How organizations can embrace diversity to boost creativity

Creativity is of vital importance in the modern world. Does diversity help promote it?

Does diversity help promote creativity? (Image: Getty Images/Big Think)

This series on diversity and inclusion is sponsored by Amway, which supports a prosperous economy through having a diverse workplace. Companies committed to diversity and inclusion are better equipped to innovate and drive performance. For more information, visit amwayglobal.com/our-story.


Creativity is a vital resource in the modern business world. In an IBM survey of more than a thousand CEOs, creativity was ranked as the most important quality in a modern business leader. In another study, creativity was found to be an essential requirement for entrepreneurship.

The need for a creative workplace is self-evident. How to promote creativity is less obvious. One method that is often considered is increasing the diversity of the workplace. Intuition suggests that this should be effective, as a plethora of worldviews and life experiences should promote a variety of responses to problems. But is this true?

(Source: IBM Global CEO Study, 'Capitalizing on Complexity')

Diversity and creativity

There has been surprisingly little research on this subject despite the apparent interest in promoting creativity and learning about how diverse environments affect us. There are two extensive studies, however, that explore the relationship between creativity and diversity for both individuals and organizations.

The first study by Jackson Lu, Paul Eastwick, and several others examined the effect that intercultural dating had on creativity. Over the course of several experiments, it was shown that a history of intercultural dating could predict how well a person would score on a variety of creativity tests. A second experiment showed the effect was not a mere correlation, as subjects performed better on the same tests when they had spent time reflecting on an intercultural relationship rather than on an intracultural one.

The last part of the study focused on intercultural friendships rather than romantic relationships and found that more frequent contact with friends of another culture was a predictor for whether the subject would display traits of entrepreneurship or workplace innovation, providing further evidence that close intercultural relationships can promote creative thinking.

The authors concluded that their study provided “the first empirical evidence that intercultural romantic relationships and friendships can enhance creativity by facilitating cultural learning.” They suggested that the mechanism for improved creativity is the mental flexibility that consistent interactions with someone from a culture that differs from your own often requires. 

Getting a second opinion

The second study, by Ceren Ozgen, Jacques Poot, and Peter Nijkamp, focused on the organizational effects of diversity and sought to determine if a diverse organization was a creative one. After deciding that the literature up to that point had shown mixed results, the researchers chose to analyze data comparing workplace demographics to innovation in Dutch companies.

While their findings did show that a young, highly skilled workforce located near competing firms tended to be more innovative, the diversity factor was insignificant though positive. Furthermore, if employees from the same country tended to stick together rather than interacting with those from different places, the effect of diversity on innovation was negative. After adding a factor for fixed effects, a tool often used in statistics to identify underlying variables, the only significant element of innovation in large firms that remained was the presence of high-skilled employees.

The authors concluded that we do not find supporting empirical evidence for firms benefitting from cultural diversity of employment once reverse causality and unobserved firm heterogeneity are both taken into consideration.” So, is the jury still out?

Despite the disagreement of these studies, some things can still be said about a diverse workplace. Both studies agree that the depth of relationships is important and that no positive effect exists when there is no meaningful interaction between people of differing cultures. It also remains possible that the second experiment did not focus on types of workplace creativity that were positively affected by diversity, as the authors suggested. As always, more research is needed.

So what can an organization do to take advantage of the findings of these studies?

How organizations can benefit from diversity

The authors of the first study suggest that the benefits of intercultural exchange can be harnessed at the organizational level in two steps. As these suggestions are geared towards improving the individual, the findings of the second study do not rule out the possibility of later benefits reaching the workplace. 

“The first step for organizations is to cultivate an intercultural environment by opening the door to individuals from different cultures. For example, to enhance cultural diversity in the workplace, organizations could develop more exchange programs between offices in different countries. In addition, organizations could provide more financial and logistical support for international employees in the challenging process of obtaining work visas and residency permits.”

They suggest a step two that is a little more involved.

