Working effectively across differences – diversity and inclusion at the individual, team and organizational levels

Ruth Sessler Bernstein (School of Business, Pacific Lutheran University, Tacoma, Washington, USA)
Marcy Crary (Bentley University, Waltham, Massachusetts, USA)
Diana Bilimoria (Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, Ohio, USA)

Equality, Diversity and Inclusion

ISSN: 2040-7149

Article publication date: 15 June 2015


Bernstein, R.S., Crary, M. and Bilimoria, D. (2015), "Working effectively across differences – diversity and inclusion at the individual, team and organizational levels", Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, Vol. 34 No. 5.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Working effectively across differences – diversity and inclusion at the individual, team and organizational levels

Article Type: Special issue paper - Guest editorial From: Equality, Diversity and Inclusion: An International Journal, Volume 34, Issue 5.

As our world and workplaces become increasingly diverse and global, research is needed to identify how individuals, teams and organizations may best learn from and attain the benefits of social identity differences. These demographic changes are challenging organizations to adopt practices of inclusion that enable a diverse workforce to improve and sustain performance outcomes at the individual, group and organizational levels – creating a diversity dividend (Van Knippenberg and Haslam 2003), which we have defined as the positive outcomes associated with harnessing and leveraging the social identities and resources of diverse individuals and work groups (Bernstein et al., in Press). Diversity is interpreted to range from simple demographic differences, sometimes referred to as numerical diversity or representative diversity based on both ascribed (e.g. race, gender) and acquired (e.g. knowledge, skills) characteristics, to meaningful, deep-level, intercultural interactions that enable individuals to learn from one another and build cross-boundary skills (Harrison et al., 1998; Stangor et al., 1992). Inclusion refers to an individual’s or subgroup’s sense of efficacy, belonging and value in a work system (cf. Bernstein and Bilimoria, 2013; Roberson, 2006).

Despite a vast amount of research assessing the effects of diversity and inclusion on organizational and group performance, these studies have produced inconsistent results (see Horwitz and Horwitz, 2007; Joshi and Roh, 2009; Milliken and Martins, 1996; Van Knippenberg and Schippers, 2007). In some studies diverse groups have been shown to outperform homogeneous groups (e.g. Cox et al., 1991), while in others homogeneous groups out performed heterogeneous groups (e.g. Pelled, 1996). The only thing we know for sure is that we have limited understanding as to how, why and when diversity impacts outcomes (Guillaume et al., 2013; Joshi et al., 2011; Van Knippenberg and Schippers, 2007) or which diversity management practices are most effective (Guillaume et al., 2013).

The inconsistency in the findings leads us to agree with Roberson (2006, p. 234) that, “The management of diversity is more complex than is currently articulated in both practitioner and scholarly research […] there is a critical difference between merely having diversity in an organization’s workforce and developing the organizational capacity to leverage diversity as a resource […].” Thus, achieving positive diversity performance outcomes is complex, and involves a multitude of approaches at the organizational, group and individual levels. Without concerted effort and attention to the practices of inclusion, diversity may create negative performance outcomes as cited above, and promote individuals to experience tension and discomfort when interacting with diverse others (Crisp and Turner, 2011). This lack of resolution after decades of diversity research leads to the following questions: what has worked well for fostering individual competence and comfort in cross-identity relationships? What practices have worked well for group/team development of inclusive cultures that support productive cross-identity work relationships? What organizational-level practices have worked well to support development and maintenance of productive cross-identity work relationships?

The inquiry into what helps us reap the benefits of diversity in our workplaces is the focus of this special section of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion: An International Journal. We invited submissions of qualitative or quantitative data-based empirical research around competencies, practices and behaviors at the individual, group/team, or organizational level that contribute to successful practical outcomes in working within a diverse environment at the individual, group and organizational levels. We anticipate that the study of effective practices at all system levels – organizational, group and individual – can continue to marry the knowledge of practitioners and academic researchers. Therefore, this special section is a step in the quest to more fully understand how to optimize diversity in organizations and create an inclusive culture.

