We need diverse teams and inclusive cultures to make public services brilliant
There is strong evidence that diverse teams outperform non-diverse teams and growing evidence that an inclusive culture is vital to unleash this potential - find out what the public sector must learn and how The PSC is trying to make a difference.
Public services are facing a profusion of challenges: from the financial challenges posed by rising inflation and an expected recession, to the operational challenges of recovering from a global pandemic.
We at The PSC agree with the Declaration on Government Reform that a renewed focus on diversity and inclusion, aside from being the right thing to do, is essential for addressing these challenges.
In this article, we'll look at why diverse teams perform better when faced with complex tasks and the importance of creating an inclusive culture to maximise this potential. It's vital that the public sector takes this seriously, so we share how The PSC is trying to make a positive impact.
The benefits of diverse teams (‘diversity bonuses’) have been well documented. Numerous studies have found that diverse teams are better at judging and deliberating, picking stocks, and generating ideas, as well as many more tasks.
While understanding the exact mechanism behind diversity bonuses is not straight forward, mathematics and complexity theory suggests that they arise on tasks that have high dimensionality (tasks with many unique features or qualities). High dimensionality means that no single person can fully comprehend the task’s full range of approaches and outcomes.
Diverse teams perform better at high dimensional tasks than homogenous teams, because they bring a variety of qualities (e.g. mental models, perspectives, heuristics, and knowledge). This means that diverse teams get a more accurate and complete picture of the task and its options, thereby increasing the likelihood of an innovative and effective solution.
Making public services brilliant is a high dimensional task. Whether it be safely reducing length of stay in acute psychiatric wards or understanding users’ needs to track space debris, solving problems in the public sector requires knowledge from many disciplines (e.g. medicine, anthropology, and computer science), a variety of skills (e.g. creative, interpersonal, and analytic skills) and an understanding of public services’ diverse users (e.g. ethnicity, gender, and mental health backgrounds).
An Inclusive Culture
Realising the bonuses from diverse teams, however, requires more than just a diverse group of individuals - it also requires an inclusive culture. While many studies have shown the benefits of diverse teams, in some instances diversity bonuses are not realised, as they are offset by increased conflicts and misunderstandings.
Researchers have proposed a lack of psychological safety as the main factor preventing teams from realising diversity bonuses. An individual’s psychological safety is the extent to which they feel able to bring their full selves to a team or task, without fear of negative consequences.
When leaders and organisations promote inclusiveness it increases psychological safety and improves performance. To create such an inclusive environment, organisations need to invite and appreciate team members’ contributions, especially when their contributions bring a new perspective. This can take the form of events and forums that celebrate contributions and differences, or day-to-day displays of understanding and gratitude.
Promoting psychological safety is of particular importance in the public sector, due to its hierarchical structure. It has been found that in health care and education (two of the UK's largest public services), differences in hierarchical status are associated with differences in psychological safety. This lack of psychological safety among more junior members of public sector organisations can lead to worse outcomes, as they feel uncomfortable raising important observations, questions, and concerns.
What We Are Doing
As an organisation that exists to exist to support the people who lead our public services when they are finding things difficult, The PSC takes diversity and inclusion very seriously.
We currently promote diverse teams through our D&I targets, de-biased recruitment process and partnership with UpReach, and an inclusive culture through our forums and networks, ways of working conversations and away days.
Fostering a diverse and inclusive culture is an ongoing process at any organisation, and we are always looking for ways to improve our diversity and inclusion. Among our current initiatives, we are investigating ways to measure our psychological safety, reviewing, and expanding our D&I targets, and understanding how we can improve our relocation support for non-UK nationals.
If you would like to discuss this or anything else in this article please contact: David.Chappell@thepsc.co.uk.
Author: David Chappell, The PSC D&I Team
If you're interested to learn more...
There is a wealth of research into how organisations can foster diversity and inclusion and its impact. In particular, this blog post draws on ideas from the following sources:
Making Differences Matter: A New Paradigm for Managing Diversity: David A. Thomas and Robin J. Ely
Why Diverse Teams Are Smarter: David Rock and Heidi Grant
The Diversity Bonus: Scott E. Page
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