Say the phrase "workplace diversity," and a fairly specific concept comes to mind: A group of employees composed of different genders, races and ages; one that you'd easily be able to distinguish as heterogenous just by looking at them.
This is just about everyone's top-line definition of diversity, but what about diversity within hidden characteristics, such as psychological diversity? Used judiciously, it's actually one of the most sophisticated hiring and management techniques, and one component of a vital, healthy company.
What is psychological diversity?
Think of your family. You probably have a relative who's organized, a creative type, someone who's process-driven, another who's analytical, a "class clown," and on and on, with one or more people taking on a mix of these characteristics.
Workplaces are similar to this, with employees bringing their own dynamics in executing the tasks at hand, relating to their coworkers and working as a team.
Organizational psychologists have come to generally agree on five key personality traits (often referred to as the “Big 5”) to distinguish various characteristics in the workplace. Essentially self-explanatory, these characteristics are agreeableness, conscientiousness, extraversion, neuroticism (this concerns emotional reactivity and ability to cope with stress) and "open to experience."
Nightmare or a dream? Psychological diversity at work
Imagine you have an employee who skews high for extraversion and open to experience but very low for neuroticism, paired on a project with a teammate who skews high for neuroticism and open to experience but low for agreeableness and extraversion.
You might end up spending all day, every day, with both employees in your office, each complaining about the other and asking you how you ever expected them to work together in the first place.
On the other hand, Partner A might be a real high-flyer who could sell ice to the Eskimos but doesn't pay very much attention to things like rules or deadlines; things that Partner B takes very seriously. In this pairing, you have one teammate who offers creativity, sales skills and outside-the-box thinking, and one partner who likely will provide structure, "devil's advocate"-type testing and a strong work ethic.
Given that Partner B is open to trying new things, he or she may be willing to hang in there and try working with Partner A, and vice versa. They provide a good counterpoint for each other, and this balanced environment is one of the prevailing strengths of psychological diversity at work.
When you structure your workforce for diversity, you also avoid the kind of groupthink that can produce dangerous blind spots in marketing and product development. Additionally, you tend to get a staff that's inherently more adaptable, thanks to its makeup of latent and dominant personalities.
Sure, there may be conflict from time to time, but you can offset any clashes that occur by the gains in productivity and, in fact, profitability that this type of diversity produces.
Fostering psychological diversity
Clearly, building a psychologically diverse workforce starts in the hiring process. A test called the IPIP-NEO can help you learn more about your applicants according to the "big five" personality traits outlined above.
Offering this test, together with the addition of situational questions to your interview process will provide you with insight into your candidates as they're in the hiring process and enable you to analyze how they will fit into your current workplace landscape.
Now that you have a diverse workforce in place, you need to take the next step: Creating a culture of inclusion, where people are respected and appreciated. Inclusion is the only scalable way to build diversity within an organization. Without thorough and deliberate discussion and action to cultivate an inclusive environment, all the energy and resources spent on recruiting a diverse workforce are for naught.
In a recent study, organizations with diversity and inclusion were found to have a decreased employee intent to leave, increased employee engagement, increased creativity, a greater sense of employee belonging and improved talent retention.
To foster this culture of diversity and inclusion, you want to ensure that the company is moving together towards a clear vision, and encourage an atmosphere of openness, wherein your employees can provide honest feedback and show more of their personality.
As a leader, in order to leverage the power of inclusion, it's also important to be a good relationship-builder at all levels of your team, to provide transparency into your own process and thinking, and to know your employees three-dimensionally, not just as caricatures.
If you can achieve these objectives, you'll find that like diversity as a whole, psychological diversity is a powerful asset in the drive to success.