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October 23, 2012In this timely take on the United States election season, Catalyst’s Emily Cohen, Knowledge Management Librarian, argues that strength can be drawn from the differences that divide us—provided we respect our opponents first.  -Ilene H. Lang

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As the United States presidential election draws near, and all of the candidates become more… let’s say, “animated,” I find myself in a similar state when my husband and I go to our politically opposed corners and participate in an exasperating game of “Who’s Less Wrong?” followed by a lightning round of “Name Your Source.” In these ongoing battles (this is our third presidential election together), there is never a winner, and I think I can safely say that there’s no exit strategy for the war. But there is progress. My better half (and political enemy) has taught me a great deal about accepting differences, which comes in part through learning to really listen to another point of view. And while my plea to try listening could easily focus on couples, and point to perfect pairs or examples of opposites attracting, I would rather use this opportunity to praise the value of difference in its most positive form, diversity, and specifically diversity of thought.

Catalyst has been studying the positive effects of diversity for years. Our Bottom Line research demonstrated that companies that include women in leadership positions and on boards achieve better financial results than their less-diverse peers, but many other researchers have also found that diverse groups are always more successful than their more homogeneous counterparts. In The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies, a random group of intelligent problem solvers outperformed a team composed of the “best” problem solvers. Another study, “Multicultural Experience Enhances Creativity: The When and How,” found that mere exposure to multiple cultures enhanced creativity among participants, and that extensive multicultural experiences were positively correlated to cognitive processes that support creativity.

Why does diversity equal profits, creativity, and innovation? I think it’s not because people in diverse groups learn to play devil’s advocate, but because they must genuinely consider alternate and unfamiliar perspectives. In a Harvard Business Review blog post about diversity, Liz Ryan said, “Exposure is the best tonic for fear and mistrust.” The exposure is critical, but the fear and mistrust won’t dissipate unless we respect those with differing views.

Unfortunately, lack of respect can undermine any potential gains from a clash in perspectives. For example, The Daily Show’s Finger-Pointing Blame Game featured people from the Democratic and Republican conventions accusing their opponents of intolerance—all while using broad-brush stereotypes (and actual finger-pointing!) without seeing the irony of their words. On the other hand, a recent episode of the History Channel’s show, How the States Got Their Shapes, showed that learning from opposing viewpoints isn’t as scary as some think. In one segment, the host pitted a young, liberal, gay male student of Georgetown University against a young, conservative woman attending George Washington University, and asked the pair questions about history and politics. At the end, the young man accepted his defeat gracefully and posed for pictures in a red t-shirt that read, “I am conservative.”

I am not proposing that a conservative should start following Rachel Maddow on Twitter, or a liberal should record Sean Hannity on her DVR, but wouldn’t it be great if we all had people in our lives whose opinions we value and for whom we have a great deal of respect, even when we don’t agree with them?

If I didn’t already respect my husband, I wouldn’t be as open to hearing his opinion. Which leads to the million-dollar question: what happens when I listen to his perspective, and still vehemently disagree? I usually take that time to consider the alternative… being with someone just like me! And I blissfully continue sleeping with the enemy.

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Emily Cohen conducts in-depth research on a variety of topics for staff, media, and member organizations as part of Catalyst’s Information Center, and is of the co-leader of Catalyst’s Work-Life Issue Specialty Team. She received her MSLIS from The Palmer School of Library and Information Science at Long Island University and her BS in Communications from Ithaca College.