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Law Firm DEI through the lens of Belonging

What the DEI business case reveals about the practice of Belonging

Setting the table 1 of 3
March 6, 2024

The business case for diversity, equity, and inclusion has been well-established for years now.  For example, McKinsey reports in 2015, 2018, 2020, and 2023 document how companies with gender and racial/ethnic diversity in their executive leadership consistently and dramatically outperform those that do not.  In McKinsey’s most recent report, companies in the top quartile for such diversity financially outperform companies in the lowest quadrant by 39%.   

And lest we confuse correlation with causation, studies that focus specifically on workplace belonging reveal other quantifiable positives.  BetterUp Labs’ 2019 study, The Value of Belonging at Work, found that “[h]igh belonging was linked to a whopping 56% increase in job performance, a 50% drop in turnover risk, and a 75% reduction in sick days….  Employees with higher workplace belonging also showed a 167% increase in their employer promoter score (their willingness to recommend their company to others).”

Sounds like an easy, simple fix, right?  Things seldom are.  I’m intrigued by the research of Katherine Phillips.  As a tenured business professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management and, later, at Columbia Business School, Dr. Phillips dug deeply into the nuts and bolts of how diversity impacts group dynamics and problem-solving performance.

In a Talks@Columbia presentation, Dr. Phillips summarized hundreds of controlled experiments involving thousands of subjects tasked to solve a problem with a single correct answer, and with some groups homogenous and the others diverse.  The results?  The diverse groups significantly outperformed the homogenous groups in reaching the right result (homogenous groups’ accuracy 54%, diverse groups’ accuracy 75%).  But the homogenous groups, though less accurate in results, were more confident that they had reached the right result (homogenous groups’ confidence 76%, diverse groups’ confidence 71%).  And, though underperforming, the homogenous groups also rated their effectiveness more highly than did the diverse groups.

Hmmm. According to Dr. Phillips:

Although the diverse groups are outperforming the homogeneous groups, they don’t think they are.  The homogeneous groups are saying, we are great.  We got the right answer.  And the diverse groups are saying, we’re not so sure this went right. We’re not so confident that we have the right solution. 

The diverse groups, although they are outperforming the homogeneous ones, don’t realize that they have.  They’ve done a lot of hard work.  They’ve disagreed with each other.  They had to think harder about the problem.  It’s been hard work for them.

Dr. Phillips concluded that diversity brings more than new information and perspectives to the table: 

Diversity serves as a trigger.  It makes people dig deeper, work harder, question themselves.  There’s more conflict in these diverse groups – conflict of opinions and perspectives – and that leads to better outcomes…. I’ve argued to people that the pain is worth the gain.

But “disagreement,” “harder work,” and “conflict”?  You bet, for demonstrably better outcomes.  This is the reality of diversity.  Change, challenge, and discomfort are the price of the ticket to a better, higher-performing (work)place. 

And what organizational skill set helps law firms succeed at this strategy, to capture through diversity these better outcomes for the firms and their clients?  Getting better at practicing Belonging