Why diversity pays dividends


Thought diversity training was all about social responsibility? In fact, new research shows it’s an essential element in inspiration, innovation, and success.

There’s a clear ethical case for promoting positive engagement with diversity, but did you know there’s now also a business case? ABS is leading the way in establishing how diverse social ‘ecologies’ promote creativity and confidence in our daily lives.

It’s all about ‘social cognition’ – how we think about ourselves, and our relationships with others. See the human mind craves structure and simplicity; it wants the world to be predictable and easy to understand. Diversity flies in the face of this; it blurs the boundaries between ‘us’ and ‘them’ and challenges norms, stereotypes and convention. But it’s precisely this norm-defying quality that holds the key to its true value for employers, entrepreneurs and executives.

Here’s a thought experiment: Imagine a midwife. Ok? Bet your midwife was a women. Now think about meeting a male midwife. Or a female mechanic. Or a black CEO. Or a disabled rockstar. Individuals like this define what it means to live in a diverse society. They go against the norm, challenge convention and force us to re-evaluate what we think we know.  

Now let's think about creativity. Research shows that a key ingredient of innovation is the ability to combine concepts that don’t normally go together (a flying car, wearable technology …). This, of course, is precisely what people do when they engage with diversity (there’s our male midwife again). In fact, diversity experiences use exactly the same part of the brain as creative thinking. Our research has even shown that diversity experiences can ‘warm up’ the creative mind, directly leading to enhanced problem solving and a host of other cognitive improvements.

Diversity promotes innovation

It doesn’t stop there. Studies show that the career choices of many groups are influenced by society’s norms and expectations. These stereotypes inhibit aspirations and stifle success. It’s the young women seeing science and technology as a male choice, or the young man who doesn’t believe he has the right background for a career in banking. Just as an appreciation of diversity can discourage us from holding negative stereotypes of others, it can free us from the influence of those stereotypes on ourselves. Should one become an engineer, doctor, teacher, artist? Should one spin out and start a business of one’s own? Our research shows that diversity fosters the capacity to see ourselves in new ways, and it is this that is key to self-determination, and ultimately, career success.

Diversity allows us to see ourselves in new ways

How can we use this knowledge to effect positive change in peoples’ lives? In schools, business, and the community these are critical questions, defining potential, productivity and progress. To answer these questions we have created the Aston Behavioural Science Laboratory. The aim is to leverage insights from behavioural science faster than has traditionally been achieved. By shortening the distance between basic science and application, we can help foster better leadership practice, inspire confidence, and enhance performance. Our cognitive training techniques free the mind to innovate, to see and seek out future possibilities; to adapt and grow. They weaken the psychological power of stereotypes, mitigating the impact they have on confidence, self-efficacy and the ability to prosper in one’s chosen field. They help people appreciate their dazzling mixture of possible selves, and see this same potential in others. 

Some say success is just the right combination of inspiration and perspiration. It’s ideas and entrepreneurship. It’s the product or service that changes peoples’ lives. It’s self-belief and the damn dogged drive to get things done. Our research shows that these abilities do not grow in insolation, but are fostered and flourish in diverse social environments. It shows that diversity is not just desirable because it represents a particular set of moral or ethical values; it is desirable because it creates those conditions that challenge us all to become all we can be.

Richard Crisp
Professor Richard Crisp
Head of Aston Behavioural Insights Group

Richard Crisp is Professor of Psychology at the Aston Business School and a world-leading behavioural scientist. His research has provided ground breaking insights into how society shapes our behaviour, beliefs, attitudes, and values. In 2014 he received the British Psychological Society's President's Award for Distinguished Contributions to Psychological Knowledge.

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