Research has shown that talking about the business case for diversity can backfire on employers. Job seekers from marginalized groups interpret such linking of diversity to corporate profit or stock performance, for example, as a sign that an organization would value them less and stereotype them more. “The way organizations talk about diversity tells you a little bit about whether it’s an absolute commitment,” Oriane Georgeac, now at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business, told us last year, “or rather one that is contingent on the world changing, priorities changing, or on how the firm is doing.”
A new study in the Academy of Management Journal poses a similar question about existing employees: How does the way organizations talk about their diversity commitments affect workers’ willingness to buy into those efforts? The authors found that the most common framing leaders use is also the one least likely to get workers on board—and that the most effective framing is one most leaders shy away from.
We recently spoke with co-author Lisa Leslie, a professor of management and organizations at NYU’s Stern School of Business. Here are excerpts from our conversation, edited for space and clarity:
How do organizations typically talk about their diversity efforts, and why does the framing matter to workers?
I had noticed this interesting disconnect where I would talk to practitioners and leaders, and when they would talk about diversity, they would always emphasize how valuable it was. It could be that it’s valuable in general, it’s valuable for business reasons, it helps to perform better as a company. It might be that it’s valuable for moral reasons, it’s the right thing to do, new perspectives, etc. But if you look at the research on what actually happens when organizations become more diverse, it’s a lot more complicated.
Sometimes diversity does in fact lead to better performance. It’s seen as the moral and right thing to do and has these positive effects supporting that value-based rhetoric that leaders are always using. But sometimes, the exact opposite happens. Diversity actually has a negative effect on performance. People see it as unfair and therefore morally dubious, or it has to do with conflict and tension: People from different groups might not get along as well together as people from the same group.
My co-authors and I came up with this more nuanced message about diversity that we refer to as contingent rhetoric, which is the idea that diversity is valuable for organizations, but only if you overcome the challenges—if everyone learns to take other people’s perspectives, or if people learn to successfully navigate the tensions that might arise, that sort of thing. We wanted to compare value rhetoric, ‘Diversity is good,’ to contingent rhetoric, ‘Diversity is good only if you overcome the challenges,’ in two different ways. The first question was just, which are leaders more likely to use? What we expected, and what we found, was that leaders were more likely to use value than contingent rhetoric, the reason being that value rhetoric is a uniformly positive message about diversity. There’s a lot of evidence that leaders are hesitant to say negative things about diversity because they worry that they might be perceived by their employees as being prejudiced—maybe they’ll interpret that as a signal that the leader doesn’t really value diversity.
That’s a benevolent motive, but it really prevents leaders from using the most effective rhetoric type. That was our second question: When leaders use value rhetoric versus contingent rhetoric, which one is more likely to increase what we call diversity effort among employees? That’s basically, are employees willing to put personal effort into fostering diversity and inclusion? Do they call out discrimination when they see it? Do they provide resources and mentoring to minority groups? And what we expected and what we found was that even though leaders are more likely to use value rhetoric, contingent rhetoric is more effective. It has a stronger positive effect on employees’ diversity efforts.
Why might that be the case?
There’s a lot of work on employee motivation that shows that when you give employees a goal that’s more difficult, as opposed to a goal that’s easy, that actually makes them work harder. It makes it salient to them. A lot of effort and persistence are going to be needed to attain the goal, and therefore they actually work harder—as opposed to when they have an easy goal, they assume that they don’t need to really persist that much because it’s going to be easy to do, so they don’t work as hard. That’s what contingent rhetoric is doing, because it implies that benefiting from diversity requires overcoming some challenges. It says to employees that diversity goals are actually difficult to achieve. They’re going to have to put some effort in, some sweat. And because of that, they actually work harder than when leaders use value rhetoric.
I mentioned that leaders are hesitant to do this because they worry that they’ll be seen as prejudiced. When leaders use this rhetoric type, do employees in fact see them as prejudiced? And we find that they don’t. It’s an important piece of this—basically, what is preventing leaders from using it is not actually grounded in reality. They’re afraid of being seen as prejudiced, but that doesn’t actually happen when people use it.
Ideally, how prescriptive should that rhetoric be? Is it more effective to say it’s challenging but valuable, or to say it’s challenging but we can do x or y specific things to make it less so?
More the former. You want to emphasize first that diversity is valuable, but then just add, ‘But we need to work through the challenges to get that value.’ Another way that I sometimes talk about it is that value rhetoric is ‘Diversity is good’ and contingent rhetoric is ‘Diversity is good but hard.’
It sounds easy, but the evidence we provide about why leaders are hesitant to use contingent rhetoric suggests that it might be a little bit harder than it sounds. So it’s important for leaders and managers to really do a lot of training and education if they want others in the organization to use contingent rhetoric, and really emphasize that even though it’s not very common, it does in fact work better. And even though it’s a less positive message about diversity, it’s not going to have negative repercussions in terms of how employees perceive their leaders.
Read a transcript of our conversation, including Leslie’s past research on the unintended messages workers can pick up from employers’ diversity-focused rhetoric and how to avoid them.