A picturesque cobbled street in the center of Modena, a city in Emilia-Romagna, the culinary region of Italy, is the home of Osteria Francescana, a 3-Michelin star restaurant which reached the top of the Best Restaurants in the World list for both 2016 and 2018. Though the restaurant got there by virtue of its exceptional food, there’s something else that’s quite remarkable about the business: the diversity of its staff. The chef and owner, Massimo Bottura, hired people not only from Italy, but from across the globe. Take the two sous chefs, Davide di Fabio and Kondo Takahiko, who have very different backgrounds and very different styles. Di Fabio, who is from Italy, is much more comfortable with improvisation, while Takahiko is obsessed with precision. For Bottura, it is not only important for his team to be diverse but also for the team members to understand the culture and background of others working with them. To encourage this type of understanding, chefs can travel with Bottura to cooking events across the globe to learn new cuisines, as well as these countries’ traditions, arts, and culture.
Bottura believes such “collisions” make his kitchen more innovative, and research supports this idea. Diversity enhances creativity because it facilitates what scholars call divergent thinking – that is, the ability to consider issues from multiple perspectives. Diverse group members are better equipped to introduce different perspectives, alternatives, and uniquely held information than homogeneous groups. As a result, they can have an advantage in the creative cognitive process. Even the simple fact of having multicultural experiences has been found to increase creativity, because it allows us to consider and combine various points of views and perspectives.
But the reality of working in highly diverse groups or organizations is not all positive. Having diverse group members can also lower cohesion and raise conflict due to interpersonal differences. And so, sometimes, diverse groups actually underperform homogeneous groups on creative tasks.
What’s needed to help groups make the most of their diversity is glue, new research suggests. Specifically, groups need members who are prepared to think carefully about how to best facilitate interactions among people who have different backgrounds and may look at the world differently. People with multicultural experience are best suited to this task: They can act as a bridge between their teammates who have experience with only one culture represented in the team.
Organizational behavior scholar Sujin Jang of INSEAD refers to these acts of facilitation as cultural brokerage and the people who engage in them as cultural brokers. Her research shows that they allow diverse teams with members from various cultures to capitalize on the benefits of diversity while mitigating the pitfalls. In an archival study of over 2,000 multicultural teams and a laboratory experiment with 83 multicultural teams with different cultural compositions, Jang found that teams were much more creative when they had one or more members who acted as cultural brokers.
Jang identified two specific profiles for cultural brokers. Some, cultural insiders, have experience with the exact cultures they are bridging in their team. Consider, for instance, a team whose members are primarily Italian and Japanese. A team member with experience in these cultures would be a cultural insider. Other brokers have experience in two or more cultures that are not represented in the team — say, American and Mexican. Those brokers are cultural outsiders.
In her lab experiment, Jang recruited 249 people who either (1) had lived in one country and had no real knowledge of other cultures or (2) who had lived in at least two countries for at a minimum of five years each and reported having good knowledge of both cultures. The participants were divided into 83 teams, each with three members: two monocultural and one multicultural. Some teams had a broker, some did not. Jang varied whether the multicultural person was either a cultural insider or a cultural outsider relative to the monocultural members.
In the study, teams worked together on a task that required them to be creative and to draw upon the cultures represented in the team. Specifically, they were working as an event-planning agency proposing ideas for a multicultural wedding between clients from India and the United States. Jang found that cultural insiders relied on their dual knowledge of the other cultures on their team to integrate information and ideas from those cultures. Cultural outsiders instead relied on their position as a neutral third party to draw information and ideas out of their teammates about their cultures. So, during the team discussions, they often asked the other team members questions and proactively invited them to share relevant cultural knowledge.
Both types of cultural brokerage promoted team creativity, the results showed: Teams that had cultural brokers produced more creative ideas than teams without cultural brokers, as evaluated by five independent raters who had expertise in both Indian and American cultures.
As the world becomes increasingly interconnected, individuals from diverse cultural and professional backgrounds have more opportunities to collaborate than ever before. But only when teams have members who can serve as cultural brokers thanks to their experience with other cultures, as is the case at Osteria Francescana, can they expect to reap the creative benefits that such diversity promises.