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Optimum Talks Blog

Unleashing the Collective Potential of Diverse Teams in the Workplace

by Optimum Talent
September 30, 2015

I recently had the opportunity to attend a KidSport charity event with some of my colleagues. During the evening, we watched a few short videos featuring people who benefit from the program here in Saskatchewan.  In one testimonial video, a young girl was asked what she enjoys most about being involved in organized sport.  She confidently stated, “I like to play sports because you get to learn how to get along with kids who are different than you are.”

You heard it here first – this girl is going places.

She recognizes that people are not all the same (which is okay!) and that there is value in learning to embrace differences in pursuit of a common goal.  While this appears to be a simple concept, most of us can likely recall a moment when we felt that it was next to impossible to work with a colleague who was “too impatient”, “too inquisitive”, “too withdrawn” or “too disengaged” despite a shared commitment to organizational goals.

On the heels of decades of research championing the benefits of workplace diversity, individuals are likely to find themselves placed on a team with others who were selected for their role because of their unique talents, skills, interests and abilities.  In theory, this diversity should enable teams to bring to light unique viewpoints and perspectives that ultimately lead to the development of more informed solutions.  However, in some instances, individual personalities and behavioral style differences prove to be significant barriers to the team’s ability to engage in divergent thinking, and as a result, the rate of forward progress is significantly hampered.

2011 study of 25,000 college students conducted by researchers at Wellesley College and the University of Kansas found that people tend to seek out friends who are similar to them.  The study suggested that interactions between like-minded folks tend to be somewhat more pleasant and harmonious.  It is no wonder then, that executives, managers and front-line employee’s alike struggle to adapt to environments where discord amongst diverse team members is encouraged – or in some instances, demanded.

The key to unleashing the collective potential of these teams is to create an environment where individual members are provided with the necessary level of comfort to engage in healthy conflict (i.e. ability to openly share and genuinely appreciate unique viewpoints). In order to achieve healthy conflict, team members need an opportunity to learn about the conditions under which they and their colleagues are most engaged, productive and effective.

For example, some employees may value the opportunity to talk through challenges and issues with their team members (i.e. collaborative brainstorming) while others would prefer to take time to digest complex information before attempting to develop a solution with their peers (i.e. thoughtful consideration).  Without an informed understanding of these conditional preferences, the more a collaborative colleague may come off as “too impatient” or “too inquisitive” when really, they are simply eager to work through challenges with their colleagues and feel more productive by developing ideas together.  Conversely, the thoughtful colleague, preferring to take time to think about the facts of the matter at hand, may come off as being “too withdrawn” or “too disengaged” when really, they simply prefer to bring forward a well-thought out perspective to their colleagues.

Armed with insight into the preferences of each team member, groups can work together to identify the behavioral norms that enable engagement and constructive thinking.  Examples of behavioral norms include establishing an effective meeting rhythm, providing briefing notes on key issues/challenges in advance of meetings and ensuring everyone has the opportunity to share their viewpoint.  At the end of the day the teams that truly understand and appreciate the differences of individual members, including personality and behavioral style differences, are the teams that will leverage the potential that lies within diversity.

“If you do not intentionally include, you unintentionally exclude.” – Neil Lenane (Business Leader Recruiting, Progressive Insurance)

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