A Story about Diversity, Superstorm Sandy and Symphony Orchestras

On issues like immigration, I have always been something of a moderate.  I recognize that a social system must control itself to “stay safe.”  (Psychologically, it’s probably one reason we take care of those we love.)  On the other hand, I personally believe any solution to a problem like immigration must treat all human beings as people.  No matter what the book (from Darwin to the Bible) or the cover we’re judging, people seem to have a similar distribution of altruistic instincts and general positive regard for others.  Treating others as people is not merely “nice,” it’s pragmatic: By doing we ensure that the calculations that go into our decisions will be based on more correct information.

Let me share a story.


A few months ago, I happened to be visiting my origin-point in New York when Superstorm Sandy hit and decimated the area, and I remained for a couple of weeks following.  Most of those I was close to were comparatively fortunate, but nearly all suffered at least modest damages.

While in NY, I stumbled across an old childhood chum, a fellow with whom I used to climb trees and read comics; today, a young entrepreneur.  My friend was visiting his parents’ house, where an ancient tree we used to climb had fallen, and had rented some power tools to help dispose of it.  Although a practical guy, this particular task was not a normal part of his day to day experience and so proved difficult.

As the day moved towards its end, and my friend struggled to cut and remove his childhood tree, a laborer from Central America happened by.  I could not speak to the man’s precise origins, or what his day to day life looked like.  My best guess would be that he was a first generation immigrant to the United States who was in the area working to help rebuild after the storm.  Whoever he might be or have been, his response was precisely what makes human beings wonderful: He jogged over to help.  Speaking slightly broken English, this fellow helped my friend fix a problem he was having with his chainsaw, showed him a couple of neat tricks, helped him out for little while and then jogged along on his way.  He wasn’t looking for money or a favor; he just wanted to give a stranger a hand, as you or I might do for a friend.

Whenever a new group or idea begins to assimilate into a culture, it is natural for people to feel a little anxious.  After all, humans can be vicious and warlike animals.  Yet what separates us from other animals is not our (admittedly powerful) ability to fight and protect our territory.  Many animals have this.  What makes humans uniquely successful is our ability to naturally and relatively seamlessly form together into larger and more complex groups.  I expect this is one of the reasons our lives have continually become less violent throughout history. (If you don’t want to take my word on this, read Steve Pinker’s fabulous book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined.)

Shouldn’t we applaud the entry of good, decent people (like the man who helped my friend) into our ranks?

The drive to diversify our organizations follows a similar trajectory.  In one classic set of studies, J. Richard Hackman (a long time psychologist at Harvard) and his colleagues showed that when women, once less common, began to be assimilated into an organization like a symphony orchestra, at first people appear to be anxious or upset- initially you see a decline in factors related to motivation and satisfaction, but with time and increased diversity, these trends would either level off or reverse (Allmendinger & Hackman, 1995).  When there were only a few women in the orchestra, its members became less comfortable and happy.  After a certain critical mass of women (and acceptance of women) was reached, with increasing diversity the members of the organization would become more happy, and the orchestra would play better.

If we play the pragmatist, the fact that diversity can actually be valuable to an organization is not trivial.  In some recent studies, the amount of diversity in a group has proven even more valuable than the amount of total ability or intelligence in terms of the group’s success at solving difficult problems (e.g. see: Hong & Page, 2004; Krause, Ruxton & Krause, 2010).  However, in order to have diversity, we must accept diversity.  Those we perceive as different- even threatening- must be allowed not only to exist, but to thrive in our cultures and our companies.

After all, you never know when you might benefit from the help of a stranger.

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