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The Defence Approach to Diversity

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Editor’s note: This piece is part of a series run by the Wavell Room offering unique and personal perspectives on diversity promoted by Black Lives Matters.  The articles represent very personal moments in the lives of the writers or different and critical views.  Our aim has been to capture the mood from differing perspectives.

Context: In a recent Wavell Room article, Surgeon Lieutenant Commander Mike Hill argues that diversity is critical to defence.  In his article, although I am not named, he cites a couple of tweets of mine under the heading “Everyone’s an expert” and misrepresents the evidence on which I base my analysis.

In this rebuttal, I will counter his points by expanding on my tweets.  My case is that whilst diversity can be a force multiplier if managed well, the evidence of numerous studies suggests that diversity should not be a central focus for Defence.  Notwithstanding the legal obligations that Mike correctly identifies under the Equalities Act 2010, there is insufficient evidence that diversity is operationally essential.  Especially given Defence’s current approach to it. Secondly, Mike’s article is founded on a definition of “diversity” that falls within far too narrow, politically ideological, parameters based on diversity of protected characteristic rather than diversity of thought.  This article contends that Defence is focusing on the wrong kinds of diversity, that diversity alone is not a panacea, and diverse teams only work well with careful management practices.

To start with Mike’s blithe dismissal of my tweet that, “I did a ton of research on this… it’s nonsense”.  Hill’s rebuttal extends to a comment without citation that “meta-analysis is clear, that diversity has a positive impact”.  This is simply untrue and there are wide-ranging factors that impact the positive or negative effects of diverse hiring practices.  Case studies suggest it is difficult to measure diversity in a consistent way across organisations to demonstrate meaningful outcomes.1  They also find conflicting evidence of the impact on business of diversity in workplaces.2

Everyone’s an Expert

Diversity is big business and the body of published work is enormous.  For the purposes of this article, I have selected a sample of studies that could have a direct bearing on Defence policies.  I have excluded a number of studies based on an essentially theoretical focus that did not use empirical methods.  For example, one of the more commonly cited studies is the McKinsey & Company report that used data from 336 organisations in the UK, Canada, Latin America, and the USA.3  The McKinsey study found that companies in the top quartile of gender diversity were 15% more likely to have above-median financial returns.  However, this, as so many other studies, fails to properly analyse the actual contribution of diversity to performance and makes a broad assumption that correlation equals causation.4

Another critical failure of diversity research from a Defence perspective is that there is so little of it on the effect of on military teams.  Any cited diversity studies must come with the caveat that the Armed Forces are not a business.  Defence does not categorise success in terms of market performance, return on equity, or productivity, which are the kind of metrics usually used to gauge success in such studies.  It is approaching impossible to study the effects of diversity on teams placed into the extreme end of Defence’s activities, where fear, chaos and extreme pressure are all factors on the battlefield.  In such situations, the effect of diversity is simply an unknown variable. 

The Meta-Analysis isn’t Clear

So, to the meta-analysis.  It is not clear at all that diverse hiring practices have solely positive outcomes on their own.  Let us start with the studies of Richard (2000) and Richard, Barnett, Dwyer and Chadwick (2004).  They analysed 63 banks from three US states using the independent variable of racial background of bank employees. They introduced dependent variables of productivity, return on equity, and market performance.  At the conclusion of the study, their hypothesis that racial diversity would be positively linked to firm performance was not supported.5  However, and this is crucial for Defence, the firms’ business strategies were found to moderate the relationship between the two.  Banks with a growth strategy created a positive relationship between racial diversity and performance, and banks with a downsizing strategy found a negative relationship between the two: diversity made these banks perform worse.  This suggests that diverse hiring practices only enhance productivity in positive cultures.  The relevance for Defence is that this study shows that diversity can be both positive and negative and that organisational ethos is critical to making diverse teams a success.

Later they added gender and a degree of entrepreneurial orientation to racial diversity as a variable and studied a further 535 bank presidents and human resources executives.6  They added in a number of environmental factors to their study such as innovation, risk taking, and proactivity.  Again, their research did not support the hypothesis that there was a relationship between cultural diversity and increased performance.  They did find, however, that the relationship was moderately strong in firms with an innovative orientation, and moderately negative in firms with a risk-taking orientation, when diversity is very high or very low.  In effect, a U-shaped curvilinear relationship.  This is a critical finding for Defence because risk taking should be a key part of the “business model” and this study suggests that diverse teams perform less well in such situations.

Social Faultlines

When researchers add multiple attributes, the results become very interesting and the meta-data reveals some tough home truths about diversity.  For example, Lau and Mirnaghan (2005) investigated the effects of demographic faultlines on the interactions between groups and sub-groups.7  A “strong faultline” is defined as when members of a group fall into more than one non-overlapping subgroup, based on demographic characteristics (for example, old African men in a group with young Chinese women).  Groups with strong faultlines were found to experience more intra-group conflict and poorer group outcomes (in rating of their task and relationship conflict, group learning, psychological safety, satisfaction and expected group performance) than groups with weak faultlines (groups with more homogeneity).

