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Deep-level diversity

Author: Dr Simon Moss


Numerous studies have examined the implications of observable differences between individuals in teams or workgroups--differences in ethnicity, gender, and age, for example. These differences are now referred to as surface-level diversity (Harrison, Price, & Bell, 1998). However, recent studies suggest that unobservable differences, which are often perceived rather than objective, also affect cohesion and productivity. These differences, which include disparities in personality, attitudes, beliefs, values, and lifestyle (Laio, Chuang, & Joshi, 2008), are now referred to as deep-level diversity (Harrison, Price, & Bell, 1998).

Rather than examine the effects of deep level diversity, some researchers examine the impact of deep level dissimilarity--the extent to which individuals feel they diverge from other members of their workgroup on unobservable characteristics, such as personality, values, and attitudes. Research into diversity and dissimilarity share some key properties. First, both strands of research differentiate surface and deep levels. Second, both of these streams apply similar models, such as the similarity-attraction paradigm (Byrne, 1971), the social categorization theory (Turner, 1987), and attitude engagement theory (Harrison, Newman, & Roth, 2006) to predict the effects of these similarities or dissimilarities.

This researcher endeavor has uncovered some interesting insights. First, when individuals are extraverted or agreeable, they tend to assume they are similar to other members of their workgroup (Laio, Chuang, & Joshi, 2008). Second, these similarities seem to translate into more positive job attitudes, which also inhibits the tendency to withdraw or depart from work (Laio, Chuang, & Joshi, 2008).

Determinants of deep level diversity and dissimilarity

Researchers can measure either perceived deep level dissimilarity--that is, the extent to which individuals feel they diverge from members of the workgroup on unobservable characteristics--or actual deep level dissimilarity --that is, the degree to which individuals actually diverge, as gauged by various measures of personality, values, or attitudes. Interestingly, perceived and actual deep level diversity are not highly correlated with one another (e.g., Riordan, 1997). Accordingly, many other factors, apart from actual diversity across members, may shape perceived deep level dissimilarity.

Personality and deep level dissimilarity

Liao, Chuang, and Joshi (2008) showed that personality, as gauged by the five factor model (Five factor model of personality), can affect perceptions of deep level dissimilarity. First, as extraversion rises, individuals become more likely to perceive themselves as similar, rather than dissimilar, to members of their workgroup on unobservable qualities (Liao, Chuang, & Joshi, 2008).

To explain this finding, Liao, Chuang, and Joshi (2008) offered several arguments. If individuals feel their values, attitudes, or personality diverged from other members of their workgroup, they might anticipate that social interactions could be compromised. They feel they will be understood and appreciated. Accordingly, individuals will often attempt to inflate the extent to which they share similar values, attitudes, and personality characteristics with peers. Extraverted individuals, who value these social interactions to a pronounced extent, might be especially likely to demonstrate this bias.

Alternatively, according to Liao, Chuang, and Joshi (2008), extraverted individuals often experience positive emotions (Watson & Clark, 1992). These positive emotions might translate to favorable impressions of other colleagues (cf., George & Brief, 1992). To boost their self esteem, therefore, they might be motivated to identify themselves with these individuals--which magnifies any perceived similarities (cf., Turner, 1987).

Second, agreeable, rather than disagreeable, individuals were also more likely to perceive themselves as similar, rather than dissimilar, to members of their workgroup on unobservable qualities (Liao, Chuang, & Joshi, 2008). Individuals who are agreeable attempt to maintain harmony and cooperation. This motivation often coincides with the tendency to be more cognizant of similarities than differences (e.g., Stapel & Van der Zee, 2006).


Over time, some facets of deep level diversity might dissipate with time. In particular, employees often developed shared perceptions of their environment, which can shape their attitudes and values as well.

Shared perceptions tend to emanate from three sources (see Klein, Conn, Smith, & Sorra, 2001;; Ostroff, 1993;; Ostroff, Kinicki, & Tamkins, 2003), First, over time, the organization will select, attract, and retain individuals with a specific profile of qualities, and this homogeneity can amplify similarities in the attitudes and opinions of these employees--ultimately facilitating the development of shared perceptions (Schneider, 1987;; Schneider, Goldstein, & Smith, 1995). Second, shared perceptions can derive from communication channels, in which all or most employees receive similar messages (Bowen& Ostroff, 2004). Third, interactions between employees also, obviously, expedite the development of shared perceptions (Morgeson & Hofmann, 1999).

Consequences of deep level diversity and dissimilarity

Attitudes in the workplace

Research indicates that deep level dissimilarity--the extent to which individuals feel they differ from members of their workgroup on unobservable qualities--is inversely related to job attitudes, defined as a combination of affective commitment and job satisfaction (cf., Harrison, Newman, & Roth, 2006). This relationship persisted even after actual similarity in personality as well as surface level similarity was controlled.