The workplace – as individuals, in work groups and in organizations as a whole

We acknowledge that “simplistic, ad hoc, or piecemeal solutions cannot eradicate systematic, historical and widespread […] underrepresentation and inequities” (Bilimoria and Liang, 2012, p. 206), and that wide and deep change is required at all levels – organizational, workgroup and individual – to harvest the full potential of diversity and reap the diversity dividend. We suggest that future research efforts are simultaneously needed to transform organizational systems, structures and cultures, improve workgroup norms and practices, and strengthen the capacity of individuals to engage and manage social identity dynamics in the workplace. Through these multi-level efforts all employees can fully participate, contribute and develop, enabling their organizations to achieve goals of effectiveness by reaping a diversity dividend.

Focus on the individual level

Focussing on individuals as leaders and managers in organizations, it seems important to further understand how people learn to build high quality, cross-identity work relationships when they are working out of either their dominant or subordinate group identities. Within the complexity of our multiple, intersecting identities, it can be particularly challenging to stay aware of dominant identities and how they shape our experiences and perspectives and abilities to effectively engage across identities in work situations (Debebe and Reinert, 2014). The challenge of focussing on individuals lies in changing mindsets, moving out of “established habits of mind” (Kegan 1994) and developing useful strategies and perspectives for more authentic engagement in their cross-identity work relationships. In the workplace individuals are challenged to develop our “desired work selves” (Ibarra, 2007) and develop positive relationships across identity differences (Davidson and James, 2007). Individuals often experience “identity abrasions” (Ely et al., 2006) or “stereotype threats” (Roberson and Kulik, 2007) in these cross-identity relationships. Thomas (2001) described a “protective hesitation” people adopt when learning to work with the obstacles (interpersonal and intrapersonal) that may inhibit the development of satisfying mentor-mentee relationships. In light of this current research, we invite further inquiry into the kinds of interpersonal, group and organizational environments that best help individuals build the experiences, strategies and skills that may enable them to do the requisite identity work for their personal and professional development.

Focus on the group level

In many contemporary societies where racial and ethnic diversity is increasing, individuals from different cultural backgrounds often coexist in a civil fashion and interact without expressed conflict. However, achieving the economic and social benefits of a multicultural society requires more – a deep diversity (Harrison et al., 1998) characterized by intercultural learning (Ely and Thomas, 2001) and the skills to capitalize on cultural differences. A paradox exists where work groups and teams may build community, social capital and trust (Putnam, 2000), and interethnic friendships (Briggs, 2007), yet, research additionally indicates that diversity in these contemporary communities often inhibits rather than promotes solidarity and social capital (among others: Bradshaw and Fredette, 2011; Putnam, 2007; Ostrower, 2007; Siciliano, 1996). The existence of this paradox suggests that we must continually seek additional understanding in how to create social capital that is sufficiently strong to bridge differences among diverse members, forming bonds that produce cross-cultural trust, learning, comfort and skill. We call for research that furthers our understanding of how groups may intentionally foster deep-level diversity (Harrison et al., 1998) among its members. What kinds of practices promote or inhibit members being more competent, “comfortable,” and feeling included in diverse groups? What core group practices best support the development of sustained, supportive, productive work interactions among diverse members? And, finally, how does trust, learning, comfort and skill at the individual-level inform group-level diversity and inclusion?

Focus on the organizational level

Focussing on the organizational level, we invite research in how cultures of inclusion are created and maintained. Once again, this leads us to pose more questions for future research, such as, what organizational practices facilitate the development and maintenance of inclusive cultures that support sustained, supportive and productive work interactions among diverse members? What organizational practices and systems foster inclusion of differences leading to productive cross-identity work relationships? What organizational practices will strengthen individual and group-level diversity and inclusion experiences? And, how do trust, learning, comfort and skill at the individual-level and successful group-level diversity practices inform organizational-level diversity and inclusion?

Special section papers

The papers included in this special section contribute to extant understanding of the competencies, practices and behaviors within a diverse environment at the individual, group/team and organizational levels that contribute to effective performance outcomes.

In “The intersection of sex and race in the presence of deep-level attributes” Kramer and Ben-Ner discuss two experimental studies involving white undergraduate students that examine how knowledge of a person’s surface (e.g. race and sex) and deep-level (e.g. musical tastes, religion or political views) attributes influence discriminatory behavior in dyads. They found that when presented with surface-level attributes of a target person, subjects demonstrated discriminatory behaviors based on race and sex. However, when subjects were presented with surface-level attributes along with deep-level attributes of a target person, subjects made decisions based on deep-level attribute similarities and disregarded surface-level information. Their paper brings insight into how an individual’s multiple attributes may affect decision making and behavior in dyads and highlights the importance of context in decision making. The implications of their findings are that facilitating interactions between diverse individuals that move beyond demographic stereotypes and reveal deep-level attributes may help strengthen working relationships.

