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03/2 2011

Why Diversity Can Backfire in Corporate Boards

A recent research study by Drs. Jean-Francois Manzone, Paul Strebel, and Jean-Louis Barboux proposes that when it comes to diversity and corporate boards, it is possible to end-up with too much of a good thing.

In a Wall Street Journal article summarizing their work, the authors concede that the many benefits of diversity – having people from different background and perspectives collaborating on problems, bringing unique knowledge to bear to a problem, and creating unique solutions does hold broad appeal.

However, the authors propose that most corporate boards never see such desired benefits.  Some of this is attributed to simple human nature – while diversity is prized, people can feel baffled or threatened by persons with different views and backgrounds. As such, some of the board members with the most unique perspectives find themselves isolated or marginalized, and ultimately frustrated.

The researchers suggest the following steps for minimizing conflict in among Board members:

  • Choose new members carefully (think about their personality, in addition to their perspective)
  • Assist newcomers (make sure they are introduced properly, and take steps to ensure that the have the opportunity to make a positive first impression)
  • Don’t give in to get along (make sure disagreements and conflict are dealt with in a positive manner)
  • Encourage initial dissenters (make it easy for newcomers to express initial concerns, even when vague)
  • Members should share the role of being a “Devil’s Advocate” (share this responsibility with different members of the Board)
  • Review the role of the Chairman or leader (diversity needs to be managed by this person)
Of course, most of the above advice is also applicable to any corporate group setting, not just corporate boards – for example, any work group could benefit from paying attention to the above, particularly when they are assimilating new group members.

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