Be yourself by letting go of your self: 'coherent heterogeneity' at work
'I never knew anybody . . . who found life simple. I think a life or a time looks simple when you leave out the details.' ― Ursula K. Le Guin, The Birthday of the World and Other Stories
In the immediate aftermath of the UK goverment's 'Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities' report, public discourse on diversity, inclusion, social justice, and matters relating to social cohesion in the UK seems deeply polarised. But the quality of the conversations within organizations can and should be maintained, if they use an evidence-based approach.
In this post, I explore some of the implications of 'aggregate personality', and 'person-organization fit' for diversity and inclusion.
Evidence suggests that a degree of psychological congruence - or ‘fit’ - amongst members of an organization contributes to their ability to collaborate, to identify with an organization’s values, and achieve targets. This can be measured, for example, through ‘aggregate personality’. This is an aggregate measure – basically like an average or a summary group profile - of individual personality profiles. It can also be measured through ‘person-organization fit’.
The idea of a person 'fitting' into a team or organization has heavily influenced selection methods for decades. In a large-scale correlational study, covering 39,966 people in 167 different organizations across thirty-one countries, aggregate personality does correlate with the financial performance of firms. These results imply that financial performance can be improved with high congruence or fit between the personalities of members. This raises some important questions about various kinds of diversity within organizations. Differences in personality do not necessarily correlate heavily with other domains of difference, such as race, ethnicity, or gender. But it is fair to say that across cultures, there are patterns of preference that we cannot ignore. And once we start talking about peoples' 'values', we enter even more culturally complex - but still manageable - territory.
The evidence for the performance benefits of diversity show a generally compelling picture of the impact of diversity in an organization or a work group, while still underlining the importance of cohesion. Research suggests that organizations need to ensure adequate cohesion, and at the very least, some internal coherence, while seeking to benefit from difference. To unlock the potential benefits of diversity, and to demonstrate inclusion, organizations benefit from common ground, such as a shared mission or sense of purpose.
A need for a degree of psychological congruence amongst members of an organization does not necessarily preclude the need also to encourage and harness the value of all forms of diversity – even if this might sound contradictory. This is an area of natural and healthy tension.
If we apply a complexity theory lens to this tension, then it is clear that diversity and inclusion is not merely complicated; it is truly complex territory. Dave Snowden's 'Cynefin' framework for 'sense-making', clarifies the distinctions between issues which are complicated, and those which are complex. Snowden's work suggests that 'coherent heterogeneity' can emerge out of complex situations. The reconciliation of coherence and heterogeneity captures the essence of much organization design and development effort.
Complexity theory leads us to the possibility that we can reconcile the dilemma of enhancing diversity while building human cohesion across our differences. This requires concerted practical effort from all parties, attention to current reality, and real-time learning in a spirit of discovery. Failure to talk about and to treat complex sociological issues with the respect they deserve, too dogmatically, or in too linear a fashion, easily results in a state of chaos, confusion, inter-group conflict, helplessness and collective paralysis.
Coming back to personality research, findings on aggregate-personality indicate that those with clear potential to progress (which must be ascertained through robust assessment methods) need to evidence they can function adequately within certain behavioural constraints, or boundaries, that are known to support organizational reputation and performance. These parameters are generally very context-specific, but there is research which suggests there may be personality traits with universal benefits for performance.
To try to simplify the nature of the tensions inherent to this subject, I will pick up again on a jazz metaphor I have used before. Great jazz ensembles thrive because each member may bring something unique to the music. Jazz musicians make use of their freedom to express themselves, and to experiment, while always being attuned to others, as well as to their audience. The music that emerges can be creative, unpredictable, and beautiful. An ensemble that works well together creates music that feels as if it is more than the sum of its parts. To be part of any musical ensemble, musicians are being themselves, partly by letting go of themselves.
Jazz musicians at work give us an example of a creative medium in which diversity and congruence do not only coexist; they almost magically reinforce each other when they are both allowed to thrive. I have worked with cross-cultural and multi-ethnic groups all over the world. I find there is something about seeing apparently very diverse groups of people working on something together, that highlights what they have in common, just as much as what makes them different. Sometimes a deep sense of interconnection and common ground arises out of their differences.
I have frequently encountered the tension between various types of diversity on the one hand, and a collective organizational personality, culture or values, on the other. This tension is manageable when we all remind ourselves of our basic, shared humanity, and mutual aspirations. The power of both diversity and synergy is at the heart of selection, high potential identification, and leadership development, as well as succession planning.
Yes, there are business, legal, and moral imperatives not to sacrifice fairness or organizational justice at the altar of ‘fit’. We should not interpret or describe 'values' in ways which are likely to exclude certain groups, or which are indirectly preferential to people who tend to share characteristics which are irrelevant to the work. Over time, companies can easily take covert and overt short cuts in their talent attraction and management practices that then lead to 'adverse impact' on certain groups. Eliminating unfairness, promoting diversity, and empowering under-represented people of every type, requires practitioners also to develop an overarching sense of purpose, and a foundation of trust in organizations. It is this complex interplay of diversity and inclusion, with areas of congruence and cohesion that is likely to define a great employer, and make a country or city liveable, even aspirational.
We can see that any national conversation about diversity, and 'disparities', or sources of injustice, is naturally extremely sensitive. The questions that come up relate to individual and collective identity, and reveal our conflicting narratives.
Agile organizations are likely to respond to this context in a way that is nuanced, emotionally intelligent, ethical and pragmatic. Possibly the most technically interesting and ethically challenging work to do as an occupational psychologist in workplaces right now, is to continue to help clients harness diversity and difference in an evidence-based manner, as they transform how they work. We can help each organization work towards an inclusive and equitable future that is rich with creative possibilities, while building its operational and cultural core.
In what ways do you think an organization can build an identity which is adequately differentiated and coherent, while being creative, inclusive, and diverse?
See also -
Austin, R.D. & Pisano, G.P. (2017). Neurodiversity as a competitive advantage. Harvard Business Review, May-June 2017, pp. 96–103.
Carton, A.M. & Cummings, J.N. (2013). The impact of subgroup type and subgroup configurational properties on work team performance. Journal of Applied Psychology, 98, pp. 732–758.
Commission on Race and Ethnic Dispartities (2021). The Report. Available at https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-report-of-the-commission-on-race-and-ethnic-disparities
Ely, R.J., Padavic, I., & Thomas, D. A. (2012). Racial diversity, racial asymmetries, and team learning environment: Effects on performance. Organization Studies, 33, pp. 341–362.
Schneider, B. & Bartram, D. (2017). Aggregate personality and organizational competitive advantage. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 90, pp. 461–480. DOI: 10.1111/joop.12180
Silzer, R. & Church, A.H. (2009). The pearls and perils of identifying potential. Industrial and Organizational Psychology, 2, pp. 377–412. DOI: 10.1111/j.1754-9434.2009.01163x
Snowden, D. & Friends. (2021). (Eds., Greenberg, R. & Bertsch, B.). Cynefin: weaving sense-making into the fabric of our world. Singapore: Cogntive Edge.
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