Leading Diverse Teams
By Jeffrey Baumgartner
It is well known that diverse teams are more creative, more innovative and more knowledgeable than homogeneous ones. When you bring together a group of people with different experiences, backgrounds, educations, sex, culture and nationality, it is obvious that the combined breadth of knowledge of the team will be far wider than that of a group of people with similar backgrounds, educations, sex, culture and nationality. And that breadth of knowledge provides substantial fodder for creative idea development.
The downside is that diverse teams are harder to put together and manage than non-diverse teams. While a group of similar people will tend to think alike, members of a diverse group of people will think differently from each other, behave differently from each other and question processes that you feel need not be questioned.
So, let us go through some of the specific challenges team leaders face with
The first big challenge of diverse teams is creating them! If you are like most people, when you put together a team around yourself, your natural inclination will be to bring in people who are similar to you in terms of background, education, experience, ethnicity and even sex. If you are a middle age white man born locally and educated in one of your country's top universities, you will tend to compile teams of other white men who were born locally and educated in one of your country's top universities − unless you consciously diverge from what is instinctive and comfortable for you.
Moreover, you are understandably likely to want to include subject experts in your team. However, subject experts will tend to have similar backgrounds, educations and work experience to each other.
Even if you are putting together a team that does not include yourself, your inclination is likely to be to put like-minded and similarly experienced subject experts on that team.
Needless-to-say, a group of similar people are not diverse people. You need to go against instinct and purposefully put together a team of different people. Sure, you will need a couple of experts in the field, but include experts in completely different fields. Likewise, include women as well as men, people of different ethnicities and people from other countries.
Hardest of all, but important, is including people who disagree with you, have very different approaches to yours and whom you may not even like very much. They probably feel the same about you, but they will respect you for including them in your team.
Speaking of respect, as a team leader it is critical you respect everyone on your team as equals in terms of value to the team, value of their opinions and value of their efforts. A man who includes women on his team, but believes women are inferior to men and their opinions worthless, loses all the diversity value of those women. He will also lose the respect of those women, further weakening the team. Likewise, a Japanese woman who includes Europeans on her team while believing Europeans are inferior to the Japanese, will not gain any value from those Europeans. People such as these two either need to change their thinking or they should forget about forming diverse teams. In the latter case, they should also forget about innovating.
It is one thing to have diverse teams. It is quite another to ensure team members actually listen to each other. Numerous studies have shown that men speak more than women in meetings, interrupt women more often in meetings and take credit for women's ideas. In my experience with international teams, this can also happen to team members who are from ethnic minorities and foreigners in teams that are largely composed of locals.
As team leader, you need need to act a little bit like a primary school teacher. If Nancy is sharing her thoughts on a project and Gregory interrupts, you need to say, "Gregory, let's allow Nancy to finish, then you can share your thoughts."
If Greg then attempts to claim Nancy's ideas as his own, tell Nancy, "It sounds like Greg likes your idea!"
If you do not intervene and instead allow Greg and others to interrupt, Nancy and other women on the team will soon stop bothering to speak in meetings and you will lose their ideas, insight and knowledge. Over the longer term, these women are likely to become frustrated with the team, you and the company. After all, who wants to participate in a team that ignores them?
On the other hand, if you regularly intervene to ensure Nancy and other women are heard, you will empower them, benefit from their insights, knowledge and ideas. Moreover, those women are likely to appreciate that you recognise the value of their contributions and will see you as a good leader. If you ask me, that is a powerful pay-off for little effort on your part.
Don't Hepeat - Amplify Instead
A common complaint of women, and one that has been verified by research, is that when a woman voices an idea in a meeting, it is often initially ignored. Then a man repeats the idea, claims it as his own and gets credit for his creative contribution. Indeed, this has become so commonplace, a word has been invented to describe it: "hepeat".
When hepeating happens, there are two consequences. Firstly, creative people feel frustrated that they are not being listened to and their ideas are being stolen. Secondly, these same creative people soon learn that there is no point in sharing ideas because those ideas will not be recognised and very likely stolen. The result is a severe loss of team creativity.
Fortunately, some rather clever women in the Obama administration came up with a method they call, "amplification." When a woman on the team had an idea, other women would repeat the idea and give credit to the originator. This made it difficult for men to claim the ideas as their own.
You do not need to be a woman to amplify. Male and female team leaders need to listen to women team members' ideas and amplify them. Whenever anyone in the team comes up with an idea, repeat the idea and credit the originator of the idea.