In “Comfort vs discomfort in interracial/interethnic interactions: group practices on campus” Bernstein and Salipante use their field research to explore how interactions in a campus group setting (a voluntary service organization) can be structured to promote the quality of interracial/ethnic interactions. Their findings suggest that students’ interracial/interethnic comfort – defined as the felt ease, safety and self-efficacy of interacting appropriately with diverse others – is shaped by their experience of belonging in a diverse campus group setting in which there is a shared superordinate purpose, a welcoming climate, and the structuring of interactions. The authors call for more field studies that will produce knowledge of group-level practices that can guide academic leaders in their efforts to promote interracial/interethnic comfort and competence on campuses.

In their paper, “In our own backyard: when a less inclusive community challenges organizational inclusion,” Humberd, Clair and Creary use a multi-method qualitative study in a teaching hospital to address the challenge of retaining and supporting medical trainees from underrepresented backgrounds when the surrounding community setting is perceived as less inclusive than the hospitals themselves. They introduce the concept of “inclusion disconnects” as incongruences between the inclusion experienced within their organizations and within the local community. Their research suggests that the community outside the organization can have a significant impact on the experiences of inclusion of employees from underrepresented minority backgrounds. Based on findings from their data, the paper offers insights into how organizations can build their capacity to address these challenges by engaging in boundary work across organizational and community settings.

We hope that this special section on diversity and inclusion at the individual, group and organizational levels continues the important conversation and informs current understanding of workplace effectiveness across differences.

Dr Ruth Sessler Bernstein - School of Business, Pacific Lutheran University, Tacoma, Washington, USA

Dr Marcy Crary - Bentley University, Waltham, Massachusetts, USA, and

Dr Diana Bilimoria - Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, Ohio, USA


Bernstein, R.S. and Bilimoria, D. (2013), “Diversity perspectives and minority nonprofit board member inclusion”, Equality, Diversity and Inclusion: An International Journal, Vol. 32 No. 7, pp. 636-653

Bernstein, R.S., Crary, M., Bilimoria, D. and Blancero, D.M. (in press), “Reflections on diversity and inclusion practices at the organizational, group, and individual levels”, in Bendl, R., Bleijenbergh, I., Henttonen, E. and Mills, A. (Eds), Oxford Handbook of Diversity in Organizations, Oxford University Press,

Bilimoria, D. and Liang, X. (2012), Gender Equity in Science and Engineering: Advancing Change in Higher Education, Routledge, New York, NY

Bradshaw, P. and Fredette, C. (2011), “The inclusive nonprofit boardroom: leveraging the transformative potential of diversity”, Nonprofit Quarterly, Spring, Vol. 15, pp. 21-26

Briggs, X. (2007), “‘Some of my best friends are […]’: interracial friendships, class, and segregation in America”, City & Community, Vol. 6 No. 4, pp. 263-290

Cox, T.H., Lobel, S.A. and McLeod, P.L. (1991), “Effects of ethnic group cultural differences on cooperative and competitive behavior on a group task”, Academy of Management Journal, Vol. 34 No. 4, pp. 827-847

Crisp, R.J. and Turner, R.N. (2011), “Cognitive adaptation to the experience of social and cultural diversity”, Psychological Bulletin, Vol. 13 No. 2, pp. 242-266

Davidson, M.N. and James, E.H. (2007), “The engines of positive relationships across difference: conflict and learning”, in Dutton, J.E. and Ragins, B.R. (Eds), Exploring Positive Relationships at Work: Building a Theoretical and Research Foundation, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Mahwah, NJ, pp. 137-158

Debebe, G. and Reinert, K.A. (2014), “Leading with our whole selves: a multiple identity approach to leadership development”, in Miville, M and Ferguson, A. (Eds), Handbook of Race-Ethnicity and Gender in Psychology, Springer, New York, NY, pp. 271-293

