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BOSTON, MA - If you start a discussion about workplace diversity policies, don't be surprised if the hopeful topics of ethnic, racial, and gender heterogeneity lead to negative discussions about sexism, bigotry, and injustice.
"Talking about and studying diversity is often complicated and raises a fair amount of anxiety for people," says Lakshmi Ramarajan, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at Harvard Business School. "A lot of times the context of the conversation is around diversity as a problem—isolation, prejudice, conflict—that seems to be so closely associated with working across group lines and group differences. And I think that makes a lot of people wary."
"A lot of policies in the workplace about diversity are based on research that's focused on the negative."
The wariness is due in part to the fact that many workplace policies regarding race, gender, and sexual orientation are based on studies that focus on the scourge of discrimination—rather than on the benefits of a diverse workforce, she says. In a new working paper, A Positive Approach to Studying Diversity in Organizations, Ramarajan and fellow HBS professor David Thomas argue that focusing on the benefits of a diverse organization will lead to workplace policies that embrace diversity, instead of grudgingly accepting it or pussyfooting around it.
"A lot of policies in the workplace about diversity are based on research that's focused on the negative," says Thomas, who heads the Organizational Behavior Unit at HBS. "And as a result, the resulting policies are defensive in nature, and they don't tend to produce the high quality of relationships that you need across differences. For example, there are some organizations that say, 'Never mention the fact that we have differences here.' They just don't mention it because there's all this research about bias and negative speech and hostile work environments. A lot of the research focusing on negative dynamics wouldn't suggest that you create more open interaction; it would say that you have to prescribe."
Too often, then, companies will adopt diversity policies more out of fear than anything else, the researchers argue. And this can lead to nonproductive situations. For example, a manager may shy away from constructively criticizing a minority employee for fear of looking like a bigot and possibly getting sued, thus leaving that employee essentially mentor-less.
"When you're in the mindset of 'We should alleviate prejudice' or 'We should reduce conflict,' then you're in a prevention focus—a concern with protection and responsibility," Ramarajan explains. "Whereas if you look at it as 'I want to increase relationships' or 'I want to create ways in which people have open communication,' then it's very much promotion-focused—a concern with advancement and growth."
Studying the exception to the norm
The researchers hasten to say that taking a positive approach to research does not mean putting a positive spin on a sorry situation—an organization at which only 1 percent of executives are minorities, for example. Rather, it means looking at the exception to the rule and studying the factors that made that exception possible.
"Most research sees the glass ceiling but doesn't explain what it takes to break through the ceiling," Thomas says. "What we want to try to do is to understand what brings about that positive condition [organically].
"Say we review some of my research on cross-racial mentoring," Thomas continues. "What we learned is that mentoring relationships are less likely to form across race than among people of the same race. But the positive approach would be to look at the research and say, 'Well, even though they may be rare, let's try to understand these positive cross-race relationships and what influences them when they do form.' And that's a positive approach, where you're focused on explaining the positive and what brings it about."
Similarly, when researching the career paths of minority executives in the 1990s for the book Breaking Through: The Making of Minority of Executives in Corporate America, Thomas and HBS Emeritus professor John Gabarro focused not on the fact that less than 3 percent of top executives were persons of color, but on the factors that led that 3 percent to success. "We wanted to understand, when people of color do break through to C-suite jobs what's the path, what are the dynamics, what facilitates it."
The importance of comparison in diversity studies
The researchers also stress the importance of comparing minorities with similarly situated nonminorities in an organization, so as to differentiate the factors that determine success.
"Most research sees the glass ceiling but doesn't explain what it takes to break through the ceiling."
"The goal is being able to answer this question: What is specific to the dimension of difference?" Thomas says.
For instance, in researching the factors that help people of color make it to the executive level, Thomas examined whites who plateaued, minorities who plateaued, whites who broke through, and minorities who broke through. He found that the majority of minorities who broke through to the top have had a heterogeneous network of peers and mentors—a mix of people who are ethnically similar to them and different from them. But for white executives, such network heterogeneity was not necessary for success. "So there's clearly something about having diversity in your network that's actually helpful for a person of color," Thomas says. "And you have to do the comparison to know what's different."
A positive approach to studying diversity also means a willingness to analyze and criticize situations that seem positive on the surface, the researchers explain.
"It's not only about going in with the hypothesis, it's also about being open to revising the definition of the positive," Thomas says. "I might assume that having a highly cohesive group is positive and miss that [the factors] creating that cohesion are more cultlike features. So there's a negative aspect to that cohesion. But then you can study how to have that cohesion without a cultlike aspect."
Taking their own advice
Ramarajan and Thomas have been taking that positive approach in their research.
Ramarajan is currently studying the concept of multiple identities—how people manage all the roles they play in life, such as parent, daughter, and professor. "We're used to looking at conflicts people have," she says. "But there's also a contrasting narrative that talks about how great it is when you can bring your whole self to work and you're completely integrated. And there are positive things that happen when you can bring who you are in the non-work world to work. I'm interested in understanding when and for what multiple identities can be harmful vs. helpful."
Thomas is preparing a case that shows how General Electric used its internal diversity policies to enhance both its business efforts and its philanthropic activities in Africa. The case shows that empowering its black affinity network led to a sevenfold growth on the continent of Africa in seven years.
He also is researching the dynamics that lead to blacks being chosen as chief executives—focusing on the corporate structure of the National Football League to examine how an organization's performance influences the hiring of minorities into management positions, and whether the presence of minorities in senior management positions affects the racial composition of the subordinate management team.
"It's another example of taking a rare but positive phenomenon and trying to understand why it happens," Thomas says