Acknowledge Differences Early On
In multicultural teams, there is a great deal of difference in how people work, communicate and respond to authority. Americans tend to be very direct. The Dutch can be harshly honest. Japanese tend to be indirect and seek consensus. The Chinese are indirect and respect the hierarchy. Saying "everyone is the same" and ignoring the differences; or expecting people from other cultures to adopt immediately to your way of working, communicating and responding to authority will lead to problems.
It is better to acknowledge not only cultural differences, but the feelings associated with those differences. Some years ago, I was working on a project team that included a Japanese leader and small team of Japanese, Belgians and Americans. The deadline was very tight and I became increasingly frustrated by the manager's insistence that we get consensus on every decision before moving forward. "You are the team leader and the decision maker. This is obviously the best action to take and we need to submit the proposal the day after tomorrow. Why don't you make the decision so we can move forward?" I asked. But he insisted on getting consensus from people in Brussels and Nagoya. I found this very frustrating.
In retrospect, I realise that e must have been frustrated by my suggestions. I doubtless seemed impatient and disrespectful. After all, would it not be more respectful to allow everyone to have his (the team was, sadly, all men) say before moving forward? Moreover, my suggestions may also have been perceived as a criticism of his team leadership ability.
In order to minimise culture clash, you should openly discuss cultural differences and invite team members to do the same. Design activities to enable team members from other countries and cultures to share their culture and talk about how it differs from others. One great way to do this is through food. For example, if you have a Bangladeshi member on your team, ask her about her favourite Bangladeshi restaurant in your area. Then, take the team to a dinner there. Invite the Bangladeshi team member to recommend food for everyone, explain dining customs in her country and use the evening as a platform share her culture, answer questions and talk about differences.
Most multinational companies today operate in English. While, fluency in English is usually a prerequisite to employment in a multinationals, not everyone's fluency is equal. This can have numerous consequences in your team. A particular issue to be aware of is what I'll call linguistic processing time. This is an issue I face when participating in Dutch language discussions. Because my Dutch is far from fluent, when someone asks me a question, it takes me a couple of seconds to process the question, understand it in English and formulate my response in Dutch. As a result, the Dutch speaker often assumes I did not understand the question and so repeats it, possibly worded differently. This actually makes matters worse because it interrupts my thinking.
Moreover, if I am participating in a meeting of several Dutch speakers, it takes time to process what is being said. It takes time to formulate ideas that I might want to share. By the time I have done this, the conversation may have moved on. Moreover, if I do not pay close attention, I miss out on parts of the conversation. As a result, I may be reluctant to share my ideas in fear that someone else has already shared a similar idea when my attention was waning.
I see the same things in multicultural English speaking teams, albeit not as severely. Leaders ask questions, but do not allow time for people to think about those questions and respond with answers. As a result, only the most fluent team members have time to understand the questions and respond.
If you want people to ask questions or get feedback from any group (even homogeneous ones), ask the question and then say absolutely nothing. Wait. Wait longer. Let the room go silent. It probably feels uncomfortable for you, but it also feels uncomfortable for the team members. Eventually, someone will ask a question. Often, this leads to many more questions. (Incidentally, this is a technique I often use in my workshops and interactive keynote speeches.)
Likewise, in one-to-one conversations with non-native English speakers, always pause a little longer than you normally would to give the other person time for processing the question and formulating an answering. If you are the one who needs more time after a question has been asked, start by saying something to acknowledge you are listening, for example, "that's a good question," or even "give me a moment to think about that, please."
Finally, bear in mind that not everyone is comfortable speaking in meetings. So, be sure to interact with team members in emails, through chat and especially in one-on-one conversations. Also, be aware that a non-native English speaker may have difficulty explaining a complex idea. So, do not judge the idea by the words used to express it. Rather judge it by the idea itself.
When assigning tasks that require two or more people, try to involve people who have not worked together before. This enables team members to get to know other members who may be from other countries, be of the opposite sex or may be of different ethnicity. Such collaboration allows people to get to know and appreciate the diversity of their team mates, ensures knowledge is shared and expands team members' networks. Then, even if two people worked well on one or two tasks, reassign them to other team members in future tasks.
Time Consuming but Worth It
Unfortunately, all of these actions are time consuming. So, think of it as an investment. If you invest time in developing your diverse, multinational team early on; and invest time in maintaining good communication, understanding and respect, you will have a powerful and effective team with vast knowledge, great innovation potential and global understanding. The potential is awesome and all it takes is investing a little time.
What Do You Think
What are your experiences with multinational teams? What are your tips for multinational team leaders? Share them with meby replying to this email; or share them with the workd on Twitter or via LinkedIn.
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