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The 4th of July, diversity, and team leadership


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By ROBERT NAYLOR JR.

 

Unless the organization in which you work is very small, most strategic objectives are probably planned and executed by work teams.  The complexity and competitive nature of today’s marketplace means businesses, educational institutions and nonprofits alike need to harness the collective capabilities and natural synergies that teams can bring to a project.

If you manage or work on one these teams, you probably already know that the days of homogenous work groups − those whose members are from one gender, racial background, lifestyle, or Flagbelief system − are mostly behind us. While there are still too many organizations for which that is not the case, the concept of a diverse workplace is almost universal in theory if not in practice.

Homogenous teams tend to have less conflict, reach consensus quicker and often complete projects sooner. That is why some leaders mistakenly believe they function better. But they also suffer from a kind of single-mindedness and groupthink that can kill creativity, which is the most fundamental component of innovation.

On this long 4th of July weekend, it seems fitting to take a fresh look at the seemingly stale topic of diversity, which fueled America’s rise to global economic and political dominance.

The United States is becoming what the New York Times has described as a “plurality nation.” The term “minority,” as we have come to know it, will likely cease to exist by the midpoint of the century, with no racial or ethnic group forming a majority.

Some studies put the number of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in the workforce as high as 6.5 percent. And even though women continue to lag behind their male colleagues in promotions and compensation, they hold nearly 52 percent of all professional-level jobs, according to the Center for American Progress.

Workplace diversity is far more complex than race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation. Smart companies (emphasis on smart) have programs in place to recruit, hire, train, mentor, promote and retain people of color, women and LGBT employees. However, they are learning that there are new diversity issues  in the 21st century workplace, including the presence of four generations of employees.

Millennials − the young adults ages 18 to 33 − tend to think, act and react very differently than those from older generations. Their motivations and their values are often very different. A Pew Research Center survey released earlier this year shows that while most identify as politically independent, their views are more socially liberal.  They are less likely to go to church and less likely to get married than their predecessors. Previous studies have shown that they are less loyal to their employers and fully expect work and life to be integrated. That means they are not willing to sacrifice having a personal life in the name of your organization’s success.

What might ultimately be the greatest diversity challenge for organizations is the integration of people from diverse talent backgrounds on the same team. Today’s flat organizational structures no longer permit different functional areas to work in silos. A project team might easily consist of members from operations, technology, marketing, finance, corporate communications, human resources and other areas.

When I first became a newspaper editor three decades ago, I could do practically every job in the newsroom, whether it was writing, shooting pictures, editing copy, or laying out pages. Journalists who had very different skills had similar views about newsgathering and storytelling, even if the media were different.

The situation is very different in today’s newsrooms. Editors now manage teams that include people from varying backgrounds who not only have different skill sets, but different mindsets. The same is true in other professions. It can create considerable management challenges when you not only can’t do the jobs of people who report to you, but you don’t understand how they think, process information or collaborate.

Diverse teams are far more likely to develop innovative products and services, especially when you add such elements as race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation and generation. However, they almost unavoidably experience higher levels of conflict that must be skillfully managed so that the teams develop the inventive strategies organizations need rather than disintegrating into disorder.

Here are some of the leader’s primary responsibilities for keeping the team cohesive:

  • Create a sense of belonging. Feeling like a valued member of a community helps each person feel comfortable sharing as well as respectfully challenging other members of the group. That means their level of contribution will be higher.
  • Manage conflict. This is not the same thing as avoiding conflict or rushing in to quickly resolve it, which can be counterproductive. Team members need to challenge each other so that each person brings their best ideas to the table. However, there is a difference between challenging and confronting. The team leader must ensure that line is not crossed.
  • Be fair. Any sign of favoritism can paint you as less tolerant of one group over another and cause an irreparable rift with you and among team members. Once trust is lost, it is very difficult − if not impossible − to regain.
  • Listen. Stay informed about what the team is doing, how well it is functioning and how well work is progressing. Listening is a leader’s most important tool. More than anything else it can help you see potential problems before they become unmanageable.
  • Over communicate. Team members need to hear from you before, during and after the process. Set expectations, follow through and adjust as needed. Follow up with team members after their work is completed so they know the ultimate outcome of the project. Not knowing can make them question whether their contribution was valued.

Happy Independence Day!

 

©2014, Robert Naylor Coaching and Consulting, LLC. All rights reserved.

The flag used in the photo illustration was manufactured in the USA.

 

Robert Naylor is a journalist, consultant, certified coach, facilitator, and speaker who helps people become better leaders, improve workplace performance, and find focus in their careers and life. He is available for on-site training, private coaching, keynote presentations, and commentary. For more information visit naylorcoaching online or contact robert@naylorcoaching.com.

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