Lean In: Is there such a thing as too much diversity?

By Jolene Tan (MBA Exec 2014)  Thursday, 11 August 2016  Features

Diversity is a wonderful concept, in theory. The idea of this melting pot of different cultures, genders, backgrounds, races, generations and people with varying degrees of abilities presents as a veritable utopia – a curious existence where despite all our apparent differences, everything still seems to work.

But in reality is it a case of too many cooks spoil the broth? Perhaps it’s possible that the vast range of individual backgrounds, knowledge, experience and maturity may be so divergent that it’s potentially not so conducive to achieving a desired and coherent outcome, and/or may lead to some watered down version of ‘homogenisation’, leaving individuals feeling as though they have no voice.

I recently had the privilege of serving jury duty and if you want the ultimate test of diversity – then look no further than this experience. The jury selection process itself is designed to encourage diversity by utilising a randomised process to select individuals between the ages of 18-74 currently registered on the electoral role to be considered. From there, jurors are again assigned to a case on a random basis, ultimately resulting in 12 individuals with no common ground except for the fact that their numbers were drawn out of a lucky dip system.

What follows next is the ultimate test of speed team formation as the group is quickly thrown into the dynamics of forming, norming, storming and performing (perhaps fast forwarding on some stages), and with a pretty significant responsibility and the requirement to deliver a unanimous decision at the end of the case. In most professional situations we generally don’t face such a compressed time frame of only a few days to deliberate on a decision with a bunch of strangers without any background context, however the task of ‘cat-herding’ numerous different opinions into one voice is no less challenging even given the luxury of time.

We all want to be seen as good corporate citizens by encouraging participation from all walks of life. But without the appropriate social infrastructure for existing employees to understand how to help integrate, or alternatively adapt to accommodate diversity, the risk is that this may just turn into a token exercise. When this happens, we lose the richness of results that is the intended outcome of promoting diversity within a business and ultimately within our broader society.

Hence, the challenges of integrating diversity of opinions whilst still respecting the individuality of contributors into an established (or even a non-established) ecosystem starts to become a fine balancing act. Everyone is bound to have a point of view but how can we accommodate these without discouraging any disparate views that may be contrary to the majority? Is there a way we can really throw away our own individual prejudices and biases in the name of the greater good…and if so, is this then defeating the purpose of diversity? I obviously don’t have the answers but pose the question to those that might find themselves in a similar situation.

I know that I for one, am certainly a believer in diversity and will do my best to fly the flag and encourage the benefits of multiple perspectives although having seen what it’s like to be in a room of 11 vs 1, I know it’s not always going to be easy for everyone’s voice to be heard.

Lean In is an alumni authored column that focuses on themes about work/life balance, women in leadership roles, workplace (in)equality, ambition and opportunities. Lean In provides alumni with a space to candidly discuss workplace issues that many think about but rarely discuss publicly.

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