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Ditching Diversity Myths

In the workplace, deep-level similarity is more important than surface-level diversity.

· 9 min read
Ditching Diversity Myths
Photo by kate.sade / Unsplash

Most research on demographic diversity in the workplace revolves around the diversity of age, sex, race and ethnicity. The scientific literature calls these differences “surface-level diversity” because they are immediately observable, biological in nature, and generally immutable. Some people believe these characteristics are reasonable proxies for underlying psychological characteristics and in some cases this may be true. For example, older people tend to feel more satisfied with their lives than their younger counterparts, and women tend to rank higher than men on the personality trait of agreeableness. However, given the huge variation within individual psychology, there are also many instances where you can’t judge a book by its cover.

Furthermore, not all diversity research is equally valuable. For example, some of the literature on surface-level diversity includes organizational tenure and functional background in the same category as age, sex, and race/ethnicity. This is a mistake. It is not possible to determine how long someone has worked in an organization just by looking at them, especially considering how frequently many people move between jobs and companies these days. Nor is it possible to guess a person’s functional background in this way—a uniform can be worn and removed, but this is not possible with age, sex, race, or ethnicity. Functional background is more closely related to deep-level diversity, not surface-level diversity, because it influences characteristics like opinions, beliefs, attitudes, and values more than our age, sex, or race/ethnicity.

Why does this matter? Because including deep-level variables in experiments designed to measure the effects of surface-level variables like diversity in age, sex, race, and ethnicity inevitably skews the results. For example, an academic article’s abstract may say that surface-level diversity is positively correlated with team performance. Activists and media outlets may therefore assume that the variables responsible for this correlation are sex, age, or race and ethnicity, and encourage race- and sex-based hiring/promotions. In fact, it may be that diversity of organizational tenure (mixing seasoned professionals with newer people with fresh perspectives, and vice versa) or functional background was responsible for higher performance. Consequently, we must treat diversity research with caution.

The research that focuses purely on true surface-level diversity isn’t much better. As David A. Harrison, Kenneth H. Price, and Myrtle P. Bell point out in their literature review and experiment on these two types of diversity (more on this later), the effects of commonly studied surface-level diversity characteristics have been inconsistent across studies, and even within studies. In fact, the findings of surface-level diversity studies have been so inconsistent that they differ on whether or not surface-level diversity has any effect on other variables. Some studies even show that surface-level diversity has negative impacts on factors like organizational commitment and job satisfaction, while others show a positive impact. Curiously, these inconsistencies are particularly strong on the effects of race and sex, the two variables that people tend to be most vocal about.

Harrison et al. suggest that some of this inconsistency may arise from the mistaken belief that demographic differences among employees are highly related to differences in attitudes. They are not. There is no correlation between a person’s race, ethnicity, age, and sex and their attitudes. People of diverse races, ethnicities, ages, and sexes can vary in their opinions, their values, their beliefs, their hobbies, and their priorities. And yet, the diversity train keeps chugging along. Why?

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Part of this comes from America’s history of discrimination, particularly along the lines of race and sex. The Emancipation Proclamation sought to correct some of this historical injustice, which the Civil Rights movement and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 sought to further rectify. And because America’s past discrimination was mostly justified with reference to citizens’ surface-level differences, these have been the overwhelming focus of the diversity movement. The problem is that modern diversity initiatives seem to be driven, at least implicitly, by two hypotheses with which many DEI advocates are unfamiliar: the similarity-attraction paradigm and the contact hypothesis.

The similarity-attraction paradigm holds that the more similar we perceive other people to be to ourselves, the more attracted to them we’ll be. However, it is wrong to assume that important similarities are only skin-deep. Before designing their experiment, Harrison et al. conducted a literature review on theoretical perspectives from the fields of organizational behavior, sociology, and social psychology. They found support for the idea that while we initially categorize people based on stereotypes, we modify or replace these stereotypes with “deeper-level knowledge” of these people’s psychological qualities once we get to know them better.

The similarity-attraction paradigm also holds that “similarity in attitudes is a major source of attraction between individuals.” Not race, not ethnicity, not sex, and not age. So, while it’s true that we may use a variety of physical, social, and status traits to try to infer similar attitudes, beliefs, or personality traits in other people, our superficial judgements don’t stay superficial for long. As Byrne and Wong remark in their 1962 study, “subjects initially perceived greater attitudinal dissimilarity between themselves and a stranger of another race,” but when these same subjects learned more about these stranger’s attitudes, “perceptions of attitudinal dissimilarity decreased and interpersonal attraction to the stranger increased.”

Other researchers have found the same thing: over time, as people acquire more information, their perceptions become based more on observed behavior and less on the stereotypes they infer from overt characteristics. In other words, simply spending time together, rather than diversity training, is the catalyst for resolving surface-level diversity conflict. This makes sense when you think about it. Whenever diverse Americans went to war against a common enemy and had to rely on each other to survive and succeed, they came to love and respect each other naturally, regardless of their age, race, ethnicity, or sex. No diversity training was needed.

This feeds into the contact hypothesis, which holds that interpersonal contact between groups can reduce prejudice. This may explain some of the well-intentioned pushes for surface-level diversity as well. Diversity activists may believe that diversity initiatives in every organization will encourage interpersonal contact across groups and diminish intergroup prejudice (even though racial relations have never been better). But this demonstrates an incomplete understanding of the contact hypothesis, which only works if four conditions are met: equal status, common goals, cooperation, and institutional support. And under many diversity initiatives, these four conditions are not only unmet, they are actively sabotaged.