This finding is consistent with the similarity-attraction paradigm (Byrne, 1971;; Riordan, 2000). From this perspective, individuals assume that interactions between anyone with shared values, attitudes, and personalities will be more seamless, rewarding, and desirable. Accordingly, they become more committed to a workgroup in which they feel they share unobservable qualities.

Alternatively, perceived similarities in unobservable qualities could increase the likelihood that individuals experience a sense of identity with their workgroup. Initially, individuals tend to identify with groups that are similar on some more superficial dimension, such as age, gender, or education (Tsui, Egan, & O'Reilly, 1992). Over time, they infer similarities in unobservable qualities, such as attitudes and beliefs (Tsui, Egan, & O'Reilly, 1992). Other experiences will also affect the extent to which they feel similar to these individuals on these dimensions (Harrison, Price, & Bell, 1998). These similarities in perceived values, beliefs, attitudes, and personality also promote a sense of identity with the group (van Knippenberg, Dreu, & Homan, 2004). If individuals experience this sense of identity or belonging to the group, they tend to feel more committed and satisfied (Brewer, 1979).

Knowledge and skill development

People from diverse backgrounds have often learnt about some topics but from different perspectives. When these people communicate about these topics with each other, they may initially feel impeded by their disparities but, over time, develop greater knowledge. That is, their ability on a broader range of problems and questions tends to improve significantly.

To illustrate, in one study, conducted by Canham, Wiley, and Mayer (2013), participants learnt about a specific topic: binomial probability distributions. Some participants were exposed to a lesson that focused mainly on the procedures. Other participants were exposed to a lesson that focused mainly on the concepts instead of the procedures. Next, pairs of participants collaborated, over computer, to solve other problems. The problems were either similar to the examples that were discussed in the lesson or demanded insights that extended beyond these lessons. Sometimes, both individuals in the pairs had been exposed to the same lesson. On other occasions, the two individuals in these pairs had been exposed to a different lesson.

In general, if the individuals in each pair had been exposed to different lessons, they did not perform as well as other participants on problems that were similar to the examples presented in the lessons. However, they performed better than other participants on problems that demanded insights that extended beyond these lessons. They were more inclined to discuss plans on how to resolve a solution, such as "R must be 2(N-R)" rather than simple verifications, such as "Yes I agree". The diversity prompts more discussion and elaboration, potentially impeding routine problems but extending development. Despite these benefits, these pairs were not as likely to rate each other as positively.


In teams, many of the individuals have acquired similar knowledge, called shared information. A few individuals are specialists and have not acquired this shared information. As Jones and Kelly (2013) showed, these specialists are more likely to feel ostracized or excluded than other individuals. Presumably, they do not feel they can contribute appreciably, diminishing their sense of status and power.

To illustrate, in one study, participants were assigned to groups of three in which they completed a simulation exercise, acting as managers of a pharmaceutical company. Their task was to decide which of two drugs should be subjected to research. They each received different information about the drugs and setting. Two of the individuals mainly received information about safety matters. The other individual mainly received information about marketing and profitability and, therefore, was the specialist. In one condition, participants were informed that both safety and profitability are equally important. In another condition, safety was prioritized.

After discussing the matters, participants answered a series of questions that, for example, gauge the degree to which they felt out of the loop or excluded as well as the extent to which four fundamental needs were fulfilled: belonging, self-esteem, meaning, and control. Furthermore, the individuals rated the leadership qualities of each other. Finally, two independent judges rated the comments and behaviors of each person.

Participants who were assigned the role of specialists were more likely to feel out of the loop, particularly when safety was prioritized over productivity. In addition, they were not as likely to feel their fundamental needs were fulfilled, but only if safety was regarded as more important than was their specialty. Perceptions of leadership, however, did not differ between specialists and other participants.

Factors that moderate the effects of diversity and dissimilarity


Few studies have examined the conditions or characteristics that moderate the effect of deep-level diversity on work outcomes. However, many studies have investigated the conditions or characteristics that moderate the effect of surface-level and skill diversity on work outcomes.

For example, diversity in education, field of expertise, and tenure is more likely to enhance financial performance in industries that depend on advanced technology--although a meta-analysis indicated this effect is small (Joshi & Roh, 2009). Arguably, this diversity in skills enhances the creativity and innovation that is vital to these technological advances.

Diversity in the occupation

The diversity in an occupation also influences the effect of diversity of teams on financial performance. For example, in occupations that are dominated by males, gender diversity--that is, a high proportion of females--was negatively related to performance. But in occupations that are not dominated by males, gender diversity is positively related to performance (Joshi & Roh, 2009)& in these occupations, stereotypes against females dissipate, and both sexes are treated with respect.

