Posted: 27 May 2019 05 min. read

How and when can culturally diverse teams enhance team creativity and innovation?

Surface level versus deep level diversity

Does cultural diversity in teams necessarily translate into team creativity/innovation?

If not, then under what conditions can cultural diversity result in team creativity and innovation?

Research by professors Wang J (University of Nottingham Ningbo China), Cheng GH‐L (Duke‐NUS Medical School, Singapore), Chen T (Lingnan University, Hong Kong), and Leung (The Chinese University of Hong Kong) provides a fresh perspective to answering these questions. 

Firstly, this research distinguishes the effects of two diversity levels, surface versus deep, in culturally diverse teams. Surface-level diversity involves visible attributes like nationality and ethnicity whereas deep‐level diversity involves less obvious but deeper attributes like personalities, attitudes, values, and worldviews. 

Based on a meta-analysis of 44 studies, researchers found that surface-level diversity is not correlated with team creativity/innovation.

However, the researchers found that deep‐level diversity, involving differences in deeper attributes among team members with different cultural backgrounds, has a positive effect on team creativity/innovation. This positive effect is especially true for teams that are co-located and where tasks are interdependent (which refers to the extent to which team members must rely on one another for input, information, and expertise to perform a team task). This insight is critical for organisations that want to leverage multicultural teams for innovation/creativity.


To examine the effect of surface- and deep-level diversity on team creativity/ innovation and explore conditions under which multicultural teams can achieve their creative potential


The researchers carried out an extensive literature search to locate relevant published and unpublished studies, from 1985 to March 2018. Researchers selected studies related to multi-cultural teams and team creativity/innovation, and where there was correlation between those two factors. After applying these criteria, researchers found 44 studies that yielded 47 samples, with a total of 2,832 teams, and conducted a meta-analysis.  


This research yielded the following two key insights:

  1. “Surface‐level diversity in culturally diverse teams is not related to team creativity/innovation” when tasks are complex. In fact, for simple routine tasks, surface level diversity can hurt team innovation, because of cultural identity issues and intergroup conflict. Moreover, diverse information and perspectives arising from cultural diversity may be unnecessary or even counterproductive for simple tasks. 
  2. “Deep‐level diversity in culturally diverse teams is positively related to team creativity/innovation” – when teams are co-located (i.e., work face-to-face rather than virtually) and when tasks are interdependent. Sharing, assimilating, and integrating diverse knowledge and perspectives has a benefit on teams that work face to face – and these benefits outweigh the challenges related to cultural identity and interactions. 

Implications for Business Leaders

This research has important insights for organisations that want to leverage multicultural teams for innovation and creativity. 

Firstly, the research challenges a simplistic connection between multicultural teams and innovation/creativity. Moreover, the research highlights the positive relationship between multicultural teams, deep‐level attributes such as values, perspectives, and worldviews, and innovation/creativity. 

Secondly, the research points to the importance of co-location and task interdependence in multicultural teams. For those teams which are not co-located, the research highlights the importance of “frequent use of rich media such as video conferencing”. These strategies help to reduce tensions, build trust, and enhance interpersonal relationships. 

Thirdly, the research also points to the critical role of managers “facilitat[ing] intercultural communication and information sharing and learning” especially to enable task interdependence. 

Meet our author

Shilpa Didla

Shilpa Didla

Assistant Manager, USI Inclusion

Shilpa is passionate about creating an inclusive and supportive work environment and contributes to D&I initiatives and thought leadership. Her key strengths include qualitative analysis, executive presentations, business writing, and people development.