Managing Groups and Teams/Diversity
What Is Diversity?
Team Diversity is the significant uniqueness of each individual on a team. This should not only include the usual diverse selections such as religion, sex, age, and race, but also additional unique personality characteristics such as introverts and extroverts, liberals and conservatives, etc. All of these differences can affect team interactions and performance. However, not all differences affect team performance. For the purposes of this chapter, differences are considered to affect diversity when they significantly affect team performance.
How Are Diverse Teams Different From Homogenous Ones?
Aside from the actual differences that create diversity, diverse teams have different challenges, benefits, and pitfalls than homogenous ones. The main benefit is that a diverse background fosters a creative environment. The main pitfall is that differences between team members can lead to destructive violence.
The differences that are most commonly thought of as separating diverse teams from homogenous ones are easily observed stereotypes. The following list categorizes the physical and social differences (excluding actual workplace experience) that most frequently create a diverse environment:
- Gender communication issues can strongly affect team interactions. Gender communication issues can range from communication styles and perceptions, opportunities and even sexual harassment.
- Race is defined as a group of people, often of a common geographic origin, that share genetically transmitted physical characteristics. Racism is the belief that these inherited characteristics affect an individual’s behavior or abilities.
- Culture refers to the standards of social interaction, value and beliefs from a given group of people. Cultural issues can affect team interactions through different understandings of communication or family and can appear to be an excuse for preferential treatment.
- Age can be a concern along the entire spectrum; is someone too young or too old to do a job? It also creates the potential for communication problems based on different levels of experience, and for prejudicial treatment based on age.
- Sexual orientation
- With the increasing visibility of gender minorities such as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, there are increasing workplace issues. From simply not understanding gender differences, to being morally opposed to them, sexual orientation can create blocks to productive team interactions.
- Differences in ability often create difficulties in communication and emotional interactions. Whether it is a deaf individual not being able to communicate with hearing individuals, or a hearing individual being unsure of how to approach a deaf individual, disabilities present a variety of issues in team organizations.
By definition, diversity means that there will be an increased likelihood for a wider range of views to be present. This includes views that are likely to challenge widely accepted views of the team and its culture. The existence of these diverse views is essential to the process of organizational change. In addition, as teams are becoming increasingly global, diversity can help an organization or team to understand its place in its surroundings.
The differences inherent in a diverse team environment also cause challenges. The benefits of having diverse backgrounds do not occur without having team members that are dedicated to success and a common goal. The preconceived notions about differences in other people, such as racism, sexism, ageism, homophobia, etc, disrupt work processes and can prevent teams from achieving their goals. Simple misunderstandings can arise from basic cultural differences, communication styles or work attitudes, and create challenge.
Diversity in teams has benefits and creates challenges. However, by being aware of these challenges and how to address them, teams and team managers can overcome them and reach success.
In today’s job market, leaders must be especially aware of diversity, and how to manage it to the best effect. How can leaders do this? First they need to focus on treating every individual fairly and respectfully. In the article "Handling Conflict in a Diverse Work Environment", published in Black Enterprise Magazine, Marcia Pledger suggests the following.
First, leaders need to establish relationships of trust with their employees. If an employee does not trust his leader, they will not be able to discuss issues of real significance. There will always be a wall between the leader and the employee that will result in strained relationships over the long run.
The United States Marine Corps faced this problem in the early 1990’s. In answer to this problem, the Marine Corps instituted a new training program titled “Team Marine” that helped the Marine leadership focus on what their subordinates brought to their teams. They developed a set of expectations as to what belonging to Corps meant:
- We expect to actively contribute to the team and to be recognized for our contributions.
- We expect to be judged fairly and to be recognized and rewarded for our performance.
- We expect the opportunity to develop our abilities.
- We expect to be treated professionally and respectfully by other members of our team.
- We expect to be valued as unique individuals.
By following this set of principles the Marine Corps has managed to take what is one of the most diverse workforces in the world and unified them as contributing individuals with a common goal.
