9 min read

Diversity and Style = Value

By Gordon Whitehead on 3/21/20 8:01 PM

Diversity means a lot of things to a lot of people and this image shows the variety of colors that go into diversity.

Diversity helps your team achieve outstanding success.


Taking on a Complex Topic


The question that caused me to write this blog post came from a university student who asked, “How do you help a team work together effectively, while respecting everyone’s individual style of doing things?”

The question was interesting to me because it held within it three fundamental concepts that are essential to leader and organizational success: (a) Diversity, (b) Individuality, and (c) Team

Diversity and individuality can both be expressed in what we wear and how we act.

Diversity

The definition of diversity in the context of a team at work is worth exploring. Lapsing into defining diversity by demographic characteristics has become a cultural norm. Experts in the field, however, dive deeper and explain that diversity is not a demographic separator, but the demographic separator is an indicator of diversity.

To say that one person all by themselves is diverse would be an incorrect statement because as a single individual it is impossible to be diverse since there is only one of that person.

Even within a demographic grouping that is considered to be diverse by the modern term, an individual within that demographic alone cannot be diverse. It requires a comparison of at least two in order to have diversity.

Diversity is a way of creating a very positive counter influence against a norm. When people are pulled together there is always at least some level of natural diversity.

Why Diversity Matters

The level of diversity however is a matter of scale. The more the individuals that are assembled have a unique angle of perspective, the higher the scale of diversity will be. Ultimately, diversity is a very internal experience and is more about the perspective of how someone thinks and feels based on experiences, background, education, culture, and a host of other elements that shape a person. Diversity is intensely valuable to an organization. The more diverse, the greater the perspectives brought into the organization.  

Why does this matter? A team assembled that has lower levels of diverse thinking are less likely to have conflict and at the same time, they are less likely to possess a collective highest potential for creativity or uniqueness in approaching a topic because their scale of perspective uniqueness will be low.

Back to the Original Question

Embedded in the question of how to help a team work together while respecting everyone’s individual style is the principle of diversity. The question subconsciously recognizes that the more diverse the group is, the more of a challenge it is to get them to work together while respecting style. In my experience, leaders should relax over that challenge. 

Cyriac Roeding shared thoughts on what constitutes an awesome team in a speech he gave to Stanford MBA students.

Notice the Awesome Team Formula

Cyriac gave four components to awesome teams:

  1. Individual brilliance.
  2. Set of shared values that are very inflexible.
  3. Extreme diversity.
  4. Mission and vision that people believe in.

Cyriac referenced experiential indicators of diversity and not demographic indicators. He talked about how a designer from Vogue would see things very differently than a high-powered software developer. In this concept he captures an essence of diversity that we need to remember. 

In achieving diversity, demographic indicators can and do give us a sense that the team has diversity. At the same time, extreme diversity comes from the unique perspectives, unique experiences, unique thinking styles, and the unique cultural influences that the members of the team bring to the collaboration table. 

BOTTOM-LINE Part A

Embrace diversity. Build diverse teams. Go beyond traditional diversity metrics and seek the greatest diversity you can find. Do not fear conflict that may occur. Diverse teams have organic conflict, but that conflict creates incredible possibilities. 

Individuality

What we’ve come to learn is that the best organizations and the best teams have a level of difference among the members that cause people to think, believe, and act in unique ways – individually. 

Often we tell people, “Don’t be an individual, be a team player.” That statement is great for sports, but not for business.

Why the Sports Analogy Doesn't Fit Business in this Case

It’s not uncommon in a team sport for individuals to curb their individuality in order to make the team better. The dynamics of that condition, however, are somewhat unique to sports and are not, or should not be, as dominant in the social structure of a business organization as one might think.

Here's why. On a sports team, such as a basketball team, there is one ball and five players on the floor for each team. The offensive aim of each team is to score points by putting the ball through the hoop. With five players on the floor there is a problem. Getting the ball into the hoop means that only one person will ultimately shoot the ball. The other four players have to play a subordinating role in order to help one player (and it can be a different player each time) shoot the ball. By playing the subordinating role to allow one player to shoot, the other players curb (to some extent) their individuality for the sake of the team.