“The positive benefits of diversity are not clear”

Even in some detailed studies of significant duration, the positive benefits of diversity are not clear.  Over five years, Kochan et al. (2003) looked at four large firms in the information processing, financial services, and retail industries to study the relationship between race/gender and business performance.8  They measured performance, satisfaction and turnover and related them to cultural, demographic, technical and cognitive diversities.  They measured group processes of communication, conflict, cohesion, information and creativity within a context of culture, business strategy and HR policies.  They interpreted the results using qualitative data on business unit cultures, managerial practices and survey data compared against the demographic composition of teams.  After this lengthy, wide-ranging study, including multiple quantifiable variables, the results were inconclusive.  They established very few positive or negative direct effects of diversity on performance.

Some studies are worse yet.  Guillaume et all (2013) conducted a study that found sometimes diversity at work has led to less favourable outcomes, such as more absenteeism, weaker employee attachment, more conflict, poorer in-role and extra-role performance, and more discrimination.9  Their conclusions support Lau and Mirnaghan’s contention that there is weaker performance in groups with stronger faultlines.  They suggest that these negative effects of diversity are simply down to the fact that people prefer to work with others of similar background.  After all, the British Army spent the majority of its existence grouping combat soldiers into regional regiments for exactly that reason.

No Silver Bullet

The sum of all these studies, and many more, is that “diversity” as an end state is in no way a silver bullet for improved team performance or outcomes.  On the matter of analysis of the meta-data supporting diversity, there are many studies to suggest that Hill’s analysis is wrong.

Of course, there are many studies to suggest positive diversity outcomes – I do not dispute this.  My intention here is simply to take a snapshot of current research to make the point that plenty of meta-data suggests the opposite.  The matter is far from a proven case either way and is untested in military-specific scenarios.  Regardless, as pointed out, Defence is under a legal duty under the Equalities Act 2010 to promote diversity.  So, what do the studies say about how best to create diverse teams that are more, rather than less effective?  How, then, ought these tough home truths be mitigated?

“Agreeableness”

Strauss and Connerley (2003) identified cognition, comfort with difference and diversity of contact as contributing to what they called Universal-Diverse Orientation.  “Agreeableness” was the most important predictor of attitudes towards diverse working environments.10  There was partial support across the 252 undergraduate business students they studied to suggest that women and non-whites have a higher degree of this: useful to Defence in guiding how it applies the duties imposed on it by the Equalities Act.

There are too many human variables at play to qualitatively assess the impact of diversity on team performance definitively.  However, what is eminently provable is that structures play a key role in getting the best out of diverse teams.  Bachman (2006) identified two types of coupling in workgroups: structural and cultural.  Their study showed that the most effective multicultural teams had a tight coupling in task-related structural domains, and loose coupling in non-task cultural domains.[note]Bachmann, A.S. (2006). Melting Pot or Tossed Salad? Implications for Designing Effective Multicultural Workgroups, Management International Review, Vol 46, No 6, 721-747.[/note]  The former provided consensus, cohesion, effectiveness and stability; whilst the latter led to diversity, accuracy, creativity and flexibility.  Clear direction, good leadership, and task-setting create effective diverse teams.  Tight cultural coupling is to be avoided in order to improve team performance.  A loose cultural coupling is created by an atmosphere of mutual respect and acceptance, and showing management approachability for resolving differences.

The Wrong Diversity?

The real tragedy of the approach mandated by the Equalities Act, and Hill’s article, is that it focuses on the wrong kind of diversity.  Rather than creating the positive cultures suggested by these studies, the Act places a duty on Defence to actively partition personnel into groups such as race, gender, and sexual orientation.  In turn this creates the kind of faultlines that are proven to create divisions and reduce productivity in business settings.  Defence, as evidenced by Hill’s article, is asking for superficial diversity by protected characteristic. However, this approach is dogmatic and counterproductive: diversity should not divide us.

Defence’s current approach demands a homogeneity of thought and ideological conformity.  The studies cited above show this is actively detrimental to problem solving, group cohesion and bringing the relevant kind of diversity to bear on the situation.

Neuro Diversity

The type of diversity that actually creates benefits is neuro-diversity: the kind that gives differences of perspectives and sometimes of background.  It has very little to do with sexuality or skin colour.  This is why it is healthy that the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst shows an ever-decreasing percentage of public school graduates in favour of more diverse state school-educated officer cadets.  In another example, the Santa Fe institute, they deliberately make teams of people with different kinds of expertise and ask them to bring those different perspectives to bear on hard questions.  So, for example, a geologist might be asked to approach an economics problem and give their view on how their academic discipline approaches analogous issues.  This gives a fresh perspective and a greater diversity of thought.  This is arguably the opposite of Defence’s approach, where we corral our officers and soldiers into mandated education courses that teach personnel of all backgrounds to think in the exact same way.

