Harnessing Diversity

harnessing diversityIn today’s multi-cultural work environment the differences between people in a team can come in many varieties – cultural, lingual, political, religious and personality to name just a few of the obvious ones. Whilst these differences can create challenges for the team leader (and also for the team members) if you can learn to use the creative tension such differences create you can build a very strong and successful team.

When the people in a team are different to each other, then creating a culture of collaboration and effective teamwork can, for the team leader, seem at best a challenge and at worst impossible to achieve.

One of the main reasons why differences between people can create conflict in a team are that when someone feels that they have the “right answer” to something they can then stop listening to other people who express views that are different to this “right answer”. This situation, where opinions clash and people do not feel listened to, creates conflict.

Most people try to avoid such conflict, they feel uncomfortable when things get difficult and fear that addressing issues will create more issues and so escalate the conflict. However, if there is no conflict or no one looking at things differently, then nothing ever changes.

John Wooden, an American basketball player and head coach at the University of California at Los Angeles once said: “When everyone is thinking the same, no one is thinking”. You need people to think in order to foster innovation as in today’s fast moving business world continuous innovation is necessary if the business is to thrive rather than just survive. This being the case we need to find ways to promote differences in opinion in a way that does not create conflict.

The first thing we need to do as a team leader, is to change our own perspective so that we see differences of opinion not as potential conflict but as opportunities for learning and better answers. In this way we can start to make the most of the different perspectives every team member brings.

To do this you need to let go of the need to be “right”. Remind yourself that your opinion or your solution to a problem is not necessarily the only one. The first step to managing potential conflict is to welcome and not fear differences of opinion.

Rather than reject different opinions, ask questions in order to deepen your awareness and understanding. Take a genuine interest in the other person’s approach. Asking questions rather than making judgements makes a big difference.

When people disagree with your ideas look for the positive, the possibilities, the possible connections to what you are trying to do.

Identify what you all want to achieve and then communicate this to everyone involved and reach agreement on a shared commitment to this overall purpose. Connect your team members’ goals to this overall purpose. Unhealthy competitive behaviour is impossible where there are shared goals.

Discuss and agree a team working charter where the operating principles on which collaboration in the team are defined. These agreed principles can remove the risk of the many daily unnecessary conflict situations that could arise.

Determine the individual strengths of each team member. Everyone has a unique set of strengths that are likely to be very different to your own. By knowing these you can then make the most of them so everyone contributes the best of themselves.

Finally, focus on improving communication. Differences causing conflict is often the result of lack of communication, of incorrect and unnecessary assumptions. If you are the team leader, communicate openly and regularly with your team.

Achieving great teamwork in a diverse team can be a challenge and it will take longer to achieve than if your team members were all the same - but it is worth it. Stay focused, and keep reminding yourself that there is a win-win outcome to be had when working with people who are different to yourself in this open-minded and creative way.

You may be interested in our equality and diversity online training course.