A Positive Approach to Studying Diversity in Organizations

by Lakshmi Ramarajan & David Thomas

Overview — Considering that the topic of workplace diversity often garners unhappy discussions of prejudice, isolation, and conflict, it's not surprising that many researchers avoid the topic altogether. Only 5 percent of articles published in management journals from 2000-2008 included race or gender in their keywords. In this paper, Harvard Business School professors Lakshmi Ramarajan and David Thomas propose a positive approach to studying diversity, with hopes that this will lead managers to feel more positive about adopting diversity policies in the workplace. Key concepts include:

  • Most workplace policies governing issues of race, gender, and sexual orientation come out of traditional studies that focus on discrimination.
  • Because these policies are borne of these traditional studies, they often yield negative consequences--such as a manager refraining from honest discourse for fear of a discrimination lawsuit.
  • A positive approach to diversity research could lead to policies that feel more organically productive and less threatening to managers.

Author Abstract

In this article, we distinguish between positive findings in diversity research and a positive approach to studying diversity. First, we review and integrate research on diversity from organizational behavior, social psychology, and sociology from 1998 to 2010 that has already documented positive findings in relation to diversity. We discuss this research using two broad categories: (1) What is positively affected by diversity (positive for what)? This category consists of research that has shown instances of intergroup equality, positive intergroup relations, and the high performance of diverse groups. (2) When is diversity positive (positive when)? This category describes organizational and individual-level conditions under which intergroup outcomes, relations, and group performance are positive. Second, we discuss a positive approach to studying diversity and describe some examples of organizational scholarship that have taken such an approach. We also discuss some of the limitations of taking a positive approach to diversity and propose some ways that diversity scholars interested in taking a positive approach can overcome these limitations. By illuminating both positive findings in diversity research and a positive approach to studying diversity, we hope to spark more research that examines the beneficial and empowering aspects of difference for individuals and groups in organizations.

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