady & Valentine, 1999; McCleod, Lobel, & Cox, 1996

[iii] Stangor, 2004

[iv] Timmerman, 2000

[v] Hoffman, 1985

[vi] Cunningham & Sagas, 2004

[vii] Mueller, Finley, Iverson, & Price, 1999

[viii] Tsui, Egan, & O’Reilly, 1992; Mueller et al., 1999

[ix] Jeanquart-Barone, 1996

[x] 2005