Getting the Best From a Team

In conclusion, the ways shown to get the best out of diverse teams are:

  • Diverse companies with clear growth strategies perform better, and diversity decreases performance in downsizing companies.
  • Diverse firms with innovation at their heart perform better, whilst risk-taking diverse organisations perform worse.
  • Defence must be wary of creating “strong faultlines” comprising heavily diverse groups, as these are proven to undermine team performance. Studies show that it is detrimental to team cohesion to encourage employees to emphasise their differences.  This poses a significant question on how effective it is to endorse women’s, BAME, and LGBT groups.  There is a body of evidence to support the case that these clusters create strong ‘cultural coupling’, emphasise out-groups, and undermine cohesion rather than encouraging performance.
  • Defence should focus on goal-setting and task-oriented performance ahead of actively building culturally diverse teams with diversity as an end-state.
  • Management culture is critical to performance in diverse teams.  Studies show this is achieved by creating a culture of acceptance and mutual respect, and showing management commitment to mediating issues. “Respect for Others” covers this well but is too often used to shut down criticism of Defence’s approach to diversity.  Witness Mike’s article and the high-handed response from senior Defence Twitter accounts when someone strays from the pro-diversity political narrative.

Legally, Defence must commit to diversity.  That aside, in this article, I have shown that multiple studies rebut Mike’s suggestion that “diversity” in and of itself is a solution to improve performance.  Recruiting high-performing diverse teams is a process that must be managed correctly to achieve positive outcomes.  The real value in diversity is in neuro-diversity, where fresh perspectives and ideas can be brought to bear on complex problems.  Sadly, this facet of diversity is not covered by the obligations placed on Defence by the Equalities Act 2010.

I will finish with a final thought for further discussion.  A drive for diversity based solely on protected characteristics is simply a fig-leaf to satisfy Defence’s legal obligations, if all military personnel are trained (and, arguably, mandated) to think and act in the same way.  If Defence wants to improve diversity of thought, then race or gender based diversity targets; promotion systems; Command, Leadership and Management courses; and staff courses should all be closely examined to ensure that our personnel are not mentally boxed-in to thinking only a certain way to get on within the system.


Cover photo by Mpho Mojapelo on Unsplash

Andrew Fox Headshot

Andrew Fox

Andrew Fox is an Major in The Parachute Regiment.  He has been in the Army for 15 years and is leaving imminently.  He has a Law degree, a Master’s in Military History and is starting study for a PhD in History.  He has previously worked in the European Parliament and maintains a keen interest in politics.  He has done numerous media interviews and public speaking about mental health. He tweets as @maj_fox.

Footnotes

  1. Wright, A., Micheilsens, E., Snijders, S., Kumarappan L., Williamson, M., Clarke, L., Urwin, P. (2013). Diversity in STEMM: establishing a business case. University of Westminster.
  2. Urwin, P., Parry, E., Dodds, I., Karuk, V., David, A., (2013). The Business Case for Equality and Diversity: a survey of the academic literature (BIS OCCASIONAL PAPER NO. 4). Department for Business Innovation & Skills & Government Equalities Office.
  3. Hunt, V., Layton, D., & Prince, S. (2015). Diversity Matters. McKinsey & Company.
  4. Eagly, A.H. (2016). When Passionate Advocates Meet Research on Diversity, Does the Honest Broker Stand a Chance?. Journal of Social Issues, 72:1, 199-222.
  5. Richard, O.C. (2004). Racial Diversity, Business Strategy, and Firm Performance: A Resource-Based View, Academy of Management Journal, Vol 43, No 2, 164-177.
  6. Richard, O.C., Barnett, T., Dwyer S., Chadwick, K. (2004). Cultural Diversity in Management, Firm Performance, and the Moderating Role of Entrepreneurial Orientation Dimensions, Strategic Management Journal, Vol 28, No 12, 1213-1233.
  7. Lau, D.C., Murnighan, J.K. (2005). Interactions Within Groups and Subgroups: The Effects of Demographic Faultlines, Academy of Management Journal, Vol 48, No 4, 645-659.
  8. Kochan, T., Bezrukova, K., Ely, R., Jackson, S., Joshi, A., Jehn, K., Leonard, J., Levine, D., Thomas, D., (2003). The Effects of Diversity on Business Performance: Report of the Diversity Research Network, Human Resource Management, Vol 42, No 1, 3-21.
  9. Guillaume, Y.R.F., Dawson. J.F., Woods, S.A., Sacramento, C.A., West, M.A. (2013), Getting diversity at work to work : What we know and what we still don’t know. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology 86, 123-141.
  10. Strauss, J.P., Connerley, M.L., (2003). Demographics, Personality, Contact and Universal-Diverse Orientation: An Exploratory Examination, Human Resource Management, Vol 42, No 2, 159-174.

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