Team diversity: how to work with people who are different from you

Difference
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Elisabet Vinberg Hearn
Managing Director
Think Solutions
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This article was written by Mandy Flint & Elisabet Vinberg Hearn, authors of ”The Team Formula”.

When people are different to each other, smooth collaboration and teamwork can seem slightly challenging at best, impossible at worst.

On the other hand – if you can look for the opportunity and use the creative tension in those differences, you can start to build a very powerful team; one that is healthy, creative and successful.

There is a very powerful source for learning and innovation that comes into play when different people come together.

Differences can exist in many varieties; cultural, lingual, political, religious, personality, gender, values and/or many others. They are all opportunities. Period.

Differences can be close to conflict.

One of the main reasons for this is that when people think they have the “right” answer to something, they tend to stop listening to other perspectives, knowledge, experience and ideas.

What happens then? We create conflict, where opinions clash.

Conflict is really only a difference of opinion. If we can see any kind of difference as a creative force, an opportunity for learning and better answers, then we can make the most of the different perspectives they bring.

“When everyone is thinking the same, no one is thinking” -John Wooden

People avoid conflict like a bad virus, feeling uncomfortable when things get difficult, fearing that addressing issues will create more issues and may even escalate the conflict.

But it doesn’t have to be a bad thing.

Conflict and tensions between people are very common.

Conflict is really only a difference of opinion.

This isn’t strange – we all have different opinions, which is technically what conflict is – a difference of opinion. Nothing more, nothing less. Just because we look differently at something doesn’t mean we have to create tensions or full-blown conflicts with others.

Conflicting opinions can be the source of healthy debates, great innovation and needed change, meaning we get even better results.

We recently worked with a team with a very competitive culture.

This had led to them working in isolation, only coming together to report on results.

These sessions became unproductive “look at me” competitions, where colleagues criticized each other’s strategies and plans.

Needless to say, this only deepened the differences they felt and heightened the conflict and tensions between them. Something had to change.

A competitive environment doesn’t have to lead to conflict.

Healthy competition is a good thing. When issues are discussed and shared then it makes the team and indeed the individuals even stronger and they get better results.

Team members who have experienced conflict and resolved it, grow stronger together.

Personal differences, conflicting goals and competitive behaviours are indeed some of the reasons why differences and tension occurs.

You could say that there is an inherent power in conflict and tension, which can give a team or an organisation the boost that it needs to move forward, to become more effective.

If there is no conflict or looking at things differently, things simply remain the same, and in a world that is in constant evolution, maintaining the status quo is just not enough for a business that wants to thrive.

Continuous innovation is a necessity for survival.

Let’s have a look at some solutions to overcome these hurdles to teamwork and success – and how to make different opinions into something productive.

Here are our top seven tips for working successfully with people that are different than you:

  1. Let go of the “need to be right”. Remind yourself that your opinion or your solution might not be the right or only one. The first step to managing conflict (=different opinions) is to welcome it, rather than fearing it. When two people or more are having different opinions, start by viewing it as a good thing and think “okay, we have some differing views here, what can we learn from each of those different views?”
  2. Curiously approach other people who are different than you. Assume that you can learn from them and them from you. Ask questions. This is of course part of communication, to ask good questions – in order to deepen awareness and understanding. Take an interest in each other’s strategies and plans and ask questions about the approach. Just questions, not judgments. It may seem like a small difference, but it makes all the difference.
  3. Invite and engage people into discussion, healthy debate and exchange. Take an active interest in others by asking them for their input and creative ideas. Assume positive intent. By doing so, you open up to the other person. You look for the positive, the possibilities, the possible connections into what you are doing. If someone is competitive, for example, see the positive intent behind that rather than going into a competitive mode yourself. Use questions to get a discussion going, rather than shutting the door to collaboration.
  4. Look for the common purpose, what you have in common. What do you both/all want to achieve? And then communicate that to everyone involved and reach agreement on a shared commitment to that purpose. Connect all team members’ goals. If there is competitive behaviour in your team, then having connected goals will make that competitive behaviour impossible to carry on with. If each team member is goaled not just on his/her individual performance but also the performance of the team overall, then it brings out collaborative behaviour instead. If you are a team member look for the alignment in goals yourself and don’t wait to be asked.
  5. Discuss and agree on some operating principles on which your collaboration and teamwork will be based. This removes the risk of many daily – and very avoidable – unnecessary conflict situations.
  6. Figure out what each person is best at, what their strengths are. Everyone has a unique set of strengths – different to yours. Know them, make the most of them, and highlight how you can achieve more as a team/division/organisation where everyone contributes the best of themselves. This reduces the risk of unhealthy competition as people feel unique and the need for such competition diminishes.
  7. Communicate, communicate, communicate. Differences and tensions are often the result of lack of communication, of incorrect and unnecessary assumptions. If you’re the leader, communicate openly with your team at regular intervals. If you are a member of the team, speak up and communicate, do your bit for the team to create the right atmosphere.

Getting to great teamwork in a diverse team can be challenging and will take longer to achieve than if the team members are more alike. But it’s worth it.

The reward in the form of greater levels of innovation, learning and development as well as the dynamic interaction it brings is worth every challenge encountered.

Just stay focused and keep reminding yourself that there is a win-win outcome to be had when working together in this open-minded and creative way.

If you are at a stage where the status quo needs to be broken, consider how you can start to make the most of differences between people and start tapping into a new era of innovation where you can fast-forward your organisation’s success.

Team members who have experienced conflict and resolved it grow stronger together.

Whatever approach you take, think carefully about how you communicate. Think about what you say and how you say it when your opinion differs from somebody else’s.

There’s a difference between saying “What do you mean by that?!” and saying ”That’s really interesting, I hadn’t thought about it quite like that. Tell me more about it.”

Workplace differences can be a good thing, a very good thing even, and should definitely not be feared but addressed. Managing team conflict is everyone’s responsibility

Team members who have experienced conflict and resolved it grow stronger together.

So don’t fear conflict, welcome it for its innovative powers and use it carefully and respectfully.

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07th Feb 2017 08:17

A very helpful, constructive, and thought-provoking article: thank you.

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