For over 30 years, organizations have engaged in programs to address the growing presence of diverse populations in their ranks and researchers have attempted to
identify and quantify a link between diversity and enterprise performance. There
remains a gap in the understanding of how organizations get benefit from increased
diversity and the role of frontline managers (who must balance managing diversity
with improving performance at the team level) in that process. The original
conceptualization of diversity management was in response to the growing diversity
in the workplace and was intended to develop the capacity to manage the resulting
diversity mix. The Diversity Coach recently conducted a study to gain insights from
frontline managers about how they are navigating through the challenges of
increased diversity and using that diversity to enhance their ability to produce high
performance outcomes. We interviewed frontline managers from a variety of
industry sectors using a semi-structured conversational interviewing protocol to get
their insights. The analysis of their responses revealed patterns of thought and
behaviors relating to managing individuals, managing the complexity of diversity,
and managing diverse teams for high performance. The findings indicated that a
common definition of diversity management is possible, that managing diversity
requires a competence with all dimensions of diversity, and that there are a set of
management skills that can yield better performance with teams of diverse
composition. These insights can have positive impact on theory, practice, and
general social acceptance of diversity
In the last few decades, few countries have been left untouched by the rapid
diversification of the modern workplace. As a result of increasing workforce
diversity, companies are faced with a fundamental concern with how to balance
increasing levels of diversity with the need to maintain and increase firm
performance. Workforce diversity and the question of how to manage diverse
groups have become increasingly important. The problem of managing today’s
diverse workforce, however, does not stem from the diversity of the workforce itself
but from the inability of corporate managers to fully comprehend its dynamics,
divest themselves of their personal prejudicial attitudes, and creatively manage the
potential benefit of a diverse workforce. Today’s employees are more likely than
ever before to work with people with different backgrounds. However, the research
has not kept up with the need for tools and processes to manage the increasing
levels of diversity in the workplace.
The subject of this research was diversity management. Diversity management is
distinguished from other forms of diversity study by the intent to affect business
performance. The original conception of diversity management suggested by Dr.
Roosevelt Thomas indicated the presence of a diversity-performance link, which is
often referenced in the literature. Since then, other forms of diversity study have
been added to the field. These other diversity –related topics involve social,
psychological, cultural, and political issues and
may or may not be relevant to improving
business performance. Compared to diversity
management, it must be stated that, “Inclusion is
not a strategy.”
This study was designed to return to the original
conception and explore if managers can realize better business results at the team
level using diversity management as a management discipline. To explore the
possibilities for business performance, I also examined elements of team
performance and management skills.
We asked the managers who participated in this research, “What are your
perceptions and lived experiences related to your role in executing diversity management programs? The managers offered a wide range of perceptions and
experiences, which converged on a set of behaviors, principles, and attitudes that
allowed them to be effective as managers of diverse teams and which could be a
guide for other managers of diverse teams. Among the insights they offered was a
shared belief that the role of manager was a key factor for being effective with
diversity management. Each of the managers believed that management was a
talent, which explained why they were chosen for the role and why they accepted
the role. Their insights were based on first-hand experience and practice rather than
theory and they illustrated the wisdom that comes with direct involvement with a
Their shared experiences in the role as managers of
diverse teams revealed some insights that could
serve as a basis for the standardized practice of
diversity management. They suggested that (a) the
primary focus has to be on getting better results for
the enterprise, (b) each individual on the team must
be managed differently, (c) the advent of a different
diversity mix requires a different management response, (d) diversity on teams
introduces new dynamics and new management challenges, and (e) the benefit of
managing those challenges is the potential for better team performance.The key
It’s A General Competency.
The managers in my study disconfirmed the notion
highlighted by McMahon (2010) that limited exploration of specific dimensions of
diversity is the path to success in the field. They indicated that while specific dimensions
of diversity (race, gender, personality type, age, etc.) are relevant on a case-by-case basis,
it is a general competence with diversity that helps them manage the daily manifestations
of diversity on their teams.
A Common Language.
The original conceptualization of diversity management defined
it as a practice designed to leverage differences in order to support organizational goals.
The majority of the managers in my study (11 of 12) indicated that what they do as
managers of diverse teams conforms to that definition.
It’s About Business Performance.
I deliberately planned my research to focus on
management, diversity, and teams in order to direct attention away from the social
aspects of diversity and more on the benefits of diversity for enterprise management and
It’s About Managing People.
My research revealed that the advent of increased
diversity in the workplace brought with it additional management challenges.
It’s An Inevitable Reality.
The second major theme that arose in my research,
perceptions of managing diversity, addressed the growing reality that employees are
increasingly diverse in a broad sense and that many organizations are investing in
diversity management efforts. From their frontline positions, the managers identified a
perspective on diversity management that keyed in on a common definition as well as a
realistic assessment of the pluses and minuses of having more diversity on the teams
It’s About Skills.
The third major theme, perceptions of managing teams, addressed the
process of managing a diverse team in order to get high performance and better results.
