Working in Diverse Teams

At ACCES we are very proud to work with employers who are committed to building diverse teams. Our employer partners know that diversity is good for business as well. Research has proven the positive effect that diversity and inclusive hiring practices have on the bottom line. The Harvard Business Review notes that companies “in the top quartile for ethnic and racial diversity in management were 35% more likely to have financial returns above their industry mean, and those in the top quartile for gender diversity were 15% more likely to have returns above the industry mean” (Rock and Grant, 2015). A more nuanced benefit of workplace diversity, also supported by research, provides evidence that diverse teams are simply smarter: they focus more on facts, they process those facts more carefully, and they are more innovative (Rock and Grant, 2015).

At ACCES we see evidence of the benefits of diversity everyday; not only from the employers with whom we work and the jobseekers we are helping to find employment, but also in our own staffing and hiring practices. With this experience, we would like to offer some tips and some guidance for everyone on working in diverse teams.

Respecting, Celebrating and Managing Difference

Working in a diverse team means finding strategies for handling diverse perspectives and creative conflict and, at the same time, empowering the decision-making process and cultivating team harmony. Here are some cultural differences that will play a part in this process:

Differing Senses of Power and Hierarchy

Diverse and multicultural teams will be comprised of individuals who have a different sense of, and a different relationship to, authority, power and hierarchies—especially as they exist within a professional organization. Some cultures are very respectful of hierarchy. Individuals from these cultures are reverential toward authority and power and will treat people according to their professional ‘status’ within the organization. In contrast, there will be individuals who come from more egalitarian cultures and won’t be overly concerned with hierarchical differences.

Making Decisions

Different cultures approach problem-solving and decision-making in different ways. Some will need to go through a deliberate process of preparation and analysis, while others can make decisions quickly based on basic information.

Modes of Communication

Another cultural difference we see in diverse teams concerns different modes of communication. Cultures vary in the degree to which they value direct and explicit communications. Some individuals will favour very straightforward appraisals of a problem or challenge and will bluntly point out problems, while others will take a more indirect route, preferring to ask questions and circle around a topic.

Developing the Effectiveness of a Diverse Team

The cultural differences briefly outlined above can lead to conflict on a diverse team if it is not managed well and if the individuals are not committed to growing, learning and seeing things from new and different perspectives. Here are some strategies and best practices for overcoming some of the problems raised by the cultural differences on a diverse team:

Be Open-Minded, Flexible and Adaptable

Each member on a diverse team should first recognize and acknowledge the cultural differences that exist on the team. And, these differences should be respected and appreciated. If you are a manager on this team, try to create opportunities for your team to learn about one another and their culture. Taking time for social activities or finding ways within the context of work to share cross-cultural information will make everyone on the team appreciate and understand each other a little more. Pot-luck lunches, story sharing and creative games designed to get colleagues learning about each other are important strategies for developing a more open-minded and flexible team.

As an individual on a diverse team, seek to expand your own cultural connections. The choices you make regarding the books you read, the music you listen to and the places you travel can open your mind to cross-cultural information and new ways of seeing the world and thinking about difference. Professionally, you can develop your cross-cultural skill by seeking out experiential learning opportunities: ask to be a part of a cross-cultural project team, look for ways to exchange with those who are culturally different from you either within your organization or with corporate partners. Taking the time to get to know and bond with diverse people is an excellent way to develop skills. In their book Organizational Behaviour, Black et al. (2019) explain that “cultural intelligence is a competency and a skill that enables individuals to function effectively in cross-cultural environments. It develops as people become more aware of the influence of culture and more capable of adapting their behavior to the norms of other cultures.” Everyone should be willing to be flexible and adaptable, willing to acknowledge and work with cultural differences. When building teams, employers and managers should look for people who have this mindset. This is precisely one of the reasons that people with international experience are valued in the Canadian job market; it demonstrates the ability to work in a culturally diverse context.

Have Agreed-Upon Processes

With the variety of cultural differences that can exist on a diverse team, it is import to set some agreed-upon processes for problem-solving and decision-making. This will ensure there is team agreement on acceptable behaviours and ways of working. Spending some time to express and even document team processes will enable individuals to focus on the process and not on the discrete cultural differences between individuals.

The Team’s Structure Can Change

One final thing to be aware of on a diverse team is that structural interventions can be used to increase effectiveness and productivity. Reorganizing the team to reduce friction or to benefit from particularly positive relationships within the team is a strategy that can make a diverse team more effective. Even from project to project, it is important to understand how the members of your team work together to make the most out of your skills. Developing a rotation or creating smaller sub-groups on a diverse team can help the team overcome problems because of cultural differences and can help the team function more effectively.

Culturally diverse teams can boost an organization’s potential, providing new perspectives, ideas and highly sought-after skills. The HR team can value diversity and inclusion as they recruit new people into the organization, but it is up to the actual people within that organization to ensure daily work practices recognize and make the most of our cultural differences.

Rock, David and Heidi Grant. 2016. “Why Diverse Teams Are Smarter.” Harvard Business Review. Available online at https://hbr.org/2016/11/why-diverse-teams-are-smarter

Stewart Black, Donald G. Gardner, Jon L. Pierce, and Richard Steers. 2019. “Organizational Behaviour.” OpenStax. Available online at https://opentextbc.ca/organizationalbehavioropenstax/

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