How Can Cultural Diversity Increase Innovation When It Decreases Civil Engagement?

Experts boast the promise of cultural diversity for innovation and competitiveness in making their case for diversity in the workplace. Social scientists have argued that poverty, rather than cultural diversity, is responsible for civil unrest. However, a recent study questions both assumptions as well as popular social science theories about intercultural contact.

Differences make us stronger. At least this is what you hear from politicians, organizational leaders, and diversity champions. However, a recent study by Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam and author of Bowling Alone (2000) has found that civic engagement decreases as American communities become more culturally diverse.1

By civic engagement he means things like voting, volunteerism, charitable giving, and neighborly trust. Neighbors in multicultural communities trust each other about half as much as those who live in culturally homogeneous neighborhoods, according to the study. A replication of the study in the Netherlands by Jaap Dronkers of the European University Institute (Italy) found similar results, especially for trusting neighbors.2

The studies come at a time when businesses, communities, and politicians are championing diversity. With demographic trends pushing western nations inexorably toward greater diversity, cultural diversity opponents have fuel for their argument. So, the challenges for diversity professionals and HR specialists are (1) responding critically to cultural diversity opponents when they use Putnam’s data and (2) managing the unsettling productivity challenges that Putnam’s research predicts.

Online diversity professional credential training adAddress both concerns by pointing out that cultural diversity has historically created challenges temporarily and leaders need to put structures into place to reduce tension. Communities that settled immigrants, such as the Irish, Italians, Germans, and most recently people from Muslim countries, did not escape tension. Apart from a few town hall meetings and funding social science studies of the problems, community leaders did little to manage the problems. These limited responses suggest that they were ill equipped to do more. In each case, tolerance and even intercultural marriages slowly replaced tension. A business organization cannot afford to wait until things settle down on their own. The diversity initiative led by an expert diversity officer offers the structures needed to increase civility in the interest of improving productivity.

Ground rules and a communication strategy determine the diversity initiative’s effectiveness. Make certain that there is alignment among the people in the organization about the how to treat one another along with effective policies, procedures, and training to support the ground rules. Getting the people in the organization in alignment relies considerably on a communications strategy that helps them understand their cultural differences and how to manage them in the service of productivity. Click on the link to check out the article Makes You Wanna Holler: The High Impact Cultural Diversity Initiative Communications Strategy to learn more.

It would be great to have an organization or community in which everyone is invited and people accepted the reality that cultural diversity poses challenges. However, human beings need time to get use to cultural differences. Unfortunately, it is unproductive and costly to allow people to get comfortable with each other at their own rate. The cultural diversity expert knows how to create a climate in which civility is expected in order to follow the ground rules and avoid behaviors that sever trust.

Author: Billy Vaughn, PhD


1. Putnam, R. D. (2000). BOWLING ALONE: THE COLLAPSE AND REVIVAL OF AMERICAN COMMUNITY. New York: Simon & Schuster.

2. Putnam, R. D. (2007). E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and community in the twenty-first century. The 2006 Johan Skytte prize lecture. Scandinavian Political Studies, 30(2), 137-174.

3. BRAM LANCEE AND JAAP DRONKERS (2008). Ethnic diversity in neighborhoods and individual trust of immigrants and natives: A replication of Putnam (2007) in a West-European country. European University Institute. Paper presented at the International Conference on Theoretical Perspectives on Social Cohesion and Social Capital, Royal Flemish Academy of Belgium for Science and the Arts, Brussels, Palace of the Academy. May 15, 2008 http://www.eui.eu/Personal/Dronkers/English/trust.pdf

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