Workplace diversity and inclusion: when does it thrive/work?

There’s an open secret in psychology research: most diversity and inclusion training programs are ineffective. Stand-alone workshops or lectures likely have limited if any long-term effect. Depending on their delivery, diversity and inclusion training can even cause backlash. When people feel forced to change their behavior or pressure to adopt new values, this often results in resistance and can harm workplace relations and productivity.

However, diversity and inclusion initiatives can work to create a thriving workplace when – implemented under specific conditions

Instead of enforcing mandated organizational policies or one-off trainings, this post will cover effective–and sometimes even fun–ways to foster a cohesive workplace over time. Once employees feel comfortable around each other, they can start channeling diversity and inclusion to improve their problem solving, creativity, and productivity. 

Throughout this post, we will teach you 3 steps to overcome diversity and inclusion challenges and take advantage of a diverse workplace to improve your personal productivity and your organization’s overall output. 

Specifically, we will cover how to:

  1. Overcome discomfort and facilitate effective interactions between diverse workers. 
    1. How to cultivate better relations between people from different backgrounds
    2. Benefits of team projects.
  2. Benefits of social bonding outside the workplace. Use alternative perspectives to enhance your problem solving and decision-making.
  3. Incorporate novel viewpoints into your own perspective to increase creative thinking.

Our team of psychology researchers reviewed hundreds of peer-reviewed journal articles from social, cognitive, psychophysiological, and industrial/organizational psychology to determine the best ways to take advantage of diverse workplaces.


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Step 1. Overcome discomfort and facilitate effective interactions between diverse workers.

We won’t sugarcoat it – interacting with people who come from different backgrounds or social groups can cause discomfort and anxiety. Interactions characterized by higher anxiety can result in ineffective communication and negative emotions. For example, one study found that White students show heightened cardiovascular signs of anxiety when interacting with ethnic minorities.

We experience this social anxiety because it is harder to understand socially different perspectives, we cannot predict their behaviors as well, and it may be harder to reach a consensus. Under the wrong circumstances, diversity without inclusion can create greater divisions in the workplace

However, quick or easy social agreement and consensus are not always beneficial, especially in the workplace. To begin to channel workplace diversity and inclusion for your personal benefit, first learn how to bypass potential social discomfort and anxiety caused from interacting with members of diverse social groups.

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How to cultivate better relations between people from different backgrounds

Employees and managers must work together to create a unified work environment where people feel comfortable and diverse contact can thrive. 

For optimal intergroup relations, four conditions should be met. 

Specifically, the contact between people from different backgrounds should be…

  1. Voluntary as opposed to a mandated organizational policy.
  2. Relatively long in duration. While there is no predetermined amount of time it takes for social bonding between opposing social groups to occur, the contact needs to be long enough (we recommend at least 30 minutes) to generate meaningful and authentic conversation. 
  3. Occur across several different (work-related and social) contexts. For example, these interactions can include… 
  • Work meetings
  • Conference calls
  • Interacting at a coworker’s birthday party 
  • Hanging out at an afterwork happy hour
  1. Involve some sort of cooperative interaction or common goal. This condition usually needs to be facilitated by managers and upper-level employees. Examples include…
  • Working together on a project
  • Helping a client together
  • Creating a presentation together
  • Organizing a workplace function together

These four conditions will not be accomplished overnight, but there should be many opportunities for employees to start engaging with each other. If you are a manager reading this post, try not force the interactions between your employees, but instead create social and work-related situations that encourage potential bonding between social groups.

Benefits of team projects

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Working together to reach a common goal provides a great opportunity for employees to witness the value of different perspectives, while also creating cooperation between different social groups. Some researchers propose that organizations should create functional teams, and give each team, depending on the specific function, their own group identity.

The team identity should be based on the superordinate goal given to the team such as the Marketing Team or the Technology Team. Team identities increase helping behaviors and facilitate positive evaluations of each other.