The categorization-elaboration model

The categorization-elaboration model, proposed by van Knippenberg, De Dreu, and Homan (2004), offers some insight into the conditions that affect whether diversity will enhance or compromise performance. This model was developed to integrate two parallels streams of research. The first stream of research, emanating from social identity theory and self-categorization, emphasizes that diverse workgroups can often split into subgroups, differentiated by intangible boundaries called faultlines. These divisions can undermine collaboration and efficiency as well as provoke distrust and contempt. The second stream emphasizes the breadth of information and improvements in decision making that diversity can afford.

In essence, according to the categorization-elaboration model, which of these two dynamics will prevail partly depends on the extent to which individuals are motivated to complete the task effectively. If unmotivated, the divisions within diverse groups can undermine collaboration. If motivated, however, this diversity can inspire people to elaborate information carefully and explore other perspectives. That is, to complete their tasks, diverse individuals are more inclined to exchange different perspectives and ultimately reach better decisions.

Meyer and Schermuly (2012) proposed, and then validated, a revised variant of this model. According to Meyer and Schermuly (2012), two conditions need to be fulfilled to exploit the benefits of diversity. Specifically, in addition to task motivation, individuals need to feel that diversity is indeed beneficial& otherwise, they may not exchange information with other divisions regardless of their task motivation.

To validate this amendment, many teams of 3 or 4 university students completed a simulation in which they needed to manage a forest. Diversity in gender, age, and field of study was determined. In addition, the extent to which participants felt motivated to complete these tasks, as gauged by the degree to which they perceived the activity as interesting, challenging, and feasible, was assessed. Importantly, the degree to which the individuals believe that diversity is beneficial, typified by questions like "The more people that differ from each other in a group like this, the better for the group", was evaluated. Finally, the performance of these groups coupled with the degree to which these individuals exchanged information was ascertained. As predicted, diversity enhanced performance, but only when both task motivation and positive attitudes to diversity were elevated.

Considerate leaders

When teams are diverse, on either superficial or deep attributes, they perform especially effectively when their leaders are supportive or approachable and strive to consolidate the relationships between members within the team--a style called leader consideration. That is, leaders who encourage trust within teams and alleviate tensions seem to be especially important to diverse teams.

Homan and Greer (2013) conducted a few studies to explore this contention. The first study assessed whether members of diverse teams are especially likely to prefer considerate leaders. In this study, participants were asked to imagine they work in a very diverse team, in which members were very different to each other, or in a very homogenous team, in which members were similar to each other. Next, participants indicated the degree to which they prefer a considerate leader. Sample items include "In this situation, I would prefer a leader who helps people in the work group with their personal problems" and "In this situation, I would prefer a leader who is friendly and easy to approach". People who imagined a diverse team were especially likely to prefer a considerate leader.

The next study was similar except the source of diversity or similarity was specified: education. In addition, participants indicated the likelihood they believe that subgroups or clusters would form. Again, images of a diverse team prompted a preference towards considerate leaders. This relationship was mediated by the concern that subgroups would form.

The final study examined whether considerate leaders are especially likely to enhance the performance of diverse, rather than homogenous, teams. The participants were all members of teams in various retail outlets. The survey assessed diversity in tenure across members, the degree to which the leader is considerate, and whether or not subgroups had formed. Furthermore, the team leaders evaluated the performance of teams, such as whether they offer good service and complete tasks on time, as well as whether they believe that everyone is unique.

As predicted, diversity in tenure was positively associated with performance, but only if the leaders were considerate. Furthermore, leaders perceived everyone as unique only if they were rated as considerate and the team was diverse. Finally, subgroups were formed only when the team was diverse but the leader was not considerate.

These findings can be embedded within the categorization-elaboration model (van Knippenberg, De Dreu, & Homan, 2004). According to this model, diversity can generate categories or subgroups, provoking conflict and inefficiency. Alternatively, diversity can encourage people to share different perspectives, called elaboration. Considered leaders highlight the distinct qualities of each person, fostering trust, as well as resolve tensions or problems, overriding the formation of subgroups, and enabling elaboration.

The size of groups

The size of groups may also moderate the association between diversity and productivity. In particular, as the size of groups increase, the benefits of diversity subside. Diversity is more likely to compromise productivity in larger groups (Cummings, Kiesler, Zadeh, & Balakrishnan, 2013).

In particular, people tend to identify closely with collectives of individuals who are similar to themselves. If a team is very diverse, people are not always as likely to identify closely with this team. They may not be as willing to sacrifice their interests to enhance this team.

