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Por Jayan Warrier
Keynote Speaker, Self-Actualising, Happy, Conscious work life, Positive Performance, Leadership, Coach.

I hear a lot about diversity these days, more than ever before. It is mentioned in the context of high performance teams, innovation and inclusiveness. “Diversity leads to creativity, innovation and perspectives. Diversity should be respected, conflict is not a bad thing and inclusiveness is the key.” I agree with most of it. My disagreement is about the way diversity is understood and managed.

I worked with a large group of leaders from Asia Pacific, in an organizational context. They were in diverse teams sitting in 12 clusters around round tables and worked in their small groups discussing and resolving a particular challenge, they were interested in. We tried to foster diversity by mixing up nationalities, genders, functions and so on. About 5 minutes into the discussions, one of the teams invited my attention to the fact that they did not have ‘enough cultural diversity’ in their team – all of them in that cluster were from the same country/culture. I thought that was a fare comment and hence went around to find two new people to join their team to add to the diversity. The team was happy with the diversity and continued to do their work.

I was curious to find out how the diversity is working out and so made arrangements to observe this team in action for the next 20 minutes. What I discovered was that the two new team members hardly spoke anything and they seemed to be completely disconnected from what was going on. They tried to initiate conversations with the group, yet they did not seem be able to get any attention. Once in a while, they engaged in a small side conversation with each other, while the group was busy.

This was a great incidental learning moment for the team and we took full advantage of it. What we discovered as a group was the fact that the power of diversity is not in the mix, but how aware and open are we to diversity.

I started recognising this pattern in more and more settings where people celebrate diversity, yet they hardly recognise its power and how to leverage it. Teams assume that diversity is about managing differences. They assume diversity is tolerating and sometimes complying. Silent suffering, surrender, compromise, sacrifice and such are associated with ‘managing’ diversity. A leader who manages a team without clear understanding of the potential of diversity, leads to lower levels of productivity, satisfaction and collaboration.

1. Team members compromise, suppress or ignore their views, opinions, challenges and inner dialogue. Yet they perceive it as a contribution to the team, as a way of managing diversity.
2. They do not challenge, push back or disagree even though they have strong views on a challenge being discussed.
3. They perceive differences of opinions and debates as conflicts. They might intervene to reduce its impact or mediate it.
4. A dominating team member with an uncompromising nature might take on the leadership role, that might lead to blind spots.
5. Teammates may experience tension, frustration and conflict. As it does not come up in conversations, they will start taking it as a norm and work on assumptions.

So what is the key to utilise diversity and take advantage of its power? In one phrase, it is the intention and commitment to spend time in effective conversations, resulting in outcomes that might be of higher quality than an individual or a homogenous team. (Dr. Amy Edmondson’s work on psychological safety and Google’s internal research might be great resources to refer to.) To leverage diversity, the team may create norms around conversations by the following.

1. Explicitly recognise the unifying factors in the team such as values, vision and purpose, intentions including goals. Always remember the person behind the role – as human as everyone else.
2. Recognise and surface the diverse nature of the team in spite of the fundamental unity. Recognise, discuss and recognise the diverse nature.
3. Express and agree on the intention to utilise the diversity and seek to understand what does it really mean – including the challenges that might arise out of it.
4. Encourage openness to ask questions, listen for responses and willingness even to change ones own mind, based on the responses.
5. Express willingness to ‘agree to disagree’ at times, yet collaborate and maintain boundaries in conversations. Be respectful of philosophical, religious, cultural and personal views.
6. Open to be vulnerable, walk the fine line between sensitivity and openness, and even apologise if needed. Reinforce the intention to be open, support and collaborate.
7. Create safety for all to express themselves fully and completely, with respect.
8. Fall back on purpose, vision, goals and intentions when conflicts arise, emotions rise and team members hold on to their ‘truth’.
9. Be willing to operate in the grey area, for along time, managing the ‘groan’ zone before coming to conclusions.
10. Support each other in a way that trust, collaboration and openness leads to effectiveness, efficiency and higher performance. Leverage strengths, allocate work based on the strengths and celebrate success.

Open conversations have helped me experience my work as light, enjoyable and fulfilling. On the other hand, conflicts not being surfaced and discussed, have pulled me back from being effective and efficient. I do not insist my way. I always wanted my voice to be heard and I learned so much from other voices. The outcomes seemed to be of much higher quality (in terms of buy-in, impact and creativity) when we deliberately work through the diversity, however challenging that might seem to be.
I will be grateful if you could share your experiences – I love to learn more about some practices that help me manage it more effectively in teams.

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