Managers should remind employees of their common interest in the success of the organization, and how the combined effort of all the employees is what creates that success. For instance, managers might highlight how well different “teams” are doing, or how each individual’s output improves the overall company’s bottom line.


Step 2. Benefits of social bonding outside of the workplace

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Afterwork, voluntary, social hangouts create relaxed environments for employees to observe each other’s behavior outside of work-related contexts that might be stressful and competitive. Casual settings provide a great opportunity for authentic communication that lead to the disclosure of personal and unique information. Such authentic communication in turn leads to more comfortable relationships. 

Employers and employees can take advantage of improving work relationships outside the workplace with employer-sponsored events, informal employee-led events, and self-disclosure.

Employer-sponsored events. These provide an opportunity for people from diverse backgrounds to get to know each other on a more personal level. If possible, group people together who don’t already know each other well. Consider sponsoring unique relaxed events for social bonding during or after work, including 

  • Wine and cheese tastings,
  • Tours of local nature reserves or museums, or
  • Casual BBQs or picnics where family is invited.

Informal events – game nights! Individual employees also can facilitate informal social interactions. One fun, science-backed way to bring diverse people together is through sharing personal experiences and working toward a common goal.

Step 1. Organize a social function with your fellow employees. Try to invite everyone in a relevant work group.

Step 2. Pick a game or two to base the social function around. Make sure you pick a casual game where you can learn about your fellow employees in a fun and relaxed setting. Avoid sport-type games. Here are some great options:

  • Team Trivia
  • Taboo (boardgame)
  • Imaginiff? (boardgame)
  • Table Topics (boardgame)

Step 3. When you play games that require teams (Trivia) or pairs (Taboo) make sure to create diverse teams and pair up employees that don’t know each other that well.

Step 4. When you play games that require self-disclosure (Table Topics) or reveal your perspectives (Imaginiff?), take this opportunity to learn unique information about your fellow employees. As you learn new information, try to notice your common identities. Finding common ground presents an ideal bonding opportunity. For example:

  • Are you both only children?
  •  Did you both move countries for work?
  • Are you both bilingual?
  • Are you both “dog-people?”

Playing games presents a great opportunity to learn new information, generate authentic conversations, induce trust, and disconfirm pre-existing assumptions about fellow employees. 

Self-disclosure throughout. Regardless of the situation, try opening up around fellow employees and asking questions that go beyond impersonal small talk. Self-disclosure induces trust and increases liking of the other person. Disclosing personal information works best if it is reciprocated, so strive for a balance between learning and sharing.

To facilitate diversity and inclusion, consider getting more personal and talking about…

  • Funny or embarrassing stories from your childhood
  • Workplace stressors
  • Nervous habits or pet-peeves
  • Your opinions on movies or music

Use alternative perspectives to enhance your problem solving and decision-making.

Once you start engaging with diverse employees on a regular basis, you will start reaping the benefits of comfortably working with people from different backgrounds.

Before we get into how diversity and inclusion can improve business functioning, let’s quickly take a look at the basic science behind what makes for good problem solving and decision-making. A consistent finding is that people come up with the best solutions when they:

  1. Consider a broad base of information 
  2. Consider unique perspectives on the same problem
  3. Think of many possible alternatives
  4. Compare and contrast those alternatives

Diversity and inclusion within the workplace can help improve all of these factors.

Specifically, confronting alternative views can improve these factors through spurring new ways of processing information. In other words, discussing ideas and opinions, especially dissenting opinions, with a person from a different social group (“out-group member”) elicits more cognitive effort to prove your point. This yields numerous benefits.

Why does it take more cognitive effort to argue with an outgroup-member, and why would that be a good thing?

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Because you assume that similar others already share your perspective, you do not feel the drive to convince them as much as an out-group member. But when you assume others have a different perspective, this spurs you to develop more persuasive arguments.

