To gain competitive edge in today’s uncertain, volatile world, organisations need to be agile and encourage greater innovation by embracing diverse opinions. The big question is how to harness the strengths of diverse teams and create a mindset that makes the most of that diversity?

If we look across the globe, we find that diversity policies vary, and, in some instances, organisations take action for reasons of compliance rather than for affirmative social action. This can have unintended consequences.

Simply reconfiguring the combination of people within the Executive team creates an opportunity for change. However, the act of placing different people into the team does not guarantee a mindshift. For example, the inclusion of a woman into a team, does not necessarily change the team dynamic. We know that team behaviours can be complex and that some teams work better together than others. Expectations and norms in behaviour have a role to play. It is important to understand the team interactions and to appreciate the power dynamics with the team. Who really holds the power and how can that power balance be shifted?

 

The Team Dynamic in Action

When we review the psychology behind diverse teams we find that the outcomes are affected by how information is processed and the way in which the social and power dynamic works; how people view each other in terms of like-mindedness, status, power and position. People often seek out people who are similar to themselves; not simply in terms of characteristics, but also in terms of identity, status, attitudes and beliefs. Indeed, when we look at the political environment, research indicates that people do not want to seek out alternative views and prefer to listen to others who reinforce their values and beliefs (1).

Some diverse teams use their differences to enhance team performance whereas others fail to do so (2). We need to go beyond gender or race and appreciate beliefs, values and mindset. If people in the team are too similar in outlook, they will make assumptions and may not challenge conventional practice. They may co-operate well, but this may not lead to performance improvement, new ideas or business success.

There are a number of factors in play. To enhance team effectiveness, there are benefits to be gained from appreciating the value of difference and achieving a balance between identifying with others and recognising a different perspective. One way to support change is conscious action to trigger a shift in mindset. However, even this might sometimes not be enough to change ways of thinking. Results count; when teams can see that they have better solutions and outcomes that reinforces different behaviours.

When we think about team behaviours our focus is often on co-operation and working together. We encourage teams to collaborate, support each other and achieve the objectives (3). This is undoubtedly an important part of teamwork, but it is not the whole story.

 

Dangers of Groupthink

Let us transport you into the typical (but hopefully fast-diminishing) Boardroom. What do you see? At its best we see professionals working together for the common good. But dig a little deeper. In the room sit similar people, often the majority, if not completely, are men in their 40’s and 50’s. There are maybe one or two women, but they are likely to be under-represented and few people from diverse or different backgrounds. The Board can be relatively homogenous; people who have learned their craft in the same ways and with the same background. There can of course be disagreements and conflict and people may see specific issues differently, but they agree on the fundamentals. There is a degree of comfort in this; others in the room are people like us, we can relate to them and build a relationship with them. And this is good news for getting things done. It can be fast and efficient. There may be some debate but ultimately, the Board agrees on the core issues and can move on.

“There is danger in too much homogeneity; there is danger in groupthink”

But it is not that simple. There is danger in too much homogeneity; there is danger in groupthink.

A diverse mindset ultimately depends on the Executive perceptions of the group and their role within it. Co-operative mindsets are about setting ideal goals and exploring new ideas through sharing knowledge. On the other hand, adversarial mindsets, centre on protecting the status quo. In this case, the practical goals are about protecting existing knowledge, so leaders say, ‘this is the way we do things around here.’ It is about avoiding damage or risk rather than exploring possibilities. So ‘groupthink’ becomes a way to preserve the current ways of working. This can have a negative impact; teams do not respond quickly enough to external challenges or a homogenous board that allows a toxic culture to prevail. A recent example is Ted Baker where a mainly male Board did not challenge poor behaviour but let the CEO operate in an unacceptable way in this case when interacting with female staff.

 

Developing Diversity of Thought

We find in our practice that leadership teams may think they are open and responsive to new ideas but when we probe deeper they have unconscious biases and blind spots and therefore do not raise the uncomfortable issues. A Board, in particular should be deliberately non-homogenous, with different stakeholder representation, requiring independent thinking and challenge.

