How Difference Makes a Difference
and “fit” has become an important concept in the workplace. According to a January 3, 2013 story by Logan Hill on Businessweek. com, many companies today make a point of hiring people who blend well with the prevailing corporate culture. Their philosophy assumes that we work best with the kinds of people we would naturally choose as friends.
But working only with colleagues who
look and think like you or share your tastes
might actually stifle performance. For example,
Hill says, a 2009 study at the University
of Illinois found that companies with strong
racial diversity did 15 percent more in sales,
on average, than more homogeneous firms.
Groups made up of people with similar backgrounds might get along easily, but their members lose opportunities to stretch their thinking, says Nsombi B. Ricketts, senior director of Johnson’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion. “They often tend to analyze problems in the same way. They’re leveraging the same knowledge, gained from their shared history, for problem solving, rather than seeing a problem from different vantage points.”
When a team unites people who are different — in terms of ethnicity, professional backgrounds or specialties, communication styles, attitudes, or other dimensions — that team can become a powerful, innovative force. But capitalizing on diversity isn’t easy. Heterogeneous teams and their leaders must work hard to resolve conflicts, promote good communications, and foster an atmosphere of respect.
A Skill to Fit Each Job
One advantage a diverse team might enjoy
is a broad range of skill sets that makes it
easier to match the right people with the
That’s the case at Google, where Chao Wang, MBA ’12, works as a senior financial analyst at company headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. Wang belongs to a global business intelligence team that provides strategic, analytical, and technical support in all business intelligence activities for sales and product teams at Google. Divided between Mountain View and several countries around the world, the multicultural team includes people with backgrounds in engineering, technology, and business management.
“We all have unique functions within the projects we’re running,” says Wang, whose specialty is management. “I probably add the most value with my people skills — being able to bring together engineers, product managers, and people in finance, sales and operations.” Team members with engineering and technical backgrounds are better equipped to talk in-depth with engineers about their requirements.
The team always assigns at least two members to any given project, Wang says. “Then you know you’ll have people with different perspectives or backgrounds.”
Eyal Knoll, MBA ’01, saw diverse approaches yield fresh solutions at Cisco Systems, where he spent 11 years managing the Emerging Markets delivery team — 50 people spread across a dozen countries.
Consider, for example, when the team was trying to figure out how to boost Cisco’s service bookings in Eastern Europe, says Knoll, now a partner at jwc, a consultancy in Cologne, Germany focused on the global trade show industry.
“Somebody in South Africa had ideas, and initially the folks in Eastern Europe said, ‘That’s not going to work here,’” he recalls. But when pushed to explain why those ideas wouldn’t work, the Eastern Europeans examined the problem and came up with a third solution that they would not have reached if their colleague in South Africa hadn’t nudged them in that direction, he says.
Not all diversity confers the same benefits, cautions Elizabeth “Beta” Mannix, associate dean for Executive Education, Ann Whitney Olin Professor of Management, and professor of management and organizations at Johnson. “It won’t necessarily help a group of people be more creative on a problem that has nothing to do with the kinds of diversity we’re bringing to the problem.” The jury is still out, for instance, on whether a team that is diverse in terms of race or gender will find a better solution to a strictly scientific question than a team that isn’t.
“You have to be careful about saying, ‘If I put a group of people together who are very different, I’m absolutely going to get the iPhone,’” Mannix says. But if you mix people with different educational and functional backgrounds, and those people learn to manage their diversity well, they will probably be more creative than a team of similar members, she says.
Conflict and Respect
That caveat about managing diversity is
crucial. “It’s not always the case that they’re
going to be able to do that,” Mannix says.
Diversity can spur the kinds of conflicts
that make it hard to reach decisions. “There
certainly have been studies done where like
groups have been given a problem, and they
solved the problem faster than more diverse
groups,” says Amy George, MBA ’84, vice
president, talent, diversity and inclusion at
Terex Corp. in Westport, Conn.
But fast and smooth operation doesn’t always translate into better results. In the March 2012 issue of Administrative Science Quarterly (ASQ), published by Johnson at Cornell, Heidi K. Gardner of the Harvard Business School shows that teams that seek quick consensus by focusing only on their common knowledge don’t perform as well as teams that embrace the domain-specific expertise each member brings to the table.
In one case at Cisco, it took careful management to help some members of Knoll’s global team take advantage of knowledge held by others. The challenge was cultural: team members in Jordan and Egypt weren’t used to collaborating with women, Knoll says. “And we had very experienced women working in Russia and Eastern Europe.”
Once a few individuals got over that hurdle, team members started sharing valuable information. “The power of diversity is that you get the ‘machos’ in Jordan to be able to respect great opinions and insights that come from female team members, and act on them, because the Eastern Europeans have experience in things that the folks in the Middle East haven’t done yet,” Knoll says.
