Dealing with Diversity: minimizing conflict, maximising creativity by Joost van Imhoff


Simply increasing team diversity for the sake of increasing creativity seems a little shortsighted. Admittedly bringing in different perspectives can increase problem solving in complex tasks, even when these perspectives are within one individual in the form of several identities(5). Nevertheless, diversity can in fact increase knowledge barriers and foster conflict in teams. So how do managers deal with increasing diversity and stop it from possibly fuelling conflict. In other words: how do we implement conflict resolution systems design in dealing with team diversity? It seems diversity requires managing and dissimilar teams need specific management techniques in order to reach their full potential. In this article, I will attempt to map these requirements for diverse teams to provide some guidance for managers on how to minimize conflict and maximize creativity.

Discerning Team Diversity’s Relation to Creativity

One of the important factors in using diversity to one’s creative advantage seems to be perspective taking. Van Knippenberg et al. (2012) argue that perspective taking serves a moderating role in the relationship between team diversity and creativity. In other words: team diversity only has a positive effect on creativity if perspective taking among team members is high. The authors define perspective taking as: “a cognitive process through which an observer tries to understand, in a nonjudgmental way, the thoughts, motives and/or feelings of a target, as well as why they think and/or feel the way they do”.

Their evidence supporting perspective taking's moderating role corroborates one of their earlier conceptual frameworks, the categorization-elaboration model (CEM). According to the CEM, teams benefit from diversity when team members engage in information elaboration, defined as the exchange, discussion and integration of ideas, knowledge, and insights relevant to the team’s task. Yet, social categorization and intergroup bias, which are both common in diverse teams, may disrupt elaboration and thereby harm diverse teams(6). Considering a team members perspective can reduce stereotyping and in-group favoritism(7) and therefore will increase information elaboration, thereby reducing the chance of conflict and increase creativity.

Perspective taking can overcome knowledge barriers in teams, which may be another explanation for the moderating effect. Knowledge barriers, for instance: differences in evaluative standards, can obscure cross-functional understanding. Perspective taking may change the way information is shared by adjusting the way a message is framed.

Subjective Relational Experiences

Sharing information is a cognitive process and focuses on the rational aspect of dissimilarity between team members. However being part of a work team, though aimed at problem solving, is not just a rational experience. Often social dynamics, conflict and eventually performance are fuelled by subjective emotional experiences. Following that line of reasoning, every individual team member has his respective subjective relational experience within the work team. It seems this particular experience can have an effect on creativity

Individuals who have a positive subjective relational experience engage in more innovative behavior(8). A person’s subjective rational experience consists of three aspects: positive regard; mutuality and vitality(9). The two former aspects are of importance here. Positive regard is defined as the subjective experience of an individual who is in positive relationships with others, and it is similar to the feeling of being known. Mutuality is defined as an experience of multiple parties actively participating in a positive relationship, which will stimulate all parties to engage in shared activities.

Taking the given definition of perspective taking, the notion on the effect of subjective rational experiences fits the bill. Perspective taking includes trying to understand someone’s motives and emotions and why they are feeling them. A team member who experiences his perspective being acknowledged by his peers might have a more positive subjective rational experience. He has the feeling of ‘being heard’ and not only shares information more effectively but reciprocates the encountered behavior to the rest of the team 

Concluding Statement

Raising team diversity is not enough to foster creativity and stimulate innovative behaviors in team members. In order to prevent it from cultivating conflict managers need to manage it with care. First of, in order to deal with diversity, a manager would do well to actively engage his team in perspective taking. Transformational leadership, a skill that can be learned, is known to stimulate employees to engage in perspective taking(10). Furthermore, simply routinely considering: what is ”the other perspective” can help team members to engage in perspective taking more frequently(11). Logically I would say cross-functional training might support teams to understand each other’s viewpoints better.

Secondly having a positive subjective relational experience also seems to help in dealing with diversity and the prevention of conflict in work teams. Cultivating these positive experiences seems key in preventing conflict and stimulating innovative behavior. For teams in conflict, perhaps the negative direction can be turned around and by engaging in shared activities, feelings of mutuality can be invoked in team members.

In conclusion, managers should engage in shared team activities and perspective taking when dealing with diverse teams. This way they can minimize conflict in their team and use team diversity to its full potential.


(1) Hoever, I.J., van Knippenberg, D, van Ginkel, W.P., & Barkema, H.G. (2012). Fostering team creativity: Perspective taking as key to unlocking diversity’s potential. Journal of Applied Psychology, 97, 982-996.

(2) Amabile, T.M., & Khaire, M. (2008). Creativity and the role of the leader. Harvard Business School publishing 2008.

(3) West, M. A. (2002). Sparkling fountains or stagnant ponds: An integrative model of creativity and innovation implementation in work groups. Applied Psychology, 51,355–387.

(4) Jackson, S. E., & Joshi, A. (2011). Work team diversity. In S. Zedeck (Ed.), APA handbook of industrial and organizational psychology1, 651–686.

(5) Cheng, C., Sanchez-Burks, J., & Lee, F. 2008. Connecting the dots within: Creative performance and identity integration. Psychological Science, 19, 1178–1184.

(6) van Knippenberg, D., De Dreu, C. K. W., & Homan, A. C. (2004). Work group diversity and group performance: An integrative model and research agenda. Journal of Applied Psychology, 89, 1008–1022.

(7) Galinsky, A. D., & Moskowitz, G. B. (2000). Perspective-taking: Decreasing stereotype expression, stereotype accessibility, and in-group favoritism. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78, 708–724.

(8) Vinarski-Peretz, H., Binyamin, G., & Carmeli, A. (2011). Subjective relational experiences and employee innovative behaviors in the workplace. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 78, 290-304.

(9) Dutton, J. E., & Heaphy, E. D. (2003). The power of high-quality connections at work. In K. S. Cameron, J. E. Dutton, & R. E. Quinn (Eds.), Positive organizational scholarship (pp. 263−278).

(10) Shin, S. J., & Zhou, J. (2007). When is educational specialization heterogeneity related to creativity in research and development teams? Transformational leadership as a moderator. Journal of Applied Psychology, 92, 1709–1721.

(11) Yaniv, I,, & Choshen-Hillel, S., (2012). When guessing what another person would say is   better than giving your own opinion: Using perspective-taking to improve advice-taking, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology48, 1022-1028.


© Conflict Change Consulting Ltd.  2014