The Power of Diversity

Why You Should Hire People Not Like You

by Peter Carolane

[6 minute read]

 
Leaders often build teams with people who are just like them. This occurs because of an “unconscious bias” that causes leaders to prefer people who share similar cognitive and identity qualities to them. You can see this reflected on some church websites, where the staff team is a gang of matching married couples in their early 30s, or in the board of (too) many organisations with majority men. (As of June 2019, female representation on the boards of the ASX 200 has stalled at 29.7 percent – I’d shudder to think of the gender statistics on church boards.)
 
When I started Mustard schools ministry in the early 2000s I unintentionally recruited a homogeneous staff team: white, under 30, Anglican, and private school educated. We essentially had a team of Peter’s friends. This had some benefits. There was great chemistry, and we looked young and “relevant” to the private school chaplains. But our lack of diversity came with several drawbacks. None of us had much formal theological education, so our strategic thinking about mission and evangelism was limited. Having no asian staff meant that in those early years, Mustard struggled to connect with the growing and influential asian christian student community. In fact, for the first few years, all the Mustard staff and most of the board members attended St Hilary’s Kew, even though the organisation was non-denominational and seeking to work across all of Melbourne. Our Melbourne church networks were limited. To summarise, we had focus but lacked depth.
 
Ethicist Katherine W. Phillips from the Columbia Business School would describe our team at Mustard as having a lack of “social category diversity” – she is talking about race, gender and age, but also more surprising and subtle categories:
 
For instance, minimal distinctions such as an ostensible preference for a type of painting or for wearing a red shirt versus a blue shirt can be used to examine the effects of social category diversity, allowing for a connection of this research to the long tradition of social categorization and social identity research dating back to the 1970s. The critical feature here is that people use these social characteristics to tell themselves that some subset of the group of people is “like me” at a deeper level, in terms of what we know and how we feel about problems we are facing, and that some of them are not.
 
We see this “in group/out group” subtle (and not-so-subtle) categorising occur in Christian ministry teams. What Bible college did they attend? Do they raise their hands in worship? Do they wear clerical shirt and robe on Sundays? Is her hair straightened? Did I see them at Surrender conference? Did they do Arrow? Phillips' (uncontroversially) argues that it is part of our deep, unconscious, cognitive processes to sort and categorise, and separate and distinguish people and herd together with those most similar to us. But in leadership, we do this to our disadvantage.
 
British philosopher and economist John Stuart Mill wrote back in 1848 in Principles of Political Economy, “It is hardly possible to overrate the value … of placing human beings in contact with persons dissimilar to themselves, and with modes of thought and action unlike those with which they are familiar.… Such communication has always been, and is peculiarly in the present age, one of the primary sources of progress.” Mill was presenting a framework for international trade, claiming that economic, intellectual and moral growth can be promoted in a country, by exposing it to the products and people from foreign countries.
 
More recently, social scientist Scott Page has published in The Diversity Bonus (2017) [1] empirical evidence to demonstrate how diversity in organisations (from boardrooms, to hollywood, and classrooms) benefit the performance of the organisation. Identity diversity (race, gender, age etc…) and cognitive diversity (experience, education levels, personality types etc…) offer a variety of perspectives and approaches to problem solving, all serving to strengthen the team’s overall performance. Moreover, diversity adds an important level of sophistication in the team’s ability to work in a multicultural world. On the other hand, diversity does also bring a challenge as people from different backgrounds and personality types often clash through misunderstanding. This is one major reason why leaders with high cultural intelligence (CQ) perform more effectively, because they are more capable of harnessing the team diversity for good. 
 
In any discussion about valuing diversity in recruitment, we have to acknowledge a trap in our thinking. The annoying diversity Nazi can easily take potshots on the sideline, criticising an organisation for not having enough of this or that type of person. The reality is, while we may have a diversity goal, our pool from which to recruit will be limited by many circumstantial factors.
 
The three questions we should challenge ourselves with are:
 
1.   Does our team have a balanced representation of the congregation/community we are working with?
2.   Are there identity or cognitive types that our team is lacking, or that could benefit our team?
3.    Are there any identity or cognitive types that really should be in our team?
 
In relation to this third question, if you are running a ministry relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and you don’t have any Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in your team, then let me suggest you have a major problem. And more to the point, your ministry will be severely weakened by this lack of representation.
 
You’ll be pleased to know that I have made some improvement in my pursuit of diversity in teams – although I still have a way to go. In my current church staff team at Merri Creek Anglican, we have equal gender representation on the staff team and the church board. The staff are all anglo-saxon, but from different church backgrounds (Dutch Reformed, Pentecostal, Churches of Christ, Anglican), and have a broad age spread. Our children’s minister often surprises people because we have bucked the trend by hiring a male in his late 50s. He is a former primary school principal and brings a level of educational sophistication and experience often lacking in children’s ministry. If I was to take my own advice, my next hire might be someone who is very skilled in project management, thus bringing some greater cognitive diversity.
 
As you pray seeking guidance for who to employ in the future, perhaps meditate on John’s vision of the New Heavens and Earth which tells us that difference does not necessarily become erased in the eschaton. John saw “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands” (Revelation 7:9).


[1] Scott Page, The Diversity Bonus: How Great Teams Pay Off in the Knowledge Economy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017), p. 228; see also Katherine Phillips, S.Y. Kim-Jun, and S. Shim. "The value of diversity in organizations: A social psychological perspective." In Social Psychology and Organizations, Ed. David De Cremer, R. van Dick and K. Murnighan. New York: Routledge, 2011, p. 255.