Only by having more diversity of thought in the team, can groupthink be challenged. There is a distinct advantage for leaders who welcome diversity in teams and seek out others who can bring a different perspective to issues. A good example of this is the use of reverse mentoring from the millennial generation who can often raise the uncomfortable truths – why do we do things in this way? Is there a better way?

There is a balance between gaining co-operation and buy-in versus challenging and analysing things from a different perspective. Teams need enough cohesion to work well but also have enough challenge to take things to a different level. This requires a level of safety and security for team members. People will not speak out if they feel that they will be ostracised or disrespected. There needs to be trust and openness that enables people to open up on the challenges, admit mistakes and look for better solutions for the future. Dissent can be uncomfortable, but it can also lead to a better solution overall; to the creation of new directions and opportunities. The team as a whole can be more innovative.

 

Building Diversity in Today’s World

Each organisation has its own approach to diversity but here are some fundamental ways to move forward:

  1. Review how you attract people to your organisation; think diversity and inclusion when reviewing brand, attraction and reputation.
  2. Adopt policies that encourage a wider range of people to be in your organisation; provide some flexibility to attract a broader range.
  3. Ensure that the recruitment practices do not put off certain people; be objective and focus on what you need in your organisation for people to succeed. Do not get too hung up on specific job details. Recruit for the best people who will work well in your organisation.
  4. Develop a culture of openness and reward debate. Encourage people within the organisation to question and to seek out alternative approaches – this will result in better solutions.
  5. Build teams that challenge and learn from mistakes. Mix and match across silos to enhance learning and develop an inclusive and learning based culture. Learn from mistakes quickly, experiment and move forward.
  6. From a learning and development perspective, there is opportunity to enhance capability through coaching or workshops that challenge conventional thinking and develop an appetite for experimentation whilst mitigating risks.

 

Diversity Mindsets in Practice: tips and hints

OE Cam has worked with a wide range of industry sectors and different leadership teams. Our three top tips are:

  1. Create an environment where people feel respected, valued and included.
  2. Reinforce openness and provide scope to explore different possibilities. There is danger in short-term quick fixes that go with the tried and tested solutions. Do not close down the debate too quickly or focus on “this is the way that we have done it in the past and it worked”
  3. The world has changed and to gain a competitive edge embrace difference, seek out diversity in all its forms; it is not a numbers game but is about the mix and combination of people and ideas. Do not assume that women or different groups will automatically bring diversity. If people are a lone voice, they will often not speak up. If the environment and norms do not welcome debate, then it will not happen. Diversity is about mindsets, culture and values and the way in which different people are included.

 

Here are six ways in which OE Cam supports organisations to think differently:

  1. Team profiling; harnessing difference but in a constructive way
  2. Enabling leaders to bring out the ideas and strengths of their teams
  3. Encouraging active listening and challenge through coaching and mentoring
  4. Creative problem solving; enhancing decision-making within businesses
  5. Harnessing the power of disruptive talent within teams
  6. Creating a culture that values and develops diverse talent and values and rewards learning.

 

Conclusion

With diversity targets and high visibility around who organisations hire, promote and reward, the pressure is on for businesses to include different people. But this is not a numbers game.

Diversity works when there is a change in the mindset and where inclusion is not lip-service. Diverse mindsets can enhance team performance and organisational success but having a range of different people in a team is not enough. It is about how people are included within the team, how information is exchanged and whose views are valued and encouraged. There needs to be an environment that is safe for people to explore different thinking and to build on diversity to bring out the best in everyone within the organisation.

hazel.mclaughlin@oecam.com

1. The Economist, Feb 2019
2. Van Knippenberg D, Van Ginkel WP and Homan AC (2013) Diversity mindsets and the performance of diverse teams. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 121(2): 183–193
3. Hobman EV, Bordia P and Gallois C, (2003) Consequences of Felling Dissimiliar from others in a work team. Journal of Business and psychology, Vol17, No3, Spring 2003