We all talk about how diversity can engender creativity and innovation in a work group or team, but my observation is that in many organizations, we seek out diverse members and then put infrastructure in place that homogenizes the team.  Here are five ways to harness the power of your team’s difference:

1. Use methods of capturing new ideas that are accessible to everyone, regardless of culture or communication style

When you begin a meeting by saying, “Does anyone have any ideas?”  what you will get is the ideas of the outspoken members of the team.  Teammates whose cultural norms or communication style tend to make them more reserved, and who feel they must interrupt in order to get a word in, may remain quiet and never share their thoughts.  One way around this is to start meetings with a “round robin”, in which each person is allotted time and expected to say whatever is on their minds.

2. Celebrate difference in ways that allow everyone to learn about and appreciate each other.

Create a culture of curiosity on your team by setting the example.  Ask people about their backgrounds, their cultures, their beliefs.  Share what you find interesting about them with others.  When problem solving, think about whose unique set of experiences might best allow for a new and/or useful perspective on the issue.  And of course, make sure that you don’t plan events that screen people out.  Don’t do a team luncheon during Ramadan, or order roast beef sandwiches for an office lunch when you have a teammate who is a vegetarian.  The more you learn about each other, the easier it will be to avoid these sorts of faux pas.

3. Find ways to encourage people to break out of comfort zones in their interactions with each other.

Here’s another area in which you can set the example.  Don’t go to lunch with the same people every day; make a point of asking someone you don’t know well and have less in common with to have lunch with you, or to join you for a Friday happy hour.  Seek different people to ask for their opinions on issues.  Don’t get in the habit of always talking to the same people around the water cooler on Monday mornings about how your weekends were.  Mix it up as much as you can.

4. Teach teammates how to communicate with respect.

Language is important, and many people care about what terms are used to refer to them.  Some may prefer “black” and others “African American”; some like “Hispanic” and others prefer “Latino/Latina”.  Teach your teammates that it’s OK to ask, as long as it’s done respectfully.  Don’t minimize this as a matter of political correctness because to many people that sends a message that it’s not really important and we’re just being fussy.

5.  Resolve workplace complaints and conflicts in ways that seek increased communication and understanding.

When appropriate (i.e. when not involving potentially serious legal issues) treat complaints about workplace behaviors as opportunities for teammates to learn more about each other.  Instead of conducting individual interviews in a “hush-hush” manner with the goal of documenting and disciplining, put the parties in a room together with a competent facilitator and help them learn about the differences that caused the conflict.  Help them reach agreements with each other on their own. 

What other ways have you found to leverage diversity on your work teams?  Please share some tips and stories.

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