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Diverse teams - the formula for high performance?

Diversity and personality in the workplace

Posted by: sabine-robinson

People Management

We live in a global and multifaceted society. A fact that is not only mirrored, but often actively encouraged in a business environment. Undoubtedly, your teams will be made up of people from different racial, ethnic and cultural backgrounds.

Managers following this approach generally strive to end up with a team with individual thinking, innovative spirit, high productivity and more open-mindedness. This is based on the recognition that every person is unique. Our points of reference are shaped by external factors such as our demographics, experienced parenting styles and educational opportunities. These in turn influence the way we think and feel; they present the variables in our make-up.

Researchers generally agree that a team pooling a broad scope of perspectives, experiences and attitudes is better equipped to tackle complex problems and successfully meet challenges. In his book The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies, the social scientist Scott E. Page argues that “diversity isn’t just window dressing; including people who think differently can make your organization more effective”.

Whilst some of Page’s models illustrating the impact of diversity on organisations have been tested via computer simulations only, his analysis is rigorous and methodical – and still holds water. His study shows that some of the most striking divergence can be seen in the areas of problem-solving and creativity. Diverse groups were shown to consistently perform better in these pivotal skill-sets than more homogenous and like-minded teams. Our collective wisdom exceeds the sum of its parts.

Sounds great? That’s assuming all team members pull in the same direction

Great new ideas are often born out of a clash of different perspectives. When different viewpoints can be consolidated in a productive and respectful manner, these discussions are welcome, healthy and deeply necessary.

Unfortunately, we can all cite examples from our experience pool – both inside and outside work – when a difference in attitudes and viewpoints sparked conflict. The CIPD conducted an employee survey entitled “Getting under the skin of workplace conflict: Tracing the experiences of employees”. 36% of workplace conflict is cited to occur between colleagues inside the organisation.

That’s a worrying statistic for team managers. If disagreement persists or escalates, this can have a serious impact on team harmony and productivity. Whilst this is true for all teams – divers or homogenous – the conflict potential rises proportionally to the increase in levels of diversity. Workplace conflict could therefore impair the very ability of your diverse team to drive progress and innovation by capitalising on their individuality.

Isn’t diversity therefore a recipe for team conflict that is best avoided?

We can hopefully all agree that the answer has to be a categorical ‘No’. The advantages of a diverse workforce far outweigh the potential disadvantages. This essentially leaves two approaches.

You could opt for conflict resolution. If you anticipate conflict as part of managing your diverse team, then you could train to recognise its early warning signs and have a strategy in place to resolve issues before they escalate. This costs time and energy which are often at a premium.

Or you could avoid conflict as much as possible in the first place. In fact, wouldn’t you as team manager ideally like to have the best of both worlds: a diverse and a harmonious team? But is this possible?

I feel very lucky. I am part of a largely harmonious and well-functioning team. I work in a small open plan office in an all-female team of eight ladies. We have our moments, but generally we support each other, work hard and share laughter and tears both at work and outside. We are colleagues and above all friends.

Whilst this might look like a homogenous team on the surface, when digging down, we span a huge age range and have very different educational and ethnic backgrounds. We bring a variety of experiences to the job, but we display similar behavioural traits, but we are also aware of our differences and respect them.

Behavioral awareness – is this where the solution lies?

According to the CIPD study into workplace conflict, the single most common contributor to conflict is differences in personality. Our personality is inherent to our being. It shapes our behaviour and motivational drives in all areas of our lives.

Doesn’t it therefore stand to reason, that the more we know about a person’s core behavioural drives, the better we can judge their actions, reactions and needs? Their behaviour becomes more predictable. Knowing your team’s individual and overall personality and managing them accordingly will help you to encourage team harmony. Particulary, if this awareness filters down to every individual and their respective colleagues. We can then develop understanding and respect for our colleague’s workplace behaviour, even if it differs from our own.

We know that higher levels of diversity in your team could proportionally increase the risk of conflict. Does it therefore not make sense to pair your understanding of the individual personalities in your team with considerations of diversity?

Is it thus indeed possible to build a team where diversity is encouraged and the personalities aligned? Could you thereby quite literally design a team which is largely harmonious and high-performing? The best of both worlds…

Do you agree? What are your experiences with diverse teams? Do you have a different approach?