“Having ensured an adequate level of cultural diversity for intercultural interactions, the second step for organizations is to nurture close relationships among employees from different cultures. When intercultural relationships are mismanaged, they can breed discomfort, mistrust, and conflict due to cultural barriers and differences which explains why people generally favor intracultural romantic relationships and friendships in the first place. Instead of forcing international employees to suppress their cultural values and assimilate to the host culture, organizations could encourage inclusive multiculturalism by highlighting the benefits of cultural differences for both cultural in-groups and out-groups. Firms could facilitate deep intercultural relationships through shared activities, both inside and outside the workplace. At work, managers could assign foreign and domestic employees to work together on tasks that require cooperation, thereby reducing intergroup bias and barriers."

The authors suggest that individuals should “go out of their comfort zone to develop meaningful and long-lasting relationships with individuals from other cultures. While not everyone has the resources and opportunity to go abroad, they could strive to develop meaningful intercultural relationships via meet-ups (e.g., language exchange programs) within their home city.”

They remind us, however, that this effect only works with deep interpersonal connections and not with passing acquaintances. If you want the benefits from this effect, you have to work for it. 

While it may not be the case that a workplace with greater diversity is necessarily a more creative one, it is the case that people with greater intercultural exposure and more committed intercultural relationships are more creative. Steps that encourage these relationships are likely to pay off in the long run. In a world where creativity and cultural literacy are ever more important, it certainly can’t hurt.

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Are we really addicted to technology?

Fear that new technologies are addictive isn't a modern phenomenon.

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This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink, which has partnered with the Build for Tomorrow podcast to go inside new episodes each month. Subscribe here to learn more about the crazy, curious things from history that shaped us, and how we can shape the future.

In many ways, technology has made our lives better. Through smartphones, apps, and social media platforms we can now work more efficiently and connect in ways that would have been unimaginable just decades ago.

But as we've grown to rely on technology for a lot of our professional and personal needs, most of us are asking tough questions about the role technology plays in our own lives. Are we becoming too dependent on technology to the point that it's actually harming us?

In the latest episode of Build for Tomorrow, host and Entrepreneur Editor-in-Chief Jason Feifer takes on the thorny question: is technology addictive?

Popularizing medical language

What makes something addictive rather than just engaging? It's a meaningful distinction because if technology is addictive, the next question could be: are the creators of popular digital technologies, like smartphones and social media apps, intentionally creating things that are addictive? If so, should they be held responsible?

To answer those questions, we've first got to agree on a definition of "addiction." As it turns out, that's not quite as easy as it sounds.

If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people.

LIAM SATCHELL UNIVERSITY OF WINCHESTER

"Over the past few decades, a lot of effort has gone into destigmatizing conversations about mental health, which of course is a very good thing," Feifer explains. It also means that medical language has entered into our vernacular —we're now more comfortable using clinical words outside of a specific diagnosis.

"We've all got that one friend who says, 'Oh, I'm a little bit OCD' or that friend who says, 'Oh, this is my big PTSD moment,'" Liam Satchell, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Winchester and guest on the podcast, says. He's concerned about how the word "addiction" gets tossed around by people with no background in mental health. An increased concern surrounding "tech addiction" isn't actually being driven by concern among psychiatric professionals, he says.

"These sorts of concerns about things like internet use or social media use haven't come from the psychiatric community as much," Satchell says. "They've come from people who are interested in technology first."

The casual use of medical language can lead to confusion about what is actually a mental health concern. We need a reliable standard for recognizing, discussing, and ultimately treating psychological conditions.

"If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people," Satchell says. That's why, according to Satchell, the psychiatric definition of addiction being based around experiencing distress or significant family, social, or occupational disruption needs to be included in any definition of addiction we may use.

Too much reading causes... heat rashes?

But as Feifer points out in his podcast, both popularizing medical language and the fear that new technologies are addictive aren't totally modern phenomena.

Take, for instance, the concept of "reading mania."

In the 18th Century, an author named J. G. Heinzmann claimed that people who read too many novels could experience something called "reading mania." This condition, Heinzmann explained, could cause many symptoms, including: "weakening of the eyes, heat rashes, gout, arthritis, hemorrhoids, asthma, apoplexy, pulmonary disease, indigestion, blocking of the bowels, nervous disorder, migraines, epilepsy, hypochondria, and melancholy."

