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Diversity as a key feature for performance – in humans and forests

Blog post by Dr. Daniela Haluza

In our interdisciplinary research project Dr.FOREST, our work revolves around (bio)diversity in forest settings, especially in terms of tree diversity and what this means for forest health and also human health – and wellbeing. Biological diversity, and biodiversity, mean the variability among living organisms of all origins, including, inter alia, terrestrial, marine, and other aquatic ecosystems and the ecological complexes to which they belong (Figure 1, Noss, 1990). Per definition, this includes diversity within and between species and the diversity of ecosystems. As simple as this sounds terminology-wise, the different viewpoints grounded in our various backgrounds sometimes lead to challenges in the designations vital for the success of our project. Is it okay to speak of forest health, and if yes, what does this mean? Are we all picturing the same thing when we discuss forest walk experiences? And, what is a diversity index?

Figure 1. Three different dimensions of biodiversity: compositional, structural, and functional (Noss, 1990)

Managing diversity

The concept of diversity itself is a hot topic. As experienced academic researchers, we know that besides biodiversity there are other kinds of diversity, which are relevant in our daily lives at universities and other research organizations, in teamwork, while educating students, and communicating our scientific findings to various audiences: outstandingly, the diversity of people. In organizations, management of diversity is part of human resource management and is mostly used in the sense of constructive use of personal and social diversity.

Classic diversity management focuses on characteristics such as gender, ethnicity, age, disability, sexual orientation, and religion (Figure 2). In addition to the primary dimensions, secondary dimensions include income, professional career, geographical location, marital status, parenthood, and education of an applicant or employee. In even more differentiated concepts, categories such as differences in skills, competencies, working style, and behavior of all kinds are also taken into account. Diversity mainstreaming by state administrations uses the same terms as diversity management in companies. However, it is oriented less towards the pursuit of economic profit than towards the idea of ​​social justice and the creation of equal opportunities for all people.

Figure 2. Diversity dimensions. Source: https://percipiocompany.com

Measuring diversity

To answer one of the questions mentioned above, the diversity index is a quantitative measure that reflects how many different types (such as species) there are in a dataset (a community), and that can simultaneously take into account the relations among the individuals distributed among those types (Agrawal and Gopal, 2013). As for interpretation, these indices can show either the evenness or the richness, divergence, diversity, and inequality in the respective population and determinant. In general, diversity is best measured at multiple levels of the research process and the data analysis (Cox, 1994).

Depending on the underlying research question and the available data, the Simpson index, the Shannon index (also known as Shannon-Wiener- or Shannon-Weaver-Index), Gini index, or the Blau index – just to mention a few – are used to measure e.g. gender, religious, racial, income or species diversity. Often, these indices do not result in actions, as they just describe states. In reality, artificially enhancing diversity by external pressures is challenging, as it does not only suffice to increase diversity per se in organizations or in forests to increase resilience, growth, and performance in the system (Jactel et al., 2017; Owen and Temesvary, 2019). The composition, which translates into individual functions, skills, and characteristics, is the most important adjusting screw.

Both for human and natural settings, a three-stage model might be effective when designing measures to promote diversity-relevant content: raising awareness, deepening knowledge, and changing behavior (Cox, 1994). Raising awareness serves to promote the conscious perception of diversity and to separate this perception from the impression that diversity is annoying and disturbing everyday work processes. Deepening knowledge provides factual information about the selected diversity aspects and serves as orientation. Ultimately, behavior change can be understood as the effect of successful sensitization and knowledge transfer: people react differently to certain situations and are willing to try out actions. This very likely sounds familiar to you as successful research projects and political strategies routinely adhere to similar frameworks.

