You are here

7 ways HR can help diverse teams succeed

Diverse team in the workplace

As organisations focus on improving workforce diversity and increase their reliance on small, functional teams, it’s important they understand how to set diverse teams up for success. In this article we look at seven ways HR can help diverse teams become high performing.

Share individual stories to highlight genuine difference

The false-consensus bias makes us believe our opinions are more widely held than they are. And if we think others hold the same opinions as us and see them disagree with us openly, we may interpret these disagreements as personal grudges or needless conflict. This can be particularly damaging in diverse teams because the true variation in viewpoints is likely to be greater.

HR’s first role is to make people aware of this bias. But they should also help line managers highlight difference in healthy ways, to remind everyone that holding different opinions is natural and healthy.

In meetings, for example, line managers should encourage team members to explain why they’ve adopted their chosen viewpoint, which will naturally draw out events and experiences from their past and show the logic behind their argument. Line managers could also create wallboards or areas of the intranet that highlight interesting facts about members of the team.

Empower people with unique support - and share why

Perceiving colleagues to be treated favourably can encourage employees to feel like they aren’t treated fairly. Because fair treatment is a key ingredient of satisfaction and wellbeing at work, this can undermine both individual performance and interpersonal relationships.

When people realise an achievement could not have happened without a combination of people’s skills and strengths, they are more likely to be inclusive and accepting of difference.

However, when people understand why others are treated differently and feel this treatment is reasonable, there is less potential for damage. No employee would begrudge a single mother leaving early to pick up her children from school. But without knowing her circumstances, this treatment may be seen as unfair. After all, why should everyone else stay later if she doesn’t?

The more diverse the team, the more individual needs will diverge. HR and line managers must ensure that when they offer people support based on their personal needs, it’s done fairly and transparently. Empower everyone to be the best they can be, based on their unique needs, but celebrate difference and be honest about why people get what they get.

Highlight achievements borne of synergy

For diverse teams to be successful, members must value the contributions of others. This is particularly powerful when they think success is magnified by combining complementary strengths. When people realise an achievement could not have happened without a combination of people’s skills and strengths, they are more likely to be inclusive and accepting of difference.

Team leaders, therefore, must highlight where complementary strengths have combined to create high performance. HR’s role in this is clear: firstly, helping leaders recognise and celebrate strengths they don’t themselves have. The more diverse the team, the harder the manager must work to pick out different strengths, because people more effortlessly recognise strengths similar to their own.

Secondly, they must help managers see where success has been driven by diverse strengths and encourage them to highlight these instances across the team.

Highlight and reinforce the effects of homogeneous bias

There’s a lot of research suggesting diverse teams outperform homogeneous teams. However, two natural biases towards homogeneous teams can encourage poor performance in diverse teams.

The first bias is around performance: people naturally overestimate the performance levels of homogeneous teams. This is driven by feelings of ease - it’s easier to work in homogeneous teams because everyone is similar. Secondly, people overestimate the conflict in diverse teams.

These biases drive dysfunctional behaviours in diverse teams: people take steps to ignore or bury difference in order to create a kind of pseudo-homogeneous group, even though research suggests conflict and difference are the driving forces of success in diverse teams if people are prepared to put the extra effort in to manage them healthily.

In the first instance, HR must make people aware of their inherent biases towards homogeneous teams so they can better understand how their natural behaviours may make team success more difficult.

Reframe the role of conflict in teams

As mentioned above, conflict is at the heart of success in diverse teams. When understood and managed across the team, conflict can drive clear decision-making, innovation and audience-driven behaviour.

But while healthy conflict is at the heart of success in diverse teams, mismanaged and destructive conflict is at the heart of dysfunction. The biggest strength can quickly become the biggest weakness. Why is this?

In truth, the drivers of conflict that afflict any team have the same effects on diverse teams, such as mismanaged expectations, unclear goals, misaligned values, personal pressures and perceptions of unfairness. But these can be more destructive in diverse teams, and have a lower threshold for causing damage.

While healthy conflict is at the heart of success in diverse teams, mismanaged and destructive conflict is at the heart of dysfunction.

HR’s role is in educating and training everyone to understand the nature of conflict, how and why it arises and how to manage it both internally and externally. The overarching goal is to reframe conflict from a negative to a shared strength: when we tolerate and celebrate conflict, we bond and reach higher plains of success than if we shy away from it or let it undermine personal wellbeing and team dynamics.

Reinforce the crucial link between diversity and creativity

Creative thinking is driven by divergent thinking which is most powerful when undertaken by a diverse group. If a group of men generate ideas, the female perspective is obviously going to be missing. The more diverse the group, the broader and more representative the ideas.

The second part of creative thinking is judging the suitability of ideas. Again, diversity helps here because a homogeneous group will be able to judge the suitability of an idea from a much more limited knowledge and experience base than a diverse group.

HR must ensure line managers have the skills and knowledge to both explain these variables to team members but also to run creative meetings in such a way that difference is brought out and celebrated and conflict drives divergent thinking rather than stymies it.

Help people see their blind spots

Every human has blind spots which are areas where their lack of knowledge or experience leads to a lack of understanding and empathy and poor decision-making. Blind spots are very difficult to spot and fix because, as the saying goes, “we don’t know what we don’t know.”

This unfortunate fact of life can drive conflict in diverse teams because our blind spots make it difficult - sometimes impossible - to understand another person’s point of view. This can lead us to view people as being ‘difficult’ or ‘stubborn’ rather than having a genuinely different point of view.

HR’s role here is to help people develop self-awareness: to understand how their worldview, behaviours, strengths and weaknesses are a product of their experiences and knowledge and how these characteristics may bias them against points of view they don’t understand. Although different to blind spots, just sharing with people the huge number of human biases can help people start critiquing their thought processes, which is the first step to teasing out blind spots.

As a performance-driven HR professional, do you understand the crucial differences between diversity and inclusion? This is a key distinction: familiarise yourself today to increase your own confidence and the success of your inclusion strategy.