The anticipation of alternative viewpoints fuels cognitive effort to generate stronger arguments and more well-rounded opinions. This process of anticipation and thoroughly imagining how to combat a dissenting perspective, fosters better arguments, increases diligence, and creative thinking.

Follow these four steps to use diverse perspectives to your advantage.

  1. Next time you are planning a presentation, writing a report, or generating project ideas, present your plans or ideas to someone who comes from a different background than you.
  2. Before you bounce your ideas off the person or people, anticipate their counter-points. Try to thoroughly think about how their views and ideas would differ from yours, and then incorporate these new ideas into your presentation.
  3. Then actually present your ideas to the person or people from a different social group. Really listen to their feedback. Take note of their ideas and why they are presenting different solutions or opinions than you. Understand their rationale and why it differs from yours. Don’t be afraid to have them talk you through their opinions.
  4. Try incorporating their opinions and ideas into your presentation or project.

The process of resolving conflicting opinions can generate novel ideas and more thorough assessments.

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Step 3. Incorporate novel viewpoints into your own perspective to increase creative thinking.

Creativity refers to one’s ability to think about numerous alternatives (fluency), generate novel solutions (originality), and think beyond the obvious (flexibility). Interacting with people from diverse backgrounds fosters creative thinking through exposure to new ways of thinking and living.

Take being around people from different cultures. Culture teaches us structured routines to coordinate social behavior for cohesive daily living (i.e., social scripts). When we are only exposed to one culture, our ideas and thoughts may be constrained, because we only know how to think and process the world around us through one social script.

Research on bicultural people (Chinese American) compared to people who had only lived in one culture (Anglo American) found that bicultural people have a more complex and dynamic understanding of cultural differences. 

For example, it is customary to sit in the back of a taxi in the US, but in countries like New Zealand and Australia, sitting in the back of a taxi is perceived as impolite and non-egalitarian. Exposure to different cultures provide new social scripts that contain unconventional routines, novel knowledge, and alternative ways of processing information.

In other words, being exposed to new cultures helps people get out of their structured routines that constrain creative thinking.

So how do we start incorporating unconventional viewpoints into our personal perspective from channeling diversity and inclusion?

Step 1. First, start spending more time with people from different backgrounds than you. When you spend time with people from different social groups, learn as much as you can about their background, social scripts, past experiences, and values. Of course you do not have to agree with them–simply aim to learn and better understand them.

Step 2. Notice the differences between your beliefs, traditions, and experiences.

Step 3. Notice the similarities between your beliefs, traditions, and experiences. All human cultures share universal similarities even if their norms and traditions seem foreign at first.

Step 4. Think about how their life experiences may influence their behaviors and attitudes. For example, if you are interacting with a person who grew up in a low-income household, how might those experiences influence their attitudes as an adult? Remember it is important to learn about their actual lived-experiences and not make assumptions about their life.

The process of evaluating differences and similarities between opposing social groups or social scripts can promote cognitive complexity, because it forces you to explore how different values and norms may be related and how they differentially influence behaviors. 

Recap of workplace diversity and inclusion: when does it thrive/work?

In summary, diversity and inclusion initiatives don’t always work. With the right ongoing practices, workplace diversity and inclusion has the potential to enhance problem-solving, decision-making, and creativity. To better reap these rewards from diversity and inclusion and improve your bottom line, try to:

  1. Overcome hurdles to effective communication and cultivate social bonding by creating optimal intergroup relations and start playing more games. For example, spend time with employees from different social groups across a range of social settings. Create social events where employees can work together as teams in casual settings.
  2. Use alternative perspectives to enhance your problem solving and decision-making. Anticipate counterpoints and think about the best ways to address alternative perspectives. Share your ideas and opinions with people from different backgrounds and incorporate their feedback into your presentations and projects.
  3. Learn to incorporate novel viewpoints into your own perspective to increase creativity. Learn about the norms and experiences of people who come from different backgrounds. Evaluate the differences and similarities between their beliefs and your beliefs.