How can people engage under conditions of equal status and cooperative contact if they are taught, especially at a young age, that white people and men have an inherent advantage because of their race and sex? How can people engage in equal status and cooperative contact if they are taught that all white people are inherently racist, ignorant, or evil by virtue of their skin color or that all men are inherently sexist, domineering, and oppressive by virtue of their sex? How can people feel they have fair institutional support when diversity initiatives incessantly push for hiring and promoting people based on immutable surface-level traits, even going so far as to segregate workers into so-called “employee resource groups” based on race, ethnicity, sex, and sexuality?

DEI initiatives that teach people you can judge the content of a person’s character by the color of their skin, their ethnicity, their sex, or other immutable characteristics, are an affront to both morality and science. The science shows that it is our deep-level differences or similarities that truly matter, and we cannot derive one from the other. Scientific research on diversity supports the importance of deep-level similarities, especially in attitudes. As Harrison et al. point out, “the few studies that have examined the consequences of similarity in attitudes and values in work groups” found that the more similar supervisors and their subordinates were in their attitudes and values, the higher the supervisors rated their subordinates on performance reviews, regardless of age or education, and the more accurately they rated their peers.

Harrison et al. also cite other studies that found similarity in attitudes to be associated with higher group cohesiveness. Perceptions of attitude similarity, meanwhile, were “uniquely and positively related to subordinates’ satisfaction, performance ratings, and pay ratings,” meaning that no other factors could explain the positive relationship between attitude similarity and these other variables. This shouldn’t be too surprising because attitude similarity is one of the most important predictors of attraction and friendship in general, and there’s no reason to think it would be any different in the workplace.

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Harrison et al. point out that when people share the same attitudes, they tend to fight less and communicate more, which reduces stress and leads to lower role conflict and role ambiguity. In their study, they collected two samples from two very different workplaces. One sample included 39 groups of people in a medium-sized hospital for a total of 443 people, and the other included 32 groups of people working in the deli-bakery sections of a regional grocery store chain with an average of 13 people per group. For surface-level diversity variables, they measured the participants’ age, sex, race, and ethnicity. For deep-level diversity variables, they measured each employee’s overall job satisfaction, supervisory satisfaction, work satisfaction, organizational commitment, time spent in their groups, and group cohesiveness (how “psychologically linked or attracted” group members feel toward “interacting with one another in pursuit of a common objective”).

The results of this study reveal a truth that contradicts the current diversity narrative pervading the United States: the longer group members work together, the less impact surface-level diversity has on how well they work, and the more deep-level diversity matters. Contrary to what many diversity activists claim, for both groups of employees, it is not the diversity of race, ethnicity, sex, or age that matters, it is the opportunities for team members to engage in meaningful interactions with each other over time.

The authors’ preliminary analysis undercut the importance of surface-level variables too. They found:

  • A significant correlation between perceptions of personality differences and how committed the subjects were to their organization and how satisfied they were in their jobs.
  • A significant correlation between perceptions of differences in value and how satisfied the subjects were with their supervisors.
  • A significant correlation between perceived differences in interests and supervisor satisfaction and work satisfaction.

Group cohesiveness—how well the group works together—was significantly correlated with the subjects’ perceptions of differences in their personalities, values, and interests. The only criteria that did not significantly correlate with group cohesiveness were surface-level characteristics like age and ethnicity. This was especially true over time. The researchers found that deep-level diversity “has steadily stronger consequences for groups than demographic diversity as group members spend more time together.” They suggest it might not be time itself that matters, but information:

Demographic factors are often a poor surrogate for the deeper-level information people need to make accurate judgments about the similarity of attitudes among group members. Time merely allows more information to be conveyed. Indeed, it might be more appropriate to think of the richness of interactions as the conduit for information exchange (cf. Daft & Lengel, 1986).

The more time people spend together, the more opportunities they have to learn about each other, especially if they work interdependently on a variety of meaningful tasks. These exchanges “allow group members to learn deeper-level information about their psychological similarity to or dissimilarity from their coworkers, where before they would have used surface-level demographic data as information proxies.”

So, why haven’t we heard about all this before? And why hasn’t other research shown similar results? The answer, according to the authors, is simple. Previous research may have discovered different findings because previous researchers did not compare the “relative contributions of surface- and deep-level variables” with “rich interactions among group members.” In other words, diversity researchers were only looking skin-deep, so their conclusions were skin-deep. It may sound like a trite cliché, but what truly matters is on the inside and “the relevant deep-level variables . . . that bear directly on the fundamental purposes of the group”:

In a jazz band or a marketing team, the consensus on the value of creative freedom might be paramount. In a day care center, the critical values to share might deal with nurturance and patience.”

And in academia, we want to ensure that everyone is committed to freedom of inquiry, freedom and encouragement of honest and civil disagreement, and the value of critical thinking. It may not be as easy to measure as simply asking people what they believe, but it is a far better starting place than mistakenly using surface-level variables as proxies for deep-level characteristics as many DEI consultants, activists, and ideologues suggest.

If you’re thinking about hiring a diversity “expert” to help your diverse teams function better, think again. Your employees don’t need help seeing their surface-level differences. They already notice them and they probably don’t care. Whatever conflict there is in your teams most likely has nothing to do with their surface-level traits, and if you call attention to it, you will simply reinforce surface-level divisions rather than creating deep-level harmony.

To make your diverse teams work well together, simply allow them to engage in meaningful, interdependent tasks, and give them plenty of time to get to know each other on a deeper level. It’s that simple.

Ryan Ruffaner

Ryan Ruffaner is an industrial-organizational psychology-practitioner and DEI researcher for the Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism.

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