Since the late 1990s, aspects of diversity have been taken into account in legislation that is intended to protect people from discrimination. Compliance with diversity management rules thus no longer only means competitive advantage, but non-compliance also means a competitive disadvantage, resulting in considerable financial penalties. A management style acknowledging the power of diversity in teams is nowadays a key qualification for management positions, also in the academic sector. A large proportion of research on diversity actually deals with the connection between diversity in a company and its entrepreneurial success, with the intention of expanding the legitimacy basis of diversity management measures. This penalty aspect is interesting, as it seems that the integration of females, non-white men, and LGTB+ people is not a natural process, even in modern Western societies, and needs a lot of extra determination and nudging. At this point, we can learn so much from nature, where a healthy mix of species reflecting evolutionary processes can be detected in the tiniest biotope and within ecological niches.

Shifting perspectives

Diversity is well-known and established in human and natural habitats. However, diversity is important in multifold aspects: in chemistry, chemical diversity describes a measure of the structural diversity of molecules or syntheses. In sociology, social diversity is a concept for distinguishing between identity-forming group characteristics. In technology, diversity should increase reliability. Neurodiversity (“neurological diversity”) refers to a concept in which neurobiological differences are viewed and respected as one human disposition among others. Accordingly, atypical neurological developments are classified as natural human differences. The concept of neurodiversity thus understands, among other things, autism spectrum disorders, ADHS, dyscalculia, dyslexia, and dyspraxia as a natural form of human diversity. The neologism of neurodiversity emerged in the late 1990s as a critique of the prevailing view that neurological diversity is inherently pathological. It serves as a good example of the dynamics in how diversity is framed and perceived in different systems and disciplines, gradually integrated into society, and thus, for the so-called shifting baselines.

The term shifting baseline originally comes from environmental research and describes different standards of comparison for the perception of change. Exemplarily, due to their experience, older environmental researchers perceive the decline in insects, fish stocks, or bird species more clearly than younger colleagues, as shown in Figure 3 on the example of sea life. The changing climate of the last decades with warmer winters and hotter summers is also a tangible example of this concept, just ask your grandparents about it! The point of reference is decisive, so, the shifting baseline syndrome describes a phenomenon of subjective and distorted perception of change.

Figure 3. Shifting baseline. Source: dixit.substack.com

Parallel to the change in environmental conditions, there are fluctuations in the reference points that serve human perception when measuring change. People align their behavior based on what they expect, what others are doing, or what others want from them. In certain situations, they are even able to change their behavior so much that they gradually move far away from their values ​​and beliefs. The less noticeable this shift is over time, the easier it is for us to change. In this way, it is possible for even serious transgressions to appear to us as “adjustments”.

This might be assumedly true for people`s characteristics in organizations, successfully pushing diversity with quotes, voluntarily or by force through legislation, making the work environment richer and more varied. But also for biodiversity, where the dramatic decline in species richness is recognized and countermeasures are taken by individual agriculturalists, likewise voluntarily or by force through legislation outlined in national biodiversity endeavors. Let´s face that we as humans are setting the baseline for future generations. Who wants to imagine a world where a child will ask: “Mother, what is a butterfly?” In the end, enhancing diversity to mirror the original and natural richness in any environment, be it in the forest or in the workplace, is always the best choice for outstanding performance and sustainable growth.

References:

Agrawal, A., & Gopal, K. (2013). Application of diversity index in measurement of species diversity. In Biomonitoring of water and waste water (pp. 41-48). Springer, India.

Cox T. A Comment on the Language of Diversity. Organization. 1994;1(1):51-58. doi:10.1177/135050849400100109

Jactel, H., Bauhus, J., Boberg, J. et al. Tree Diversity Drives Forest Stand Resistance to Natural Disturbances. Curr Forestry Rep 3, 223–243 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40725-017-0064-1

Noss, R.F. (1990), Indicators for Monitoring Biodiversity: A Hierarchical Approach. Conservation Biology, 4: 355-364. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1523-1739.1990.tb00309.x

Owen, Ann L., and Temesvary, J. CEO compensation, pay inequality, and the gender diversity of bank board of directors. Finance Research Letters 30 (2019): 276-279.