Opinion

Chrystia Freeland

Making the most of diversity

By Chrystia Freeland
November 16, 2012

For America, 2012 will go down in history as the year of the Latinos, the blacks, the women and the gays. That rainbow coalition won President Barack Obama his second term. This triumph of the outsiders is partly due to America’s changing demographics. And it is not just the United States that is becoming more diverse. Canada is, too, as is much of Europe.

That is why it is worth thinking hard about how to make diverse teams effective, and how people who straddle two cultural worlds can succeed. Three academics, appropriately enough a diverse group based in Asia and America, have been doing some provocative research that suggests that our ability to comfortably integrate our different identities – or not – is the key.

In “Connecting the Dots Within: Creative Performance and Identity Integration,” Chi-Ying Cheng of Singapore Management University, Jeffrey Sanchez-Burks of the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan, and Fiona Lee, also at the University of Michigan, argue that ethnic minorities and women in male-dominated professions are most creative when they have found a way to believe that their “multiple and conflicting social identities are compatible.”

“We tried to see how people who have to deal with seemingly in-conflict culture or gender identities cope,” Cheng told me. Their conclusion was that people who have found a way to reconcile their two identities – Asian-Americans, for example, or women who work in male-dominated jobs like engineering- are the best at finding creative solutions to problems.

“Those who see their identities as compatible, they are better at combining ideas from the two identities to come up with something new,” Cheng said. “While those who also share these two social identities, but see them as being in conflict, they cannot come up with new ideas.”

Cheng, Sanchez-Burks and Lee devised a research strategy to probe this issue that you do not need a Ph.D. to appreciate: They asked Asian-Americans to invent new fusion cuisine dishes using both typically Asian and typically American ingredients, and they asked female engineers to design products geared specifically to women. In both cases, people who were at peace with their dual identities performed better.

“Asian-Americans who had higher bicultural integration could create more creative recipes, and they believed it was possible to come up with more recipes,” Cheng said. “By contrast, Asian-Americans who feel their two identities are in conflict cannot come up with as many creative recipes.”

Cheng has her own experience of being a minority. She is from Taiwan but went to graduate school in the United States; she is a woman but has taught in the male-dominated environment of graduate business schools. She does not minimize the challenge of coming to terms with this sort of diversity.

“People who have high identity integration, it is not that they are more easygoing. It is that they find peace between the two different worlds,” Cheng said. “It is not that easy. Pretending doesn’t work. There has to be real understanding and integration between the two worlds. They find a way for the two worlds to coexist inside a person.”

This academic work is a useful prism for understanding the man who may be the world’s most prominent integrator of two potentially conflicting identities: President Obama. He has gained admission to what used to be the most exclusive white club of all, the White House, while remaining patently at ease with his black identity.

As Cheng advises, Obama does not ignore the complexities of straddling these two worlds: He governs with an acute awareness of the particular challenges a black skin poses for the man Americans still like to describe as the leader of the free world. But the president is also deeply at ease with his various identities, a psychological state that may help him use them to powerful effect – as in the election campaign, when he rallied pretty much all Americans who think of themselves as different.

The conclusions of Cheng, Sanchez-Burks and Lee suggest a tantalizing follow-up question: How can we achieve the personal integration these scholars have identified as crucial to making a virtue of diversity? Further research by Cheng offers one answer: “You can integrate your identities if you have positive bicultural experiences. The macrosystem can influence the microsystem.”

In other words, if the world around us tells us our dual identities are compatible, we will believe that, and act accordingly. If female engineers work in a company that treats their gender as a virtue, they will do better. If Asian-Americans live in a community that celebrates both aspects of their identity, they will be more effective.

America’s rainbow coalition won at the ballot box this month, but in other settings the nation has become a little weary of diversity-cheering movements like multiculturalism and even explicit feminism. Cheng’s work suggests that cynicism may be misplaced. Diversity can work, but we have to work at it.

Comments
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Chrystia’s thesis statement for this opinion piece is as follows:

“For America, 2012 will go down in history as the year of the Latinos, the blacks, the women and the gays. That rainbow coalition won President Barack Obama his second term. ”

Wrong. What won Obama his second term was over half of the U.S. aligning themselves with the Democratic party, and moving away from the extremism of the Republican party. And it doesn’t take a PhD to figure that one out either.

Posted by JL4 | Report as abusive
 

This is silly. Women, blacks, Latinos and gays have made up the majority of Americans for more than a century. Women and blacks have essentially controlled the US social agenda for more than a half century. This is nothing new. The newest part is including Latinos and gays.

Note that the major group not in this “coalition” is white men, who have been increasingly legislated against since John Kennedy in 1961. The real coalition is anyone who can draw breath who will help the crusade of white women against white men not in the most powerful 10% of the US population, also known as poor white men.

Note that the majority of poor white men voted for Obama and the Democrats, which is why they won.

There certainly is a question if governments can change the human historical fact that the population shifts we are seeing have been seen as “invasion” or “conquest” for thousands of years. So far no historical government of any major “country” has had any success.

Posted by usagadfly | Report as abusive
 

@usagadfly said, “white men, who have been increasingly legislated against since John Kennedy in 1961.”

I think you might want to add the legislation that was written “against” white men. Lobbyists are generally rich white men.

So anyone not a white man is invading or conquesting? Do you mean like the white men who came to the Americas by chance, because surely you do not mean the black slaves brought to America against their will or the legal immigration that has enhanced and enriched your nation for the last century… surely?

You also said,” The real coalition is anyone who can draw breath who will help the crusade of white women against white men not in the most powerful 10% of the US population, also known as poor white men.” Although you write fairly well, your tea party underpants are showing. Cracking that crock of BS would lead to a lot more successful outcome for everyone.

Posted by youniquelikeme | Report as abusive
 

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