The Rewards of Diversity
Rebel Ideas

The Rewards of Diversity

Best-selling author and award-winning New York Times columnist Matthew Syed explores contemporary gestalts to reveal the positive power of diversity.

With data and insight, Matthew Syed – a brilliant, award-winning columnist for The Times and author of the bestsellers Bounce, You Are Awesome and Black Box Thinking – demonstrates how diversity and creativity lead to higher returns in many arenas. He also provides steps for recruiting rebel voices and a rich mix of team members.

One of today’s foremost public intellectuals, Syed addresses how to think about thought, how to perceive the way you perceive, and how to step out of your own “bubble” to recognize the way cultural assumptions and other biases may inhibit your personal and commercial evolution. The scale of Syed’s success indicates that audiences welcome his insights. He shuns pomposity and writes with singular directness, clarity and style, though his style is never flamboyant. Syed may at times cite well-known examples – such as the Mount Everest climbing disasters – but he takes a fresh approach to each narrative.

“Blind Spots”

Syed recounts that before the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, CIA analysts discounted information about an imminent threat. He explains how blind spots in the CIA’s recruitment and hiring practices created a lack of racial, religious, ethnic and gender diversity. Though the CIA received alerts, the agency’s established assumptions and its analysts’ locked-in viewpoints led it to discard those tips.

To a critical mass of CIA analysts, then, bin Laden looked primitive and thus of no serious danger to a technological giant like the United States.Matthew Syed

Syed posits convincingly that the CIA’s homogenous culture led it to suffer from “perspective blindness.”


Syed emphasizes a point that appears with increasing regularity in contemporary business books: Diversity and inclusion enhance overall organizational performance. He offers numerous, convincing examples showing that companies that are diverse in age, race and gender outperform their less diverse competitors. Syed quotes an analysis of corporations in the United States, United Kingdom and Germany showing that executive teams with high levels of racial and gender diversity substantially outperformed – as measured by return on equity – teams with the lowest levels of diversity.


Syed delves into the tragic 1996 Mount Everest climbing season, during which many mountaineers died. Syed argues that the survivors’ accounts overlook the role of hierarchy and poor communication in these tragedies.

For diversity to work its magic, different perspectives and judgments must be expressed. It is no good having useful information that never gets aired.Matthew Syed

Syed discusses team leader Rob Hall, who had summitted Mount Everest four times.Hall’s demand for absolute obedience silenced potentially lifesaving feedback. The author relates that a low-ranking guide – ordered to be quiet – accordingly withheld information about missed deadlines. Hall’s requirements thus robbed his team of the benefit and protection of its members’ diverse expertise. Hall and other team members died. Syed urges organizations to welcome “constructive dissent.”


Syed provides multiple examples of immigration’s positive impact on the United States. He discloses that immigrants represent 13% of the US population and nearly 30% of its entrepreneurs.He cites Estée Lauder, Walt Disney, Arianna Huffington, Elon Musk and Jerry Yang as among many immigrants or the offspring of immigrants contributing in major ways to the economy.

The author recognizes that immigrants launched or co-founded 43% of Fortune 500 companies overall, and 57% of the top 35 Fortune 500 firms. Companies founded by immigrants enjoy faster-paced growth and longer survival rates.

Syed attributes much of this success to the process of adjusting to a new culture and new life processes, which, he concludes, enhances creativity and reinvention. That novel outlook, the author finds, sparks innovation. 

“Echo chambers”

Syed explores a crucial aspect of contemporary society. He defines echo chambers as homogenous groups meeting in person or digitally. Political echo chambers, the author cautions, produce polarization and distortion. In more extreme situations, he contends, echo chambers operate with harmful filters that encourage participants to view external information with hostility and distrust.


Syed suggests that standardization fails to address diversity or the need for specific solutions. Rigid processes and standards, he insists, penalize everyone involved. He offers by example that in the 1940s, an anthropologist detected a deadly link between standard cockpit designs and fatal US Air Force crashes.

Blind Auditions

Returning to his theme that diversity and innovation fuel success, Syed explains that during the 1970s, male musicians dominated orchestras and symphonies. That changed with the advent of blind auditions, having musicians perform behind screens so that judges could hear their playing but not see them.

Dismantling unconscious bias, then, is not just a powerful first step in creating a fairer system, it is also a first step in creating a more collectively intelligent societyMatthew Syed

Syed reports that with the implementation of blind intake auditions, the number of female musicians who made it to final auditions increased by 300%.

Going Deeper

While the best source of parallel ideas might be Syed’s other works – cited above – readers may also benefit from Range by David Epstein or enjoy Syed’s BBC podcast Flintoff, Savage and the Ping Pong Guy. Syed’s thought processes and relatively light presentation of multifaceted ideas and social theories make his books and columns excellent jumping-off points for exploring more serious philosophical or political works. One of Syed’s great gifts is offering a solid grounding in quite complex ideas in a readable, wholly entertaining form.

Share this Story
Show all Reviews