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In the Heterogeneous Zone

Though diversity and globalization continue to be buzzwords these days, the behaviors they describe have real implications for the work team. Lata Dyaram, Research Scholar at the Indian Institute of Technology’s Department of Management Studies presented a paper co-authored with Dr. T.J. Kamalanabhan that seeks to illustrate the advantage, and disadvantages, of heterogeneity in work teams. What follows is a summary of the ideas she presented at ICCS 2004:

Though diversity and globalization continue to be buzzwords these days, the behaviors they describe have real implications for the work team. Lata Dyaram, Research Scholar at the Indian Institute of Technology’s Department of Management Studies presented a paper co-authored with Dr. T.J. Kamalanabhan that seeks to illustrate the advantage, and disadvantages, of heterogeneity in work teams. What follows is a summary of the ideas she presented at ICCS 2004:

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One of the most important challenges facing organizations is adapting to people who are different. While teams have become central to organizations, the big problems of coordination, conflict management, different backgrounds and skills continue to grow as teams become more diverse.

The major factors that contribute to a diverse work force are:

  • International Competition
  • Rapid Changes in Technology
  • Changes in Management Practices
  • Growing Int’l. businesses

Meaning of Diversity

The conceptualization of diversity ranges across various disciplines. It can refer to the collective mixture of human differences and similarities, or it can simply mean variety. In this case, diversity refers to the presence of differences.

2 Types of Diversity

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Surface: often called detectable diversity, this relates to traits that are readily detectable, such as race, gender, ethnicity, physical attributes, language, etc.

Deep level diversity: also known as functional diversity, this relates to differences that aren’t as readily apparent, such as educational background, beliefs, attitudes, values, skills etc. Deep level diversity is not as measurable and is perceived primarily through interaction.

Perspectives for contextualizing diversity in work teams

Similarity and Attraction: people with similar traits, both surface and deep level, will like and attract one another because those interactions tend to validate and give them confidence.

Social Identity Theory and Social Categorization Theory: people will tend to categorize themselves as different or similar to others based on explicit and implicit traits. This helps them establish positive identities by allowing them to make categorizations about themselves that are positive, and also by allowing them to avoid the type of uncertainty associated with people whom they empathize less.

Effects of Diversity in work teams

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People who worked in teams of detectable diversity — age, ethnicity, gender, etc.– tended to be less attached to their work, exhibited higher absenteeism, and lower intentions of remaining in their position. it was also found that on the whole, supervisors gave poorer evaluations to employees of different gender that their own. Age diversity was also correlated with higher employee turnover.

But while these finding seem to indicate that observable diversity creates less harmonious work teams, that is not indisputable. It is possible that the negative traits described correlate to unmeasured and less observable elements of diversity such as attitude, background and values, or, it is also possible that some relationship exists between surface and deep-level diversity that correlates to these results.

But on the other hand, deep-level diversity, such as attitude, expertise, education and background seem to correlate to increased ROI, service diversification, and sales growth. In management teams, these deep level diversity traits also appear to fuel internal communication and an increase in assets. But even so, high amount of functional diversity still seems to yield increase in turnover and problems associated with integration and coordination.

It should also be noted that deep level diversity (education, background, etc.) tends to be studied more in senior management levels, whereas surface diversity is studied more in lower organizational groups.

What these results show is that while there can be numerous benefits to high instances of functional (deep-level) diversity, it seems likely, though not certain, that highly detectable heterogeneity correlates to negative impacts on the work team.

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