Research Highlights

Happy Talk: Is Common Diversity Rhetoric Effective Diversity Rhetoric?

Overview: In a new paper, “Happy Talk: Is Common Diversity Rhetoric Effective Diversity Rhetoric?,” NYU Stern Professor Lisa Leslie, Stern PhD student Olivia Foster-Gimbel, and Stern alumna Elinor Flynn (PhD ’22) (University of Pennsylvania), along with co-author Colleen F Manchester (University of Minnesota), study how leaders can improve their methods of discussing diversity initiatives with employees so as to truly cultivate a diverse and inclusive organization.

Why study this now: Diversity initiatives are common across organizations, but are not always effective. Furthermore, they can sometimes have a negative effect as they fail to motivate employees to put these initiatives into practice. Part of this failure arises from the way leaders speak to their employees about diversity. Speakers tend to emphasize positive information while omitting negative, particularly when talking about diversity. This phenomenon is known as “happy talk” and causes leaders to use diversity rhetoric (how leaders talk about diversity and its effects) that emphasizes diversity leads to favorable outcomes only, which is at odds with reality that diversity can be a source of either benefits or challenges.

Leslie’s work challenges these conclusions by theorizing that using contingent rhetoric (e.g., “diversity is good for the organization, but only if its challenges are overcome”) instead of value rhetoric (e.g., “diversity is good for the organization”) leads to more positive results.

What the researchers found:

  • Leaders are less likely to use contingent rhetoric versus value rhetoric due to a fear of appearing prejudiced — even though these fears are counterproductive.
  • Contingent rhetoric results in more diversity effort than value rhetoric does because once employees learn that diversity goals are difficult to achieve, they try harder to help achieve them.
  • Leaders should use more realistic rhetoric by emphasizing that in order to reap the benefits of a diverse organization you must overcome the challenges that the journey may present.

Key insight: “Achieving diversity goals requires that employees take action to foster diversity and inclusion,” said the authors. “Leaders can increase employees’ diversity effort, and thereby help their organizations become more diverse and inclusive, by changing the way they talk about diversity.”

The research was published in the Academy of Management Journal.