Diversity: The Art of Thinking Independently Together

Diversity is the Art of Thinking Different Together

The word “diversity” is thrown around in corporate circles on a regular basis, but like many such common corporate words (like “innovation”, “synergy”, “culture”, or “strategy”) the word itself doesn’t carry a common meaning and so it loses a great deal of its power. Sometimes people mean diversity in terms of race, heritage, or origin. Sometimes it means diversity in terms of gender. Rarely does it meet the standard of diversity that I think it needs to.

The most important fact about American liberty is that it has never been a single idea, but a set of different and even contrary traditions in creative tension with one another. This diversity of libertarian ideas has created a culture of freedom which is more open and expansive than any unitary tradition alone could possibly be.

David Hackett Fischer

While the quote above is focused on an American concept the foundation of the quote is universal. Diversity is a broad concept that requires leaders to work differently in order to build and reap the rewards from it.

Building Diversity in Your Team

In most cases, people consider diversity from the perspective of primary diversity factors like age, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, etc. While those elements are important to consider, in my experience they are generally achieved if you focus on the secondary dimensions of diversity when you are building or adding to your team. The secondary dimensions that I most frequently focus on are:

  • Experience and Background

    Do the individuals on your team have similar experiences in a common industry or do you have a cross section of experience and industry background? In one of my teams in the banking industry, for example, I had people who had grown up in banking, geography majors, industrial design graduates, business leaders, people who had been a part of start-up companies, entrepreneurs, psychology graduates, and former consultants. My team members had worked in industries ranging from banking, manufacturing, health science, computing technologies, and even to Arctic exploration. Every experience across industries provides insights that might be relevant to a current challenge you face. It is incredible how often I came across a challenge that appeared new in our industry, but which had been solved in other industries. Those diverse team experiences provided a great starting point to moving forward.

  • Perspective and Approach

    Do the individuals on your team always approach problems from the same angle? Are they all detail oriented thinkers? Are they all conceptual thinkers? Every problem or challenge you face will have multiple dimensions. If you have a team who always uses the same approach you will risk seeing things only from one of those dimensions. (Consider the parable of the Six Blind Men and the Elephant)

  • Work Styles

    Does everyone on your team work and react the same way? Do they keep similar office schedules, approach documentation and desk time in a similar way, and conduct themselves in meetings in the same manner? Is everyone a note taker? Does everyone communicate well verbally or do they prefer visual styles of communication? While differences in work styles can create tension they also create tension which can be very helpful. Without some variance in work styles, it is easy to become complacent as a leader about what it takes to leverage diversity. If it is always easy to communicate and work together, then it is also easy to slip into common patterns and lose sight of different perspectives that might be valuable.

  • Personality Type

    Are all of your team members extroverted? Does everyone have a thinking orientation? There are many tests out there that can provide you with some insights into the makeup of your team. (Myers Briggs test is a common well-known option). I have heard arguments that some roles or teams are better suited to certain personality types, but in my experience, it is the diversity of personality type that creates real power. As a leader, you should be aware of your own personality type and surround yourself with people from the other areas where you are not strong. If you are introverted make sure you have some extroverts on your team. If your tendency is toward thinking make sure there are some feeling people to help balance your natural tendency.

There are likely other secondary dimensions you can think of that are similarly useful in building a diverse team. The goal is to create health creative tension. Whatever dimensions you use should have that goal in mind.

Balancing the Diversity Dimensions

By focusing on the secondary dimensions of diversity instead of the primary dimensions (gender, age, etc) you aren’t diminishing the importance of those primary dimensions. In fact, you should absolutely have an understanding of your primary diversity. What I have found is that by focusing my energy and attention on secondary dimensions I have consistently built teams that were diverse across the primary dimensions without even trying. Consider mapping your team visually so you can see where everyone fits. Identify where you have concentration, and where you need to consider adding differences. It can be very powerful when you are recruiting to have a ‘diversity’ agenda focused on augmenting the team you already have.

So now that you have built a diverse team, how do you leverage its power to keep tension at a healthy level?

Thinking Independently Together

The easy answer is by leveraging human leadership styles which I outlined in Leading to Outcomes. But there is certainly more to it than leading down effectively. One of the hardest parts of leading a diverse team is putting aside our own predispositions and keeping an open mind.

As leaders, we have typically been promoted to our current level of the organization through hard work, subject matter expertise, and business results. Our own work styles, personality type, experiences, and perspectives have got us to where we are. Our natural predisposition is to continue with those approaches.

Unfortunately at each level of promotion we need to ‘unlearn’ some of what got us to where we are. As you move up the organization your subject matter expertise becomes less important for example. You now have detail oriented roles supporting you which provide that subject matter expertise while you focus on the bigger picture issues and challenges.

Unlearning our Past Knowledge

The same is true though when you think about the dimensions of diversity. When you are an individual contributor you only have to think about working with the people around you, and adjusting and dealing with their differences. When you become a first level manager you may need to manage people with some differences, but typically those first level teams are made up of people with common experiences. A manager can continue using their natural approaches and it likely won’t cause any issues in the short term.

At a more senior level, however, you need to put aside your own predispositions and recognize the value of the differences within your team. I have watched leaders who have achieved their first executive appointment quickly struggle because they work to bring in “their team” to support them. They try to reduce the tension of change by bringing in people who think, work, and approach issues in a similar way to themselves. Unfortunately, in their haste to make their team look like them they lose some valuable perspective that existed before they took over. Often a significant amount of organizational memory housed with the existing team is lost.

Strong Leadership Consciously Builds Diversity

To be truly effective as you become a senior leader you need to focus on the differences that exist on your new team. As a leader, we need to adjust our own work styles, expectations and needs to retain valuable team members. Those individuals may deliver outstanding results regardless of their differences from ourselves.

Diversity along the secondary dimensions is incredibly powerful. It allows you to see things from different perspectives that you wouldn’t have considered. Diversity allows you to see approaches to challenges that you never would have considered. It allows you to build on the learnings from many industries and backgrounds who may have already solved your current challenges.

As a leader it is your responsibility to build and retain a diverse team. That responsibility doesn’t come from any social agenda or special interest. It is a result of the incredible business and organizational power that is generated from diversity. To build true long-term competitive advantage you need to build true long-term diversity.

All of us are only smarter than any one of us if each of us brings different experiences, approaches, perspectives, and work styles. If we’re all the same then there isn’t much value in being a team.

About Tim Empringham, MBA
Tim Empringham is a passionate advocate for Innovation in organizations of all sizes as a mechanism to drive growth, create uncontested market space, create new customer value, and drive efficiency into the internal organization. His focus is on disruption of thinking and markets through integrative thinking, structured Innovation frameworks, and leadership development of Innovation and Change leaders within the organization.

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