Leaders need to seek input from their employees on how they prefer to be managed. In the article "Dealing with the New Diversity", author Michael Maccoby relates the story of an engineering company that was the result of a merger between a German, Swiss and Swedish firm. The management styles differed between each of the original companies based upon their nation of origin. This lead to many problems as engineers from one country were asked to serve under leaders from another. The company was not able to perform at its best until they discussed their differences and were able to determine a common management style for the entire company.
Leaders need to develop a common focus. Most people realize that everyone is different; however, by focusing on the job at hand, leaders can take the focus off the differences that are present. As teams achieve successful results they develop a bond which helps to solidify the team, and overcome differences.
In a diverse team, as with any team, communication needs to be open and safe. It is the team leader's responsibility to set up this safe environment. The team leader should instill confidence in the other members that what they are thinking can be discussed “as long as it is done respectfully.”
Behaviors should be agreed upon before an "open and safe" discussion begins so all members are aware of what is expected of them, and how to remain respectful. This can be done through the use of a Team Contract, an agreed upon document that outlines the rules for communication and the consequences of not living up to the agreement.
Included in this contract there needs to be an agreed upon a way for members to respectfully stop someone who is not living up to their part of the agreement, and redirect the conversation towards the tasks needing to be accomplished. Anyone in the group should feel comfortable in enforcing the rules of the contract, and ensuring the discussion remains respectful.
While working in a diverse team there may be issues that are difficult to discuss, yet relevant to the task at hand. If the group avoids the important questions it is important that the team leader address the issues. He/she may preface their statements by acknowledging that this subject makes you feel a little uncomfortable, but that it needs to be addressed. In doing so the topic will get the coverage needed, while bringing the issue to light in a respectful manner.
Culture and life experiences have a great influence on how individuals react to feedback. If an open environment is maintained these issues can be brought up and examined in order to best address the individual in a respectful manner. The potential consequences of not respecting the cultural norms can lead to a less effective team atmosphere.
In order to best address the issues of diversity it is important that a team sets up a process to allow safe and open communication that can be done in a respectful manner. A team contract is an excellent way to set up the rules for such discussions, especially when dealing with sensitive issues related to diversity. Every individual is responsible for their own adherence to the terms of the contract, as well as all group members present.
A team leader must think about diversity as diversity of ideas and experience, not just race and gender. A leader needs to recognize the diversity of each team member and achieve unity of common goals without destroying the uniqueness of any person. The team leader must do this within the scope of the organization’s resources relative to the growth of the team member.
Most problems in the work place are not that people cannot do their jobs. Rather it is that people cannot get along with others. The team leader should make efforts in effectively training soft skills. This includes such subjects as diversity, communication and people skills that allow people to understand each other and develop good team skills. Every team member must not only be able to understand and work with all the other team members, but they must also want to. Embracing diversity is the first step to managing a truly diverse team. In order to facilitate this, team leaders should consider the following:
- Develop an atmosphere in which it is safe for all employees to ask for help. People should not be viewed as weak if they ask for help. Joining weakness with strengths to get a goal or objective accomplished is one aspect of building great teams. One person’s weakness should be another person’s strength.
- Actively seek information from people from a variety of backgrounds and cultures in order to develop a broad picture.
- Include everyone on the problem solving and decision making process.
- Include people who are different than you in informal gatherings such as lunch, coffee breaks and spur of the moment meetings.
- Create a team spirit in of which every member feels a part.
A team leader enables the other members to be innovative as well as self-directed within the capacity of individual assignments and allows them to learn from their own, as well as others’ successes, mistakes and failures. It is important to assure that each individual on the team has the opportunity to make the maximum contribution to the success of the team by doing the type of work for which s/he has the greatest opportunity for productivity and achievement.
Leaders have the task of using the other team members’ diverse gifts, abilities, and skills to achieve the common goal without the unintended consequence of conforming to the characteristics the others on the team. This requires active management by the leader to insure that diverse followers show respect and acceptance of the followers that are different in one way or another.
