Contributed Column

The Manager’s Corner

by Emily Morrow

Robust diversity and workplace teams

Which is better for optimal team functioning; homogeneity or diversity? Consider the following teams. Team A members focus on process: on being inclusive and collaborative and on how team members feel about the team and its work. Sometimes they have difficulty being efficient.

Team B is results-oriented and linear in its approach. The focus is on technical expertise and achievement, but interpersonal communication is a challenge.

Team C consists of three people. The team leader is logical and focused on financial outcomes; his other team members consist of a warm, bubbly extrovert and a quiet, thoughtful introvert. There is a history of conflict within Team C.

Let’s assume the members of these teams are all highly competent, both technically and professionally. What differentiates them is the “character” of the team, which reflects the personalities of the members.

Within teams A and B there are “outliers” — members who are noticeably different from the majority. For example, in Team A, one member is frustrated by the focus on process. A member of Team B feels there is no personal warmth in the way members interact, and he finds this demoralizing.

I’m often asked to intervene with a team when the non-technical, intangible interactions become sufficiently derailed that the work of the team is suffering. Members are unhappy, morale is low, there may be high turnover, and ultimately the employer is losing money. Here’s how I typically intervene.

First, I interview the team members to get a sense of the individuals, their temperamental similarities and differences, and how these create a team character. Through these interviews I determine how the majority of the team members are functioning, who the outliers might be, and where the internal friction is occurring.

Second, I identify the points of conflict that need to be initially addressed to clear the air for the team as a whole. I’ll often initiate a discussion among the affected employees, focusing on questions about how the team functions and how these individuals are managing themselves individually and collectively.

Next, I’ll frequently present to the team a summary of my interviews and describe the team’s overall character, the extent to which there is homogeneity or diversity, and the opportunities and challenges these provide. I encourage members to discuss what they’d like to do with this information.

It’s often helpful to identify some “stretch” goals for the team and articulate who should do what to achieve these. Typically, it becomes clear that certain team members will be better suited to accomplish various aspects of the process. The old adage “Many hands make light the work” has a lot of truth to it.

A metaphor I often use with teams is that of a mosaic. Each team member represents a unique and colorful bit of glass that is critical to the final picture. The more variety there is in the color, shape and texture of each bit, the more beautiful the picture will be. However, with that variety, there are always challenges in fitting the pieces together.

By focusing on particular goals, you can discuss points of conflict and coalescence in a more neutral and transparent way. The emphasis is on what needs to be done, who should do what, and how the moving parts can best be coordinated.

Team members acknowledge how they differ in a more accepting and less pejorative manner. Ultimately, humor enters into the discussion, and what had been emotionally charged dissipates into a more relaxed acknowledgment of differences.

Typically, when team members laugh about what used to infuriate them, they realize the team is getting traction. That’s when you know they’re achieving a robust diversity. •

Emily Morrow (www.emilymorrow.com) of Shelburne, provides tailored consulting services to business owners, professional practice firms, executives and HR personnel. She can be reached at pelmorrow@mac.com.

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