Many companies are paying increased attention to workplace diversity — issues such as how to increase
diversity, how to foster sensitivity to it, and how to manage a diverse workforce. But, according to MIT
Sloan School of Management professor Evan Apfelbaum, managers should also factor in issues associated
with a related problem: workplace homogeneity. In this interview with MIT Sloan Management Review
editorial director Martha E. Mangelsdorf, Apfelbaum explains why diverse groups are sometimes able to
reach better decisions than homogenous groups. Recent research, including Apfelbaum's own, has found,
for example, that racially homogeneous groups are less rigorous in their decision-making — and make
more mistakes — than groups composed of people with racially diverse backgrounds.
For example, Apfelbaum notes that in a study that compared trading practices of homogeneous and
diverse groups in both Asia and the U.S., members of the racially homogeneous groups showed a greater
willingness to pay more than things were worth. What's more, people within such groups were "more likely
to copy another person's mistake — presumably assuming that the mistake had some value that they just
didn't understand." According to Apfelbaum, this finding suggests "that there is something fundamental
about working with similar versus different others that affects individuals' decision-making." Other studies
have similarly indicated that diverse groups have fewer blind spots. In diverse groups, Apfelbaum says,
people are more likely to "come to an independent assessment of what they think to be the case."
In the interview, Apfelbaum observes that "diversity can be both advantageous and complicated in
the workplace and in decision-making groups." Many people in social settings gravitate toward people
with similar backgrounds, and research has also shown that diverse groups can experience conflict and
mistrust. However, conflict isn't necessarily a negative. In one study, for example, different groups were
asked to review identical information before reaching their recommendations. The diverse groups
tended to consider more perspectives than the homogeneous ones and were more accurate in both their
decisions and their assessments of their performance. The homogeneous groups had more confidence
in their decisions, but those decisions were actually less accurate.