Ely, R.J. and Thomas, D.A. (2001), “Cultural diversity at work: the effects of diversity perspectives on work group process and outcomes”, Administrative Science Quarterly, Vol. 46 No. 2, pp. 229-273

Ely, R.J., Meyerson, D. and Davidson, M. (2006), “Rethinking political correctness”, Harvard Business Review, Vol. 84 No. 9, pp. 78-90

Guillaume, Y.R., Dawson, J.F., Woods, S.A., Sacramento, C.A. and 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, Vol. 86 No. 2, pp. 123-141

Harrison, D.A., Price, K.H. and Bell, M.P. (1998), “Beyond relational demography: tie and the effects of surface-and deep-level diversity on work group cohesion”, Academy of Management Journal, Vol. 41 No. 1, pp. 96-107

Horwitz, S.K. and Horwitz, I.B. (2007), “The effects of team diversity on team outcomes: a meta-analytic review of team demography”, Journal of Management, Vol. 33 No. 6, pp. 987-1015

Ibarra, H. (2007), “Provisional selves: experimenting with image and identity in professional adaptation”, Administrative Science Quarterly, Vol. 44 No. 4, pp. 764-791

Kegan, R. (1994), In Over Our Heads: The Mental Demand of Public Life, Harvard University Press, Boston, MA

Joshi, A. and Roh, H. (2009), “The role of context in work team diversity research: a meta analytic review”, Academy of Management Journal, Vol. 52 No. 3, pp. 599-627

Joshi, A., Liao, H. and Roh, H. (2011), “Bridging domains in workplace demography research: a review and reconceptualization”, Journal of Management, Vol. 37 No. 2, pp. 521-552

Milliken, F.J. and Martins, L.L. (1996), “Searching for common threads: understanding the multiple effects of diversity in organizational groups”, Academy of Management Review, Vol. 21 No. 2, pp. 402-433

Ostrower, F. (2007), “Nonprofit governance in the United States: findings on performance and accountability from the first national representative study”, Urban Institute.

Pelled, L.H. (1996), “Demographic diversity, conflict and work group outcomes: an intervening process theory”, Organization Science, Vol. 7 No. 6, pp. 615-631

Putnam, R. (2000), Bowling Alone, Simon & Schuster, New York, NY

Putnam, R. (2007), “E pluribus unum: diversity and community in the twenty-first century”, Scandinavian Political Studies, Vol. 30 No. 2, pp. 137-174

Roberson, L. and Kulik, C.T. (2007), “Stereotype threat at work”, Academy of Management Perspectives, Vol. 21 No. 2, pp. 24-40

Roberson, Q.M. (2006), “Disentangling the meanings of diversity and inclusion in organizations”, Group and Organization Management, Vol. 31 No. 2, pp. 212-236

Thomas, D. (2001), “The truth about mentoring minorities: race matters”, Harvard Business Review, Vol. 79 No. 4, pp. 98-107

Siciliano, J.I. (1996), “The relationship of board member diversity to organizational performance”, Journal of Business Ethics, Vol. 15 No. 12, pp. 1313-1320

Stangor, C., Lynch, L., Duan, C. and Glass, B. (1992), “Categorization of individuals on the basis of multiple social features”, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 62 No. 2, pp. 207-218

van Knippenberg, Daan and Haslam, S.A. (2003), “Social identity at work”,Van Knippenberg, Daan, Platow, M.J., Ellemers, N. and Haslam, S.A. (Eds), Psychology Press Ltd., Taylor & Francis Group LLC, Florence, Kentucky, pp. 61-77

Van Knippenberg, D.A.A.N. and Schippers, M.C. (2007), “Work group diversity”, Annual Review of Psychology, Vol. 58 No. 1, pp. 515-541

Further reading

Ely, R.J. (1995), “The role of dominant identity and experience in organizational work on diversity”, in Jackson, S. E. and Ruderman, M. N. (Eds), Diversity in Work Teams: Research Paradigms for a Changing Workplace, American Psychological Association, Washington, DC, pp. 161-186

Petriglieri, J.L. (2011), “Under threat: Responses to and the consequences of threats to individuals’ identities”, Academy of Management Review, Vol. 36 No. 4, pp. 641-662

Roberts, L. (2005), “Changing faces: professional image construction in diverse organizational settings”, Academy of Management Review, Vol. 30 No. 4, pp. 685-711