10/01/2014 05:02 pm ET Updated Dec 01, 2014

Boost Brainpower in the Workplace

Co-authored by Fred Guterl

When diversity is news, it's often mixed. College admission rates for minorities are low. Female executives are too rare. Police departments often don't reflect the communities they serve. But there's reason to be optimistic that a culture of inclusion is beginning to take hold in some workplaces. In high-tech industries and others that put a premium on teamwork for creative problem solving, the evidence is clear: Diversity is a valuable competitive asset.

The benefits have been showing up in large-scale studies of management in commercial businesses. Companies in Standard & Poor's Composite 1500 list with women in top management, for instance, are worth $42 million more, on average, than those with only men in those positions, and these firms also score higher on "innovation intensity."

The picture gets more interesting when the focus shifts to team dynamics. Katherine W. Phillips, senior vice dean at Columbia Business School, and her colleagues gave three-person groups complex murder mysteries, and then asked them to work together on solutions. Each member received clues that her or his companions didn't possess, giving an edge to groups with the ability to share information. Racially diverse teams significantly outperformed those with similar members. Other studies confirm this result: A diverse team is more innovative on average.

What is going on, Phillips thinks, is that diversity changes the dynamics of a group in a way that makes it more innovative. When we work with others who are like us, we tend to assume they hold similar points of view and share similar information. That makes for easy and comfortable interactions, and it works well when the task at hand is routine. But when a team is trying to do something new that requires knowledge and experience surpassing what any one member can supply, a more challenging social situation leads to better outcomes. When we have to try harder to communicate with collaborators who are different from us, we better articulate our ideas. "Diversity jolts us into cognitive action in ways that homogeneity simply does not," Phillips writes.

This realization is starting to seep into management philosophies at organizations that strive for innovation. Information technology executive Stephanie C. Hill recalls taking the reins as a project manager at Lockheed Martin in the 1990s with a staff of 30 engineers -- a diverse group by race, gender and expertise -- on a tight deadline. Perhaps sensing some hesitancy among some group members, Hill worried that the best ideas would go unspoken in meetings because someone was too uncomfortable. "As a leader, I had to set the tone for people to express their ideas, even if they differed from those of their colleagues," she recalls. "I would not allow someone's ideas to be dismissed without consideration." Hill, now vice president and general manager of a division of the company, knows the value of diversity to the bottom line.

Although there's no formula for creating a productively diverse workplace, openly embracing people's differences is key. Policies of ignoring racial differences, for instance, often backfire by creating an environment in which unconscious biases can flourish unchallenged. In studies that measured reaction time after seeing pairs of words, done at Dartmouth College by Jennifer A. Richeson and her colleagues, white college students showed less unconscious bias against minorities after being exposed to material advocating the promotion of diversity, compared with those who'd had to read policies that did instead advocated for color-blind policies. Unconscious biases are particularly insidious because they can send subtle messages that members of a group are not welcome -- at a firm, at a college or in a field such as computer science.

Consider: Why are only one in four computer scientists women? Do girls and women have their own stereotypes and biases that dissuade them from the profession? Are they picking up signals -- from their friends, their teachers, Hollywood -- that computer science isn't for them? Google, for example, celebrated only men in its "Doodles" -- embellishments to the corporate logos on its Web site -- for seven years before it got around to selecting a woman. The company didn't take notice until outsiders, years later, pointed it out. "It came as a shock," says Google[x] vice president Megan Smith. Google responded with a survey of its workforce diversity and then made it public, despite the unflattering picture it painted, and initiated a spate of projects, inside and outside the company, to promote change.

In the past century, we have eliminated some of the major hurdles of basic participation for women and people with different ethnicities or abilities in the workplace. Now we should take the opportunity to reinvent our corporate cultures to fully embrace those differences, to make a virtue out of them -- and to turn them into tools for creating prosperity for all.

DiChristina is editor in chief and senior vice president of Scientific American. Guterl is executive editor.