Sabina Chadha, MBA ’00, executive vice president, sales and marketing at Haldor Advanced Technologies, an Israeli firm with U.S. headquarters in Cherry Hill, N.J., also recalls a conflict that arose when two people from different cultures arrived with different expectations.
The incident occurred during Chadha’s tenure as vice president for the health care sector at Aeroscout, another Israel-based technology firm. One of Chadha’s team members in the U.S. had gotten into a conflict with a colleague in Israel. The problem lay not in a difference of opinion but in the tone of the conversation.
“In Israel, there’s a lot of weight placed on whether you are showing respect. And it appeared as though the person on my team wasn’t being respectful,” Chadha says. After talking with the colleague in Israel, Chadha explained the problem to her team member and counseled him to communicate more carefully. “He said, ‘Thanks for the coaching. I didn’t know that was the case.’”
Mixing it Up
For a company that wants to reap the
benefits of diversity, the obvious first step
is to make sure that unlike minds have a
chance to meet.
“I have a requirement that when we fill positions, the hiring manger has to have a diverse hiring pool,” says Ted Becker, MPA ’77, global compliance director at asset management firm Legg Mason in New York. Managers can define “diversity” any way they want, but some sort of variety is a must. “We are looking for them not to hire clones of themselves, but to hire someone who brings a new dimension to the team.”
Becker also mixes people up in work groups. So when lining people up for activities at an offsite session in March of this year, he made a point of pairing, for example, a U.S. resident with someone from abroad, or a man and a woman.
“I want different points of view,” says Becker, who is a member of the Johnson Diversity Council. “I also want people to work together who maybe aren’t that comfortable working together because they haven’t had the opportunity.”
George — who also serves on the Diversity Council — and her own team at Terex took a similar approach when planning a leadership conference for 240 of the company’s top executives from around the world. “Every time we had the opportunity to put people in groups, we mixed people up,” she says. “We mixed them up by gender, by geography, by business segment, by function. So we were constantly having diversity, whether it was at a dinner table, a breakout table, or an activity table.”
Once a diverse team forms, the leader must foster open communication. “The issue is creating a safe space and building trust between team members, where everyone feels they can share ideas freely,” says Ricketts.
In the June 2012 issue of Administrative Science Quarterly, Ethan S. Bernstein of Harvard University describes how workers in a mobile phone factory in China started to perform better when given enough privacy to encourage “productive deviance, localized experimentation, distraction avoidance, and continuous improvement.” Like those workers, members of a diverse team who feel safe in their environment become free to experiment with “productive deviance.” They can voice divergent opinions, suggest unusual ideas and hold lively debates.
At Google, frequent one-on-one meetings with managers and colleagues, plus weekly meetings for teams and sub-teams, encourage communication and constructive criticism, says Wang. When Wang gives a project update, for example, a colleague might critique Wang’s approach, suggest alternative strategies, and refer him to people who can serve as resources.
“That comes across all the time,” Wang says. “So I make sure I have a weekly meeting to synch up with everyone on the team to see if someone else can provide me with insight.”
When a team includes members based in
different locations, face time can be crucial
to building trust.
George kept that principal in mind when her department launched a project to develop a training program for supervisors at its manufacturing plants around the world. To make sure the program would work equally well in the U.S., Brazil, China, and elsewhere, the company convened subject matter experts from Terex operations around the world.
They launched the project with an offsite meeting in Atlanta, where a facilitator helped the team craft the outlines of the new program. “After we’d established that rapport, and those relationships, we found that we were able to work well via webcast or over the phone,” George says.
Knoll also swears by the advantages of personal contact. At Cisco, he insisted on sending each new hire on a “meet-yourtheater” tour, as soon as possible, to visit with colleagues in other countries. Then, at least once a year, he would try to bring the whole team to one location to work together and also relax together.
Although technology helps far-flung colleagues collaborate, teams don’t really click until members get acquainted in person, Knoll says. “If they’ve met each other and had down time — they’ve talked about their children and pets — they build a sense of trust that ‘that person is just like me.’”
Flying new hires around the world to bond with colleagues and work out the kinks in collaborative relationships took time and cost a fair amount of money, but the investment paid off. “I had examples that I could show where groups within our Emerging Markets team were by far outperforming their European and U.S. counterparts in execution,” Knoll says.
Getting to Know You
Team-building activities designed for fun
can also help diverse colleagues gain trust.
Once members grow comfortable with one
another, when they sit down to work, they
understand that they can agree to disagree,
Chadha says. “They know that there’s no
intent other than coming up with the best solution, and people can have different
One activity that Chadha used in the past, while managing the worldwide eCommerce team for HP, involved an offsite cooking session. “We said, ‘Someone’s on point for desserts, someone’s on point for appetizers,’ People had to work together,” she recalls. “Then we all got together and ate the meal.”
