"The biggest catastrophes we've witnessed rarely come from information that is secret, or hidden," says Margaret Heffernan. "They come from information that is freely available and out there but that we are willfully blind to because can't handle, or don't want to handle, the conflict it provokes."
She tells the story of Alice Stewart, an English physician who set out, in 1953, to try to solve a puzzle: most childhood diseases were concentrated among the poorer children, but cancer seemed more common among the children of affluent parents. Stewart worked through surveys, trying to measure every environmental factor she could think of in a child's life, and eventually found a candidate: affluent mothers routinely received x-rays when they were pregnant. Poorer mothers didn't.
The results were published in the medical journal The Lancet in 1956. And then … nothing happened.
It would be 25 years before the British and American medical establishments actually changed their practices. A lot of children died during those 25 years when the linkage was known but before change had happened. But that's not all that surprising. Changing how people act is hard, unpleasant work. Heffernan goes on to note a survey that found 85 percent of executives admit that there are problems at their companies that they have "issues and concerns at work they are afraid to raise." Again, that's executives: these are the people most empowered to criticize and change organizations.
The point, Heffernan says, is that organizations need cultures capable of not just handling, but actually encouraging, conflict. But that's really hard. "We have to resist the neurobiological drive that makes us prefer people like ourself," she says.
Heffernan isn't saying anything all that new: there are a long list of studies showing more diverse organizations are more productive. Richard B. Freeman and Wei Huang found that papers published by coauthors who were ethnically and geographically diverse tended to be published in better journals, and to end up with more citations. A recent study from researchers at MIT and George Washington University found that workplaces with higher levels of gender diversity were more successful than workplaces with lower levels of gender diversity.
But there's a tradeoff. The workplaces with the higher levels of gender diversity were also less happy than the workplaces with less diversity. And that's what makes this hard: more diverse workplaces lead to better thinking because they lead to more conflict between different ideas and perspective. But human beings are trained to avoid conflict, and to prefer people who think and act and look like them.