Culture Employee engagement HR

Is Diversity More Important than Ability?

by Nicholas Edwards on December 11, 2018

What is the key to a successful team? Conventional wisdom would say hiring the best and brightest candidates. Recruitment favours those with the most impressive degrees, the highest IQs, or the best score in competency tests. But we often overlook one key ingredient: diversity.

What do we mean by diversity?

We often talk about diversity in moral terms. Hiring a team of diverse individuals is seen as the right thing to do, and ensures that a business maintains a culture of inclusion and fairness. While this is undeniably true, there can be an assumption that diversity comes at a cost – that it is valuable in a moral sense, but not in a business one.

In actual fact, evidence shows that diversity is essential to the success of a team – even more so than individual ability. But where the moral issue of diversity deals with identity – that is people’s ethnicity, race, gender, age, etc. – the key to a successful team is cognitive diversity or diversity of thought.

Diversity vs ability

Scott E. Page, an American social scientist and author, claims that the complexity of modern work – and the complexity of the problems it aims to solve – makes cognitive diversity an essential ingredient for any successful team. He places a higher premium on the diversity of thought than individual ability and suggests that hiring the ‘best’ candidates can actually yield the least creative results. Here’s why.

In the past, work was relatively simple. People often performed the same fixed task all day, every day. Say your job was to harvest wheat. The amount of wheat you could harvest reflected the value you brought to the job. To build the best harvesting team, all you needed to know was how many bushels of wheat people could harvest in a day and then select the most productive individuals. The analytics was simple.

Today, work increasingly involves thinking rather than doing. It is ideas that are most valuable, not physical actions. We deal in innovation, creativity, and problem-solving – these are the things that truly change the world. But they are difficult, or perhaps even impossible, to quantify.

We can measure IQ, or have people undergo various competency tests, but building a team based on these metrics won’t necessarily result in success. Adding together the IQs and test scores of individuals does not provide a measurement of a team’s efficacy. It just isn’t that simple. Building a team of thinkers is much more complex than building a team of doers.

Instead of looking at test results, we should be looking at the unique tools that individuals bring to a problem. People aren’t numbers; they are experiences, personalities, hopes, fears, and ideas. The combined wisdom of a diverse group is more than the sum of its parts. Or, as Page says, “one plus one can equal three, but only if the ones are different.”

Page argues that in today’s world of unlimited information, it is impossible to be an expert in everything. Diverse teams are our best bet, as they allow for a more diversified range of expertise. We all look at the world differently and come to a problem from a slightly different angle. This is why in a knowledge-based economy, teams outperform individuals, and diverse teams outperform homogeneous ones.

Making diversity work

So not only is diversity morally important, but it also adds value – this is great news for business. But for this value to be realised, we must create a work culture that supports diversity in all its forms, and values different ways of thinking and working.

This is perhaps more difficult than it sounds. There are many unspoken cultural assumptions around the way we approach work. For example, energetic extroverts may be more highly valued than quiet introverts, because they appear more enthusiastic and confident. There may be unconscious biases towards certain personality types, as hiring managers look to fill their team with likeminded people. Even the language of job ads may suggest that only a certain type of person need apply.

Likewise, in some businesses, there may be an assumption that it is best to agree with or act like superiors, for fear of appearing contrary. Employees may feel that alternative viewpoints are not welcome, or would even be laughed at. How many great ideas have been suppressed by someone too afraid to say something out of the ordinary?

In order to unleash the power of diversity, you need to embrace the differences between people. This can only happen in a culture where all ideas are welcomed, and where different personalities are celebrated.


Twitter card image was taken from


Nicholas Edwards

Nicholas Edwards -

Nicholas Edwards is a freelance writer and editor based in Prague, the Czech Republic. When he's not helping local businesses master the English language, he loves writing about the future of work for People First. 

Linkedin Logo