The best reasons to favor diversity in hiring: A response to Tristan Kromer’s “Why Meritocracy Doesn’t Work”

by Alan Cohen

Tristan Kromer just published a blog post titled “Why Meritocracy Doesn’t Work” in response to the recent anti-diversity Google manifesto. He makes some good points, notably around how small amounts of bias can amplify and threaten diversity without increasing the merit of employees. However, to my mind, he misses the most important reasons to have active diversity policies at the expense of a pure meritocracy. Here are the key points, developed in a bit more detail below:

  1. Diversity increases new ideas and decreases groupthink;
  2. There is no obvious reason to believe that hiring the best individuals necessarily produces the best workforce – there can be emergent properties based on how people interact, etc.;
  3. There is no fully objective metric of merit, and forcing people outside their comfort zones in defining merit may open up new ways of seeing things;
  4. A cultural change to ensure and value diversity could create new ideas of merit that are less individually based.
  5. There are advantages to both company performance and diversity. It seems unreasonable to expect one or the other to completely dominate the other, particularly as there are likely to be diminishing marginal returns at the extremes of which we value.

Diversity decreases groupthink: I did a Ph.D in ecology/evolution at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, turning down several Ivy League offers to work with the right adviser in a small but great and diverse department. Students in my department came from many countries, particularly poorer countries. Many had worked for years in the field as park rangers, etc. before going on to graduate studies. I was always really happy with my choice of program because, compared to the programs at the Ivy Leagues that were mostly white, high-performing students fresh out of undergrad, the diversity of perspectives made me learn a lot more. You might think that culture would have relatively little impact on how one views a relatively hard science like ecology/evolution, but this is not true. I increasingly came to see that the individualist American perspective made American evolutionary biologists tend to favor explanations that centered around the adaptations of individual organisms, whereas biologists from other cultures often put more emphasis on group effects and systemic constraints. Neither way of seeing is right or wrong, but it was certainly useful to be exposed to many ideas.

Individually meritorious hires do not a great workforce make: The American bias toward seeing everything from an individualist lens that I just mentioned also has an impact on our failure to see that a great workforce is not necessarily the sum of its parts. A rather simplistic example would be that if you want to make a symphony, you don’t want to just take the 100 best musicians. You want to make sure that you have the right instruments represented, and that the musicians can follow the director and work well with each other. Americans make this logical error in many spheres, almost as an act of faith: if everyone buys their interest, we will have a perfectly functioning free market. If everyone votes their interest we will have a perfectly functioning democracy. If everyone donates their money to follow their interests, we will have well-functioning charities. Etc. And of course, in each case there is some truth, but in economics we have market failures, in democracy we have Trump, and in charitable giving we have the absurd notion that charities can replace a functioning public system for things like health  care, medical research, etc. Workforces are technically complex systems, and will have emergent properties like weather systems, ecological networks, or biological networks. It should be no surprise that the individual CVs of the employees are insufficient to see how a company works: there are also questions of culture, structure, and interpersonal dynamics. Achieving a successful company then is unlikely to be best served by a pure meritocracy, though some level of merit consideration is certainly crucial.

What is merit, anyway? For any given hire, merit could likely be defined in a myriad of ways. We might up-play or down-play technical skills, interpersonal skills, experience, etc. We might not need to move away from merit to achieve diversity, just open ourselves up to a broader way of defining it. And we’ll probably learn a lot in the process.

Valuing diversity could cause a change in how we see merit. The implementation of pro-diversity programs might actually be the trigger needed to cause a cultural shift in how we perceive merit. Is merit the best score on a test? Or the ability to propose an idea no one has thought of? If it is the latter, we better look for diversity in every way: not just male-female or race, but country of origin, political views, socio-economic status during childhood, urban-rural, field of expertise, what have you. What if we asked the question when hiring, who can bring in ideas that no one on our team will have? And that is just one example. We could also define merit based on how someone integrates with the team, history of collaboration, etc. Any of these definitions would move us away from an individualistic perspective.

Performance and diversity should be balanced anyway. The above arguments are about how we can have our cake and eat it too: about how it should be possible to make diversity and company performance go hand in hand. But it is unlikely that in the real world things will work out quite so rosily, particularly in small companies where a single hire can represent 10%-20% of the workforce. There may sometimes be a trade-off between diversity and quality (though I would argue that it could go in any direction: a company that is all female might just as likely be forced to turn down its first male hire in order to preserve the best quality/performance). But this trade-off is likely to show diminishing marginal returns. What I mean by this is, the more we favor quality over diversity, the more diversity we have to give up for a small amount of quality. This is nicely illustrated by the following image I found googling “diminishing marginal returns.” The first bit of sriracha really improves the flavor, but the more you add, the less benefit you get per gram. (Although at a certain point the tastiness should probably decline, or you should eat pure sriracha…)

Image result for diminishing marginal returns

Diminishing marginal returns. Image source

The same likely works in the other direction. We can make big gains in diversity for relatively little effect on performance, but the more we try to ensure perfect diversity, the larger the cost to performance might become.  All of which is to say, performance is a good we strive for, and diversity is also a good we strive for inasmuch as it means equality of opportunity. And there is likely to be a happy medium where we can get a fair amount of each without sacrificing much of the other, even ignoring my above arguments about how diversity is likely to improve performance.