"That is all very specific! But really, even the term 'reading mania' is medical," Feifer says.

"Manic episodes are not a joke, folks. But this didn't stop people a century later from applying the same term to wristwatches."

Indeed, an 1889 piece in the Newcastle Weekly Courant declared: "The watch mania, as it is called, is certainly excessive; indeed it becomes rabid."

Similar concerns have echoed throughout history about the radio, telephone, TV, and video games.

"It may sound comical in our modern context, but back then, when those new technologies were the latest distraction, they were probably really engaging. People spent too much time doing them," Feifer says. "And what can we say about that now, having seen it play out over and over and over again? We can say it's common. It's a common behavior. Doesn't mean it's the healthiest one. It's just not a medical problem."

Few today would argue that novels are in-and-of-themselves addictive — regardless of how voraciously you may have consumed your last favorite novel. So, what happened? Were these things ever addictive — and if not, what was happening in these moments of concern?

People are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm.

JASON FEIFER HOST OF BUILD FOR TOMORROW

There's a risk of pathologizing normal behavior, says Joel Billieux, professor of clinical psychology and psychological assessment at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, and guest on the podcast. He's on a mission to understand how we can suss out what is truly addictive behavior versus what is normal behavior that we're calling addictive.

For Billieux and other professionals, this isn't just a rhetorical game. He uses the example of gaming addiction, which has come under increased scrutiny over the past half-decade. The language used around the subject of gaming addiction will determine how behaviors of potential patients are analyzed — and ultimately what treatment is recommended.

"For a lot of people you can realize that the gaming is actually a coping (mechanism for) social anxiety or trauma or depression," says Billieux.

"Those cases, of course, you will not necessarily target gaming per se. You will target what caused depression. And then as a result, If you succeed, gaming will diminish."

In some instances, a person might legitimately be addicted to gaming or technology, and require the corresponding treatment — but that treatment might be the wrong answer for another person.

"None of this is to discount that for some people, technology is a factor in a mental health problem," says Feifer.

"I am also not discounting that individual people can use technology such as smartphones or social media to a degree where it has a genuine negative impact on their lives. But the point here to understand is that people are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm."

Behavioral addiction is a notoriously complex thing for professionals to diagnose — even more so since the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the book professionals use to classify mental disorders, introduced a new idea about addiction in 2013.

"The DSM-5 grouped substance addiction with gambling addiction — this is the first time that substance addiction was directly categorized with any kind of behavioral addiction," Feifer says.

"And then, the DSM-5 went a tiny bit further — and proposed that other potentially addictive behaviors require further study."

This might not sound like that big of a deal to laypeople, but its effect was massive in medicine.

"Researchers started launching studies — not to see if a behavior like social media use can be addictive, but rather, to start with the assumption that social media use is addictive, and then to see how many people have the addiction," says Feifer.

Learned helplessness

The assumption that a lot of us are addicted to technology may itself be harming us by undermining our autonomy and belief that we have agency to create change in our own lives. That's what Nir Eyal, author of the books Hooked and Indistractable, calls 'learned helplessness.'

"The price of living in a world with so many good things in it is that sometimes we have to learn these new skills, these new behaviors to moderate our use," Eyal says. "One surefire way to not do anything is to believe you are powerless. That's what learned helplessness is all about."

So if it's not an addiction that most of us are experiencing when we check our phones 90 times a day or are wondering about what our followers are saying on Twitter — then what is it?

"A choice, a willful choice, and perhaps some people would not agree or would criticize your choices. But I think we cannot consider that as something that is pathological in the clinical sense," says Billieux.

Of course, for some people technology can be addictive.

"If something is genuinely interfering with your social or occupational life, and you have no ability to control it, then please seek help," says Feifer.

But for the vast majority of people, thinking about our use of technology as a choice — albeit not always a healthy one — can be the first step to overcoming unwanted habits.

For more, be sure to check out the Build for Tomorrow episode here.

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