How diverse groups can set the stage for collaborative action

Diversity in a group can boost its problem-solving and innovation potential. But simply bringing diverse people together doesn’t necessarily help them work well together.

“In addressing social issues, organizations have a responsibility to promote diverse participation, yet often struggle to harness the benefits of racial and gender diversity,” wrote Kathryn L. Heinze and Erb Institute faculty member Sara B. Soderstrom in “Practicing Dialogue: How an Organization Can Facilitate Diverse Collaborative Action.”  

“We argue that for diverse groups, fostering quality interactions is particularly important for addressing and overcoming challenges associated with group diversity,” they wrote. Their research, recently published in the Journal of Business Ethics, looked at how a social change organization was able to facilitate diverse collaboration.

Heinze and Soderstrom conducted an 18-month field study of the nonprofit organization FoodLab, which promotes healthy, environmentally sustainable and accessible food systems in Detroit. The organization aimed to grow a good food economy by working with its members: local food entrepreneurs who were diverse in race and gender.

The researchers found that, through practicing dialogue, FoodLab supported high-quality interactions among participants and facilitated collaborative action on multiple issues that affect them, including shared kitchens and licensing. In collaborative action, organizational members work together to implement strategies that address shared objectives around social issues.

Practicing dialogue includes three informal structures:

  • Intentional convening established contact among diverse people at gatherings such as membership meetings and workshops. It included using facilitators—and shifting the facilitator role from one person to another.
  • Participatory devices prompted participants to share their varied experiences and perspectives, such as by beginning meetings with a question for the group to consider. “Rather than starting with a more unidirectional, or ‘leader-owned,’ approach, . . . participatory devices set the expectation of co-creation and equal status,” so everyone felt heard and respected, Heinze and Soderstrom wrote. This encouraged engagement.
  • Collective language helped build a sense of solidarity on issues among FoodLab leaders and members. This included framing needs in terms of the collective, using “we,” “us” and “our.”

Together, these three structures supported high-quality interactions among FoodLab members, and participants developed resources, knowledge, motivation and relationships.

For example, on the issue of licensing, participants learned “that entrepreneurs did not always operate with licenses, many were concerned about costs, the process was confusing, and these challenges varied by business types. This knowledge shaped the strategy of working with the city to make an easier, more affordable process, and developing guides for various types of entrepreneurs,” Heinze and Soderstrom wrote.

“This dynamic process is particularly important as diverse groups work to address social issues that are complex,” the researchers wrote.  

While social issues often are complex, and people of different backgrounds who come together to solve problems may not be very comfortable with each other initially, this approach values the perspectives of diverse people, builds trust and solidarity, and encourages them to contribute to addressing issues that matter.