Fortunately, leaders can override this problem of diversity. They can organize more informal meetings, to foster relationships and uncover similarities. They can identify and promote a goal or vision that everyone shares, and so forth. Unfortunately, these practices are not as easy to implement in larger groups--a concern that explains the finding that individuals, on average, contribute less effort to larger groups than smaller groups (Liden, Wayne, Jaworski, & Bennett, 2004). Consequently, diversity should elicit more complications in larger groups than in smaller groups.

Cummings, Kiesler, Zadeh, and Balakrishnan (2013) proposed and validated this premise. This study examined 549 IT research groups of varying sizes. Diversity in the disciplines or fields of the individuals in this group, as well as diversity in the number of institutions represented in each group, was measured. Four measures of productivity were also utilized, including number of publications. After controlling the previous productivity of individuals, the size of each group was positively associated with number of publications, and similar measures, overall. Yet, this relationship was not as pronounced when the research groups entailed many disciplines or institutions, consistent with the hypotheses.


When people experience a sense of purpose of life--or reflect upon where their sense of purpose is derived--they become more receptive to diversity. Diverse ethnic groups, for example, are not as likely to elicit negative emotions, such as distress.

This premise was proposed and validated by Burrow and Hill (2013). In one study, participants completed a questionnaire and then travelled on the train with the researchers before answering a few additional questions. In particular, participants first indicated the degree to which they experience a sense of purpose in life. Next, after boarding the train, the researcher estimated the extent to which the passengers on this carriage belong to races that differ from the participant. In addition, participants indicated the extent to which they experienced negative emotions while travelling on this train. Finally, several control variables were measured, such as resilience, positive affect, neuroticism, perceived safety of the surroundings, and frequency of train use.

As predicted, exposure to diverse races evoked negative emotions. However, this effect of diversity was not as pronounced in people who reported a strong sense of purpose in life, even after controlling resilience, positive affect, and other control measures. A subsequent study replicated these findings even when sense of purpose was manipulated by asking a subset of participants to reflect upon where their sense of purpose is derived.

Several mechanisms might underpin the benefits of purpose. First, when individuals experience a sense of purpose, they are more willing to withstand the complications and uncertainty that attempts to achieve their aspirations may evoke. They become more resilient to stressful circumstances. Second, when individuals experience this sense of purpose, they may also recognize how their life could help other people. They conceptualize a broader range of people as targets of their support, diminishing prejudice to other groups. For example, they may pursue the goal to override injustice or suffering and, consequently, perceive diverse people as allies instead of rivals.

Measurement of deep-level diversity or differences

Some measures assess the extent to which individuals feel they share--or do not share-- various unobservable characteristics with members of their workgroup. Laio, Chuang, and Joshi (2008), for example, instructed participants to rate the extent to which they feel similar to their co-workers on average on personality, attributes, personal values, work attitudes, education, and lifestyle, using a 7 point scale from very similar to very dissimilar.

Alternativelty, individuals can assess actual differences across members. They can, for example, calculate the absolute difference between the personality of a participant and the average personality of colleagues. Laio, Chuang, and Joshi (2008) showed that perceived measures of deep level differences predicted job attitudes even after these actual differences in personality were controlled.

Related concepts

Perceived similarity

Many studies examine actual diversity and similarity within teams, such as the degree to which age varies across the workgroup. Zellmer-Bruhn, Maloney, Bhappu, and Salvador (2008), however, showed that perceived similarity, rather than actual similarity, within teams also affects behavior and performance.

Zellmer-Bruhn, Maloney, Bhappu, and Salvador (2008) developed a measure of perceived similarity within teams. In particular, MBA students, working in teams, answered nine questions. Each question began with the stem "Members of my team" and ended with phrases like "share a similar work ethic", "have similar work habits", "have similar communication styles", and "are from the same country". Factor analyses uncovered two distinct factors: work style similarity (e.g., "have similar interaction styles") and social category similarity (e.g., "share similar ethnic backgrounds").

Perceived work style similarity demonstrated properties that differ from both perceived social category similarity and many objectives measures of diversity. For example, perceived work style similarity tended to change, and actually decreased, over time. That is, as the months unfolded, the students became more attuned to disparities across the team.

The determinants of perceived work style similarity are not straightforward. In particular, Zellmer-Bruhn, Maloney, Bhappu, and Salvador (2008) examined whether variability in work experience and undergraduate major influenced perceived work style similarity at a later time in these students. These researchers uncovered an intricate relationship. Variability in work experience and undergraduate major provoked conflict in team, and these conflicts diminished the perception of work style similarity. Yet, variability in work experience also encouraged information sharing--and this dissemination of knowledge fostered perceptions of work style similarity. Consequently, variability in work experience translates to both negative and positive effects on similarity.

Perceived work style similarity prevented the formation of subgroups and also enhanced performance. That is, when perceived work style similarity was elevated after several months, teams were rated as more effective by advisors.


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