How to Lead Diverse Teams

After much pain and protest, it feels like maybe the tide has finally turned, and we are on the threshold of witnessing greater diversity in places of power. No more so, we hope, than in our organisations and their teams.

So, will greater diversity lead to more extraordinary performance? Can we take advantage of diversity to improve, innovate, and create?

It seems that this depends on our ability to establish a new type of team identity, without which less diverse teams are likely to out-perform their more diverse counterparts.

Our differences are opportunities to avoid groupthink, conformity, and extreme decision-making. Our differences allow different perspectives, innovation and creativity, but they are also our points for potential conflict and the formation of sub-groups within teams. We need to carefully consider how to lead diverse teams to maximise our opportunities and confront the increased challenges we face.

What Do We Mean by Diverse?

Diversity includes personality, gender, disability, race, cultural background, sexual orientation, experience, qualifications, and interests, amongst many others.

Diversity identifies others who are ‘not like us’.

Diversity and Identity

When we identify with our team, we automatically feel trust, are comfortable in each others company, we engage in common purpose more easily, have less conflict, emotionally attach to the team, communicate with ease and socially interact.

This is because we are drawn to people ‘like us’. We have a built-in bias - the ‘affinity bias’ - that draws us to people with whom we have an ‘affinity’. Our instinct to belong to a group drives us to relate to people we identify as ‘our troop’ and attribute negative feelings to those not in ‘our troop’. When the ‘troop’ in charge happens to be white heterosexual males, this power base is reinforced in our organisations.

So how does this play out in how to lead diverse teams? Diverse teams are more likely initially to trust each other less, be less comfortable together, find establishing a common purpose harder, have more conflict, be less emotionally attached to the team, communicate less and more awkwardly, and interact less socially. As a result, they underperform.

That is until the team establishes an identity that embraces difference.

How To Establish Identity in a Diverse Team

This is at the core of how to lead diverse teams. First, a few elements need to be in place, and all of these are embedded more quickly and more sustainably with the aid of a skilled team coach.

Do not be diverse blind. The more we try not to ‘see’ differences, if we try to ignore or pretend it does not exist, the worse communication becomes between ourselves and people who are ‘not like us’. We need to pay careful attention to our differences and educate ourselves on what that means. Team coaching promotes team learning to enable diverse teams to focus on embracing their diversity.

Be curious. Curiosity is a crucial characteristic of diverse teams as they seek to embrace a new identity together, not based on what they have in common.

Have a willingness to learn and take responsibility for learning together. This takes place in a psychologically safe space created by the team leader.

Our thinking on how to lead diverse teams has brought us to a point where we can consider the vital element we need in creating a team identity based on difference rather than similarity.

Dialogue


Teams rarely dialogue; they debate and have discussions, but they don’t have dialogues.

David Clutterbuck (2020) defines each as:

Debate: Having a fixed point of view and trying to convince others that is it right

Discussion: Having an outcome in mind but willing to listen to others

Dialogue: Approaching an issue with an open mind to understand others' perspectives in reaching new perspectives, outcomes and views.

The key to leading diverse teams is to learn how to have a quality dialogue about the things that matter. Specifically, the dialogue is about the differences in the team, the different perspectives, motives, cultures, experiences and characteristics.

The quality of the dialogue about establishing a new identity based on embracing difference, rather than what we have in common, will reflect the teams’ ability to perform together. Have meaningful, purposeful dialogue in your team.

Team coaching is a new concept and experience for teams, and it is also an excellent method to create dialogue. This is one reason why team coaching is so powerful in supporting you in creating a high performing, diverse team.

Summary

At The Leadership Coaches, we have highly trained and effective team coaches who can provide Team Coaching for your teams. What are the consequences of your diverse teams not performing? What are the chances of them performing without team coaching?

There is far more to explore about team coaching for diverse teams, including the impact on and of the team leader, but we hope that how to lead diverse teams has whetted your appetite for more information. Be curious, and get in touch.


Written by leadership coach Ian White.