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Heterogeneity in the Workplace

And now for the most obvious thing you’ll read all day. Ready? Here goes: unless you’re self-employed, have no employees and generally work alone, you work with others. Or do you? If you don’t work alone, do you really work with others?

Doing your job in the same workplace as other people, under the same roof as others, and even working right next to other people; people who you necessarily must communicate with on a regular basis, is not necessary working with those people.

Do you work well with others?

What do I mean? I am saying that you don’t truly work with others in your workplace unless you are committed to heterogeneity where you work. That’s right; head-er-oh-jen-ay-it-ee.

Heterogeneity is, according to the Free Online Dictionary, “The quality or state of being heterogeneous.” Webster defines heterogeneous as “consisting of dissimilar or diverse ingredients or constituents.” Simply put, heterogeneity is a mixture; something that is distinguished by the variations and differences in its makeup; differences that help make all the parts function optimally.  

In 2002, the Journal of Engineering and Technology Management published a 20-page research paper written by Richard Reilly, Gary Lynn, and Zvi Aronson. The report summarized their careful review of numerous other researchers’ work related to teamwork in the workplace. Specifically, the question they sought to answer: What is the role of personality in new product development team performance?

Before you decide to go take a nap after contemplating that last paragraph, fear not. And lest you think I’m a proponent of the “celebrate diversity” movement, please read on.

Diversity for the sake of it is just silly. It hasn’t worked. A blind push for diversity (also called quotas in some contexts) has resulted in less productivity, lower quality, and higher costs for consumers.

Extensive training programs that emphasize diversity in the workplace, some of which that just amounts to teaching employees that they ought to be tolerant of the people who are different from them, misses the point at best. At worst, it not only fails in what it attempts to do (stamp out racism and various forms of discrimination in the workplace), it has also been shown to contribute to a number of unintended consequences.

A couple years ago, nationally syndicated radio talk show host, Armstrong Williams, submitted a short article on the topic to the political blog, The Hill. In his piece titled The Unintended Consequences of Diversity, he points out that “On the positive side, diversity brings together many varying points of view and perspectives, and all peoples benefit from such exposure, even if they don’t realize it at the time.”

I couldn’t agree more!

However, he continues, “… forced diversity is dangerous. It breeds resentment and a twisted form of hatred in itself. How many fights and even armed conflicts have been fought in the name of diversity, yet they were merely the sick plots of tyrants seeking homogeneous behavior?”

Williams contends that diversity that is “forced” will always yield unintended consequences, that “[d]espite the best of intentions and pursuits of “political correctness,” these acts always miss the mark.”

So, in light of the unintended consequences of committing to diversity in the workplace (just for the sake of it), and absent the not-so-subtle pressures of political correctness, are there good reasons to try to aspire for a heterogeneous work environment?

That question brings us back to the 2002 report that sought to shed light on the role of personality in new product development team performance.

Their research indicates that more productivity, better quality products and services, and lower costs for consumers is a more compelling reason to seek employee diversity than the external pressures of political correctness. And it turns out that when producing such dynamic results is the intended purpose of creating a heterogeneous workplace, positively dynamic results are often achieved.

Diversity or Heterogeneity?

So, the secret of using heterogeneity to create a better workplace is what I mentioned at the beginning: working with others. And it happens to be one of the conclusions of the 2002 team performance report I cited above.  It contends that working well with others is the key; and not in spite of differences, but in light of differences.

When it comes to working with others, especially among team members who come from different backgrounds, different political and social perspectives, etc., among all the dynamics that make for a potentially positive impact in the workplace, there are three that are perhaps the most integral:

  • Being agreeable
  • Being conscientious, and
  • Being open

A high level of agreeableness, a high level of conscientiousness and a high level of openness appear to be related to better performance when the task involves creativity.    

Here’s the big take-away from this discussion: if you want the best possible results from team performance where you work…

  • Encourage it. Promote agreeableness, conscientiousness, and openness. Not as part of a long list of other qualities. Just those three things.
  • Live it. Make sure you comport yourself in such a way that others would describe you as agreeable, conscientious, and open.
  • Be blind. Purposely put aside your presumptions about gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, social status, ethnicity, etc. Agreeableness, conscientiousness, and openness are not the qualities of any one particular background or personality type. A very quiet and unobtrusive person can share these traits with a gregarious, extrovert. Conversely, you and I both know gregarious, extroverts who are not agreeable or conscientious… or open!
  • Reward it. If you promote and exemplify these three qualities, including being “blind” to external social, political, and religious differences, AND when you see it in others, reward it. How to do so depends upon the workplace.

Diversity is the mere presence of differences. Seeking superficial differences among those in the workforce for the sake of achieving diversity is about as close as you can get to scheming for disaster without purposely doing so.    

Heterogeneity, however, goes beyond an effort to make an enterprise’s workforce just look different. Let’s remember that heterogeneity is the presence of differences that help make all the parts function optimally. That means seeking and honing attitudes and mindsets of agreeableness, conscientiousness, and openness.

Discriminate against candidates that cannot easily demonstrate these attributes (thereby only hiring and promoting those candidates that are willing to be agreeable, conscientious, and open), and two things will happen:

1)     The workplace will, all by itself, become diverse in terms of gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, social status, ethnicity, etc., and

2)     Highly desired outcomes such as creativity, quality of output, customer satisfaction, and profitability will shoot through the roof



  1. Pingback: Free from Independence – Part 2 « Obstacle Blaster - January 16, 2013

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