In a business organization this analogy rarely holds true. In business, there is not just one ball or one basket. In the modern organizational world of knowledge-workers there are many balls, many baskets, and a lot going on all at once.

That’s why we want people to be both individually brilliant and to give their fullest capacity. Doing both advances the team faster and farther than if an individual throttled their talent and waited for their moment to “shoot the ball.” Great modern leaders recognize this and they want all of their "players" to be "superstars."

In other words, strive to get each person’s highest level of individual contribution.

How can leaders encourage individuality?

The most powerful model I’ve seen is called Appreciative Inquiry, which is a theory that says you should recognize and reward the positive, while completely ignoring the negative. The result, according to the theory, is that the positive actions you want to have happen will increase in volume while the negative actions will decrease. 

Coupled with the use of Appreciative Inquiry is the process leaders use to tap into people’s motivation so that the individual can give their best. Leaders who help people want to be awesome and help them tap into their own individual brilliance will increase the impact result of the work their team does.

BOTTOM-LINE Part B

Encourage individuality. Reward and recognize individual greatness. Help people grow their individual capabilities, talents, and skills. The world of a modern organization has an infinite capacity for participants to score, and to do so all at the same time. Seek to facilitate infinite possibilities of success in your people and encourage people to be great. 

Team

Wise leaders assemble teams of talent and, without giving them step-by-step instructions on how to do the work, they give them objectives to achieve and principles to follow. Leaders will want to give an assignment or a project to a group in such a way that allows the group to draw on both their diversity and individuality. 

The progress might look messy or even chaotic at first.

That’s ok.

In fact, it’s better than ok - it’s great! Margaret Wheatley is the author of Leadership and the New Science. She explores a fascinating metaphor that out of natural evolution we find order, beauty, and success. However, the initial stages of that evolving process look extremely chaotic. 

“New understandings of change and disorder have also emerged from chaos theory. Work in this field has led to a new appreciation of the relationship between order and chaos. These two forces are now understood as mirror images, two states that contain the other. A system can descend into chaos and unpredictability, yet within that state of chaos the system is held within boundaries that are well-ordered and predictable. Without the partnering of these two great forces, no change or progress is possible.”

Organizations and teams are like this. Chaos can create new order and new opportunity because people individually react to each other and to the situation, conditions, and environment, and if allowed, create beautiful outcomes that look orderly and natural. As Margaret Wheately said, “growth appears from disequilibrium, not balance.” 

The key for a leader, then, is to be specific in the outcome objectives they desire from the team – what is it that you want to have happen and why. The "how," then becomes a matter for the team, mostly, to determine. The best “how” is going to resemble chaos and will emerge from organic engagement among the team.

Don’t let chaos spook you as a leader. Give it some time to evolve and trust the brilliant individuals you have assembled as a team.

Why the Sports Analogy Does Fit Business in this Case

Leading a team in business is in some ways similar to leading a team in sports. The leader sets direction, assembles the right participants, creates conditions for success, and is actively involved in the team’s journey.

BOTTOM-LINE Part C

The objective is set by the organizational leader. The team pursues that objective by using their collection of talents and individual brilliance. The process may look chaotic and messy to someone looking outside-in. However, the results are what matter. The test of a team's value is always in the results, not in how it got there.

Diversity and Style = Value

Remember the question:

“How do you help a team work together effectively, while respecting everyone’s individual style of doing things?"

Do these eight things:

  • Assemble highly diverse teams.
  • Embrace chaos and conflict.
  • Encourage individuality.
  • Provide clear outcome-based objectives.
  • Don’t worry about efficiency but allow inefficiency and messiness.
  • Show high levels of appreciation for each person. 
  • Show high levels of appreciation for the team as an entity.
  • Be engaged in the journey with your team, don't let them fly solo or fly blind.

Continue Learning

We address complicated topics like this in our Lead the People series. Check us out at Lead the People.

Lead the People


 

Gordon Whitehead

Written by Gordon Whitehead

Gordon Whitehead is the founder of Leaders247 and specializes in leadership and organizational development with a particular interest in helping emerging leaders accelerate their leadership growth.