Recent research suggests that the ability to comfortably
integrate different identities is the key to success for diverse
teams and people who straddle two cultural worlds.
For America, 2012 will go down in history as the year of the
Latinos, the blacks, the women and the gays. That rainbow coalition
won President Barack Obama his second term. This triumph of the
outsiders is partly due to America's changing demographics. And it
is not just the United States that is becoming more diverse. Canada
is, too, as is much of Europe.
That is why it is worth thinking hard about how to make diverse
teams effective, and how people who straddle two cultural worlds can
succeed. Three academics, appropriately enough a diverse group based
in Asia and America, have been doing some provocative research that
suggests that our ability to comfortably integrate our different
identities -- or not -- is the key.
In "Connecting the Dots Within: Creative Performance and Identity
Integration," Chi-Ying Cheng, of Singapore Management University,
Jeffrey Sanchez-Burks, of the Ross School of Business at the
University of Michigan, and Fiona Lee, also at the University of
Michigan, argue that ethnic minorities, and women in male-dominated
professions, are most creative when they have found a way to believe
that their "multiple and conflicting social identities are
"We tried to see how people who have to deal with seemingly in-
conflict culture or gender identities cope," Dr. Cheng told me.
Their conclusion was that people who have found a way to reconcile
their two identities -- Asian-Americans, for example, or women who
work in male-dominated jobs like engineering -- are the best at
finding creative solutions to problems.
"Those who see their identities as compatible, they are better at
combining ideas from the two identities to come up with something
new," Dr. Cheng said. "While those who also share these two social
identities, but see them as being in conflict, they cannot come up
with new ideas."
Drs. Cheng, Sanchez-Burks and Lee devised a research strategy to
probe this issue that you do not need a Ph.D. to appreciate: They
asked Asian-Americans to invent new fusion cuisine dishes using both
typically Asian and typically American ingredients, and they asked
female engineers to design products geared specifically to women. In
both cases, people who were at peace with their dual identities
"Asian-Americans who had higher bicultural integration could
create more creative recipes, and they believed it was possible to
come up with more recipes," Dr. Cheng said. "By contrast, Asian-
Americans who feel their two identities are in conflict cannot come
up with as many creative recipes. …