Diversity and Competitive Advantage

on December 13, 2017
Reading Time: 3 minutes

When I first saw Hidden Figures, it got me thinking about workplace diversity. In the movie, Katherine Goble helped a group of white American men does something they could not do on their own–send a man into space to orbit the earth and eventually help the US space program become the first country to put a man on the moon. One could argue this group of white American men has eventually figured it out, but in that scenario how long would it have taken? Would Russia have beat the US to the moon in that scenario? We will never know, because of Katherine Goble, an African American woman, played a key role in helping the US get there first. You could make a strong case that it was her presence on the team which gave the US space program the competitive advantage in the global space race.

What strikes me about this line of thinking is how workplace diversity is a competitive advantage and should be viewed as such. When we hear about companies trying to become more diverse, they appear to do so to come across mostly as an equal opportunity employer. However, if companies viewed workplace diversity as a competitive advantage than it is in their, and their shareholders best interests to aggressively pursue this course of action.

Interestingly, there is an increasing body of evidence to show that ethnic and gender diverse teams tend to be more creative and solve problems better than ones that are not. Many psychologists have been working and studying what makes teams more effective than others, and interestingly, psychologist Christopher Chabris co-authored this article in the NYTimes titled Why Some Teams are Smarter than Others. While there was a range of factors contributing to teams success but one of the three tentpole reasons was not just diversity but teams with more women than men.

Christopher Chabris has been writing research studies and working with the social science community digging into the broader theme of collective intelligence. And as many many new research reports have begun to suggest, the collective intelligence of a group gets better when there is diversity (broadly defined). And what is a company than a giant group of collective intelligence with the same sets of goals in mind? If these studies are correct than diversity will play a role, not just in the teams competitive advantage, but for the entire collective intelligence of any workforce.

This is not a new idea as I’m not the first the position diversity as an important element in companies, or even a nation’s, competitive advantage but it is a theme worth remembering and cementing into the mindset and culture of an institution. The reality is, however, just having diversity as a goal is not enough. A company has to have a process to utilize their diversity effectively.

The NASA space program was on the verge of squashing their competitive advantage by not effectively empowering Katherine Goble to do what she does best. Equally important were the team members in the NASA program’s ability to be willing to listen and accept her ideas and input. Had the NASA Space Programs boss Al Harrison, not stepped in and empowered Katerhine as a part of the team there is a good chance the US may have lost the Space race to Russia. Having diversity on teams and having procedures in place that empower that diversity can lead to a powerful competitive advantage.

If more CEO’s and executive teams understood how diversity is a competitive advantage, then they would rush to be as diverse as possible because of a competitor, who does understand this, becomes a much bigger threat.

Another factor to consider here is from the vantage point of competitive advantage for a nation. Not only should this point apply to a Nation’s leadership structure to include diversity but, the policies that a nation puts in place which could become an inhibitor to create diverse companies. For example, a concern with the current political climate in the US could threaten more top talent from other nations and ethnic backgrounds to leave the US and go to other count.ries to start and join companies.

Treating diversity among a company workforce, and management teams should be understood as competitive advantage as much of the research suggests. Hopefully, companies in every industry start understanding this additional angle as another reason to aggressively pursue a diverse culture in their companies.