Another way that leaders capitalize on team diversity is by paying attention to the communications style of each member, making sure that all voices are heard. Extroverts tend to talk a lot and dominate the conversation,” says Ricketts. “The introverted people might take a little longer to contribute to the discussion. You need to give them space to share their insights.” Because they often take more time to process problems before giving feedback, introverts might arrive at insights that the extroverts miss, she says.
If you want to ensure that the group is hearing all voices, you might simply need to turn to an introvert and ask, “What do you think?” Leaders must understand that a quiet demeanor doesn’t mean that a person has nothing to contribute, Ricketts says. “You need to be able to observe the room and the personalities of the people on the team, and make sure you’re actively engaging everyone.”
Leaders also can use various exercises and tools to improve the dynamics of diverse teams. Becker recalls a time when a company merger brought his own team together with a group from a distinctly different corporate culture. To help integrate the two, the merged company engaged a facilitator to lead members through an exercise called a stereotype analysis.
“Each of us was asked to write down 15 adjectives that we would use to describe the other team and 15 that we would use to describe ourselves,” Becker says. “Of course, we all thought the other team was horrible and bureaucratic!” The activity was fun, he said, and it helped the two groups start to blend.
At Terex, the training program for supervisors that George is helping to create includes a module on communications styles. It provides an assessment to determine whether a person is primarily an “analyst” (someone who likes to use facts and figures), a “futurist” (someone who focuses on large concepts), a “doer” (someone who wants to get work done quickly) or a “supporter” (someone who concentrates on the human dimension).
“We teach that all four styles are valid, all four styles are needed, all four styles are things that come into play in different situations to a greater or lesser extent,” George says.
While helping people understand their own preferred styles, the tool also encourages them to rely on more than one approach. “If your supporter area is less strong, what are some things you can do to beef that up a little bit?” George says.
Once a group has used this tool, meetings generate less stress. “You know the guy at the meeting who’ll always says, ‘Let’s step back a second and look at the big picture’ — and everybody groans, ‘Oh God — let’s make some progress’?” George asks. When members understand the value of different communications styles, that sort of conflict melts away, she says: team members are more prepared to explore issues through different perspectives.
Tough, But Valuable
Forming a productive team from a diverse
group of individuals takes a great deal of
effort and energy. “It’s really hard to coordinate
and communicate with people who are
different from you,” Mannix says.
The good news is, the struggle is worth it. In fact, the effort that team members expend to overcome the challenges that diversity presents may be the very thing that gives diverse groups their edge.
According to Mannix, one of the secrets to making diversity work is not to avoid conflict, but to court constructive disputes. Bringing differences into the open gives team members a chance to talk them through and reach the best possible conclusions.
“When we see organizations that are good at that, mostly it’s because the culture emphasizes it,” Mannix says. “It rewards people for doing it, and it has great leaders who know how to do it. When you get there, the outcomes are pretty amazing.”
Cornell-Queen’s Executive MBA students come from 25 cities and regions in the U.S., Canada, and Latin America, and 40 to 50 percent of them hold passports from countries other than the U.S. or Canada, says Joseph Babcock, the program’s director. Palisadesbased Executive MBA students are less geographically diverse, but like the Cornell-Queen’s Executive MBA, the program draws students from a broad range of industries and professions, and its members exhibit the whole spectrum of communications and work styles.
The effort to profit from diversity begins at the very start of the program, when each team meets with a coach. Over several hours, members explore one another’s individual learning and management styles, discuss best practices for working as a team, and start crafting a contract to govern how that team will operate.
“We outlined each person’s strengths and weaknesses in terms of professional skill sets and personality,” says Mariami Laliashvili, MBA ’14 (E), of her team’s first encounter in Palisades. “We discussed how we each deal with stress, how we express ourselves, how our minds work, how we generate ideas, our working and thinking styles, our cultural backgrounds.” That discussion gave the team a solid foundation when it came time to work on projects: members knew who had expertise in which subjects and understood how they complemented one another.
One strategy that coaches teach to help diverse teams thrive is learning not just to tolerate differences — that is, grit your teeth and put up with them — but to genuinely accept them, says Janet Gilfillan, lead team coach for both graduate programs. And one key to acceptance is understanding that each member comes to the team with good intentions.
The best way to approach that sort of difference is to ask open-ended questions, Gilfillan says: Where are you taking us? Why are you looking at things from that point of view? “If all you do is become able to see the other person’s perspective, you’re already going to have a more productive outcome.”
On Yang’s San Francisco-based Cornell-Queen’s Executive MBA learning team, exercises designed to build trust and respect at the start of the program helped persuade the group that a diverse team could produce better results than any one member could, he says. “Once we got past that, it really just became a matter of setting some team norms to ensure that our voices would be heard and that we had the right structure to facilitate that.”
Rather than avoid differences of opinion, the San Francisco team encourages them, Yang says. “We’ve been able to acknowledge that differences are often the key to better decision making. Embracing that idea has allowed us to naturally seek out the dissenting voice and continually strive to avoid groupthink.”