If team members do not accept others for what they are, they will be unable to use the abilities of each team member to fill in their own weak areas. Hence, the team effort develops knowledge and skill gaps that often lead to failure. Their only goal becomes the ones on their personal agendas while ignoring the needs of the team and the organization. Creating an environment that encourages diversity enables team members to accept every individual on the team and helps them realize that it takes a variety of people to become the best. This kind of environment also enforces the need to rely on everyone within the team, no matter how different another person may be. These characteristics and experiences make a worker unique. Diversity occurs when the whole team sees all these unique characteristics, and realizes that workers are more valuable because of their differences.
Stereotypes are beliefs that all members of specific groups share similar traits and are likely to behave in the same way. Stereotypes create categories and then fit individuals into them. In some respects, this is a useful adaptation to the current environment, but in other cases, conclusions can be made that are detrimental to the understanding of people and to the dynamics of a team. Individuals never conform to an exact stereotype, given that individual differences outweigh similarities with others in a group, and subsequently, people on a team may use limited personal experience or perceptions of others to guide their interactions. Stereotypes are based on a variety of qualifications including gender, race, language, finances, religion and sexual preference.
Oftentimes people believe that males in business are good leaders, computer-savvy, unorganized, problem-solvers, etc. Females are often perceived as organized, record-keepers and relationship-oriented. In addition, there are some professions that are more stereotypically male and some that are more stereotypically female. Secretaries are typically thought to be female, as are nurses, flight attendants and often other supportive roles. Managers, doctors and pilots are typically thought to be male jobs. If a female is in a position of authority, her actions are often more heavily critiqued as unreasonable or unkind than her male counterpart behaving in the same way. Managers can avoid this stereotype by providing leadership opportunities to employees of both genders.
Race is another area where stereotyping can easily influence a group dynamic. Some races are considered high achievers, while other races are labeled as unmotivated. People of Asian or Indian decent are often seen as hardworking, intelligent, and technical, while people of Polynesian, American Indian and Hispanic decent are often viewed as lazy, unmotivated, and sometimes below average intelligence. African American workers are sometimes considered confrontational and aggressive in contrast to their Asian peers. Language barriers can also be a catalyst to stereotyping. In America, a person who does not yet have a full grasp on the English language is often seen as unintelligent or inferior, when in fact they can be highly trained or skilled workers. Managers should monitor progress of all team players and concentrate on individual strengths and weaknesses rather than those perceived of the race they belong to.
Stereotyping associated with class differences can create an unsuccessful team dynamic as well. People in a lower socioeconomic class are often seen as lazy, unintelligent, and unrefined, wheras folks in a higher socioeconomic class are seen as educated, bright, motivated and polite. People may also be grouped and stereotyped by religion. Jews are often seen as frugal and business-minded; Muslims are sometimes labeled as extreme. Catholics may be labeled as traditional, while Evangelicals are seen as progressive. On a team, these differences can lead to dividing lines. This may be avoided by assigning tasks to subgroups that cross barriers, allowing people to form working relationships.
Sexual preference can also lead to harmful group stereotyping. Depending on the industry, gay men or women have more credibility. Gay men are seen as artistic, fashion-conscious and tasteful, while gay women are taken more seriously than straight women in the mechanical or construction industries. This is probably a result of more traditionally feminine/masculine traits being exhibited.
These stereotypes are harmful in groups for several reasons. A person may be misunderstood early in an interaction. Contributions may be limited and specific strengths or talents may be overlooked because they do not seem prominent in the given stereotypical category. On the other hand, poor performance can be overlooked in an individual because they belong to a stereotypically desirable group. Finally, by allowing stereotypes to govern groups we create natural divisions within the group, where ultimately a common goal should be established. Managers can combat this by mixing teams, creating smaller mixed teams for subtasks, monitoring all team members’ progress and allowing individuals to volunteer for roles rather than being cast into their default role as defined by their stereotypical category.
- Pledger, Marcia, "Handling Conflict in a Diverse Work Environment", Black Enterprise Magazine, April 2006
- Maccoby, Michael, "Dealing with the New Diversity", Research Technology Management, June 2006
- LaFasto, When Teams Work Best Pg. 109
- LaFasto, When Teams Work Best Pg. 110