By Michael Stuber, the European D&I Engineer
Exposing yourself to differences is known to contribute to reducing biases. Following this thought, researchers tested the role of nationality in interpersonal relationships among expats. They found significant interplay.
It serves as an ideal test laboratory: The expat community in the United Arab Emirates. There, researchers applied a multilevel study design that included 63 supervisors and 221 subordinates, mostly from outside the UAE (94 percent and 95 percent respectively, from Egypt, India, Iran, Iraq, Morocco, Pakistan, Palestine, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Syria, and Yemen). About half of the relationship dyads between supervisors and subordinates (46 percent) were from the same, and 54 percent from different, countries of origin.
Influence of nationality on supervisor—subordinate relationships
In such a multicultural setting, researchers were able to investigate whether nationality influenced the quality of human relationships, when the context was more or less culturally diverse. They found that nationality does indeed play a role in leader–member relationships, but with this caveat: The quality of relationships that individual subordinates have with their supervisors is positively and significantly influenced by national similarity, but only when their workgroup is very diverse. When a workgroup is rather homogenous, the influence becomes negligible.
Social identity and “black sheep”
Social identity theory suggests that a diverse work environment might be related to greater feelings of uncertainty, thus heightening one’s awareness of surface similarity and increasing attempts to connect on that basis. For the case of more homogenous expat groups, the researchers mention the possibility of the so-called “black sheep effect”—individuals judging unlikable in-group individuals more negatively than out-of-group individuals.
Beyond the obvious: contextualized diversity dynamics
The study contributes to the body of research that challenges existing myths about intra-group bonding and support in diversity. The pledge for more women on boards, for example, often includes the assumption that they would not only attract, but also promote, more women across the ranks and support equality in general. However, a large-scale study described later in this section shows that the latter does not hold true regarding gender pay gaps. It echoes, with regard to gender, some of the results of the expat study summarized above.
The combined key learning of the two studies is two-fold:
- On a general level, it is critical to develop more awareness for biases that are not so rarely embedded in D&I narratives. Some of them serve as toxic elements, while others create blind spots and divert attention and energy away from key issues into areas where low to no impact on the system is created.
- On a specific level, the studies reconfirm the need to pay the utmost attention to the various levels of organizational culture, including observable behaviors, proclaimed values and their perception and interpretation, and most tricky, the invisible norms and unwritten rules that often serve as the strongest barriers to D&I.
Michael Stuber’s company hosts a D&I knowledge blog called DiversityMine, which contains more than 1,900 articles. He contributed an article on the future of D&I to the fall 2017 issue of PDJ and wrote about diversity and group think for the magazine’s fall 2018 issue.