The comments by the managers brought perspective to the behaviors of effective team
managers and to ways to get value from diverse teams. Being an effective manager of
diverse teams begins with foundational skills at managing teams for performance.
It’s Not Personal.
The advent of increased diversity may be difficult for some people to
adjust to. It becomes necessary for the manager to be a role model at responding
positively to diversity.
Emphasis on Management Over Leadership.
Finally, the managers in this study
concluded that good management (more than leadership) is the key to getting
benefit from a diverse team.
The study of diversity, diversity management, cognitive diversity, inclusion, or
cultural diversity is more than an academic exercise. There are millions of
practitioners (managers, leaders, and team members) who need the benefit of
scholarly inquiry into what has been called the most complex human resource
challenge of the 21st century (Heitner, Kahn, & Sherman, 2013). For more than 20
years, researchers have been attempting to confirm the relationship between
diversity and performance (Kochan et al., 2003). The results have been mixed. There
has yet to be consistent, replicable, and sustainable evidence in the scholarly
literature that supports the relationship, which leaves managers and leaders in the
field uncertain about the efficacy of diversity management as a management skill or
organizational strategy (Thomas, 2011). Researchers have studied diversity topics
with a detached attitude and the academic literature that has been produced is hard
for practitioners to understand (Guillaume, Dawson, Woods, Sacramento, & West,
2013). As a result, organizations and frontline managers have not realized the
benefit and competitive advantage they may have expected from diversity
management (Thomas, 2006).
Sabharwal (2014) noted that most researchers working in the area of diversity,
cognition, and performance are aware of the contradictory findings of prior studies
(diversity both improves and impairs performance), which puts many organizations
in the bind of balancing seemingly incompatible goals of increasing diversity and
maximizing performance (Newman & Lyon, 2009). Field managers and executives
have a limited view of the impact of diversity in their organizations (Kravitz, 2010).
Workforce diversity is not a transient or static concept (Barak, 2017). A better
understanding of the impact of diversity management on organizational
performance would help managers in developing the models, tools, assessments,
and management principles that will make diversity management a mainstay of
modern management practice. Without such tools, managers will be unable to
understand or identify the constructive business benefits of diversity (Shen, Chanda,
D’Netto, & Monga, 2009). I performed qualitative phenomenological research to
explore several aspects of the real world experience of managing team performance
with a diverse and multicultural population of employees. The goal was to identify
practical insights from working managers, previously lacking in the scholarly
research that may lead to diversity management becoming a practical strategy and
My approach to this research was informed and influenced by a report by the
Diversity Research Network who operated under the auspices of the Business
Opportunities for Leadership Diversity (BOLD) initiative (Kochan et al., 2003). The
report of the Diversity Research Network raised the profile of the diversityperformance
link and recommended (with implications for management) how the
diversity-performance link could be realized and strengthened (Kochan et al.). My
study drew on the actions suggested by those implications, which a review of the
literature revealed to be sorely missing in both the academic and practical
literature. Some of those actions are:
• Modify the business case. There is still no sustainable evidence for the simple
assertion that diversity is inevitably either good or bad for business.
• Look beyond the business case. Managers should focus on developing the
practices and managerial skills to translate diversity into positive organizational,
group, and individual results.
• Adopt a more analytical approach. Rather than trust that diversity will yield
better (or worse) results, practitioners should examine the conditions that result
in diverse teams outperforming or underperforming more homogeneous teams.
• Support experimentation and evaluation. Design and evaluate specific
interventions or experiments aimed at creating a positive link between diversity
• Train for group-process skills. Training programs must help managers
develop the leadership and group process skills needed to facilitate constructive
conflict and effective communication.
The extant scholarly research on diversity is missing a focused approach to
discovering how to deliver the benefits of diversity management. The reason for the
dearth of research on the business implications of diversity may be the myopic focus
on diversity-related inputs and outcomes, rather than diversity management as a
process (Carstens & De Kock, 2017). My review of the existing literature revealed
that the focus has not been moving in the direction of process. However, the literature does suggest that achieving the objective of learning how to make
diversity management a valuable skill will require a common definition, a common
construct, a consistent unit of study, and more use of empirical study methods
supported by researchers and practitioners alike (Guillaume et al., 2013). My study
began that effort.
I identified 12 individuals with experience managing diverse teams for the study.
They represented 10 distinct industry sectors including technology, professional
service, food and beverages, telecommunications, and others. The majority of the
participants (10 of 12) resided in the Atlanta area, though most of them had worked
in a variety of localities (both nationally and internationally). The participants
consisted of 4 males and 8 females. There were six Black and six White participants.
Four of the managers were 30-39 years of age, five were ages 40-49, three were
ages 50-59, and one was age 60+. Their tenure as managers ranged from 5 years to
over 25 years. Prescribed participant demographics appear in Table 1. In addition, I
noted that there were five managers of blue-collar (production) teams and seven
managers of white-collar (professional) teams. The managers also represented
organizations that ranged in size from less than one hundred to over fifty thousand.
Overall the mix of participants (see Table 1) met and even exceeded the diversity
requirements of the design.