By Gale Mote/Tree Full of Owls
Most organizations understand the benefits of having a diverse workforce. We know teams who have diverse members with complementary skills are more creative and innovative than homogeneous teams. Comfortable clone syndrome is the desire to surround ourselves with people who think and act like we do to avoid conflict and the discomfort of being around others who are simply, in our eyes, strange and difficult.
Diversity is more than just age, race, religion, gender and sexual orientation. It includes personality styles, individual strengths and talents, work experience, interpersonal skills and emotional intelligence. In 1997, Dorothy Leonard and Susaan Straus wrote the Harvard Business Review article, “Putting Your Company’s Whole Brain to Work,” where they introduce the concept of creative abrasion. This is the ability to tap into the diverse talents and expertise of every person on the team in a way that maximizes productivity, drives results and generates positive work relationships.
As managers and team leaders, we need to utilize practical techniques to manage the process of creative abrasion. Let me share three that have worked very well with teams I facilitate and coach.
First, spend time helping team members discover what is right about one another’s styles, backgrounds and preferences. This builds trust, and without it, we cannot be open and engage in robust dialogue with others. We are often too quick to point out the negative perspective. For example, rather than focus on the fact that team members from Asian cultures have a great respect for hierarchy, we like to focus on the fact that some are often too quiet and withdrawn. People who are direct in their communication style are viewed as intimidating and aggressive, not straightforward and transparent.
A fun exercise I often use to help team members get to know one another and build trust is called “Tell a Lie.” You give each person on the team an index card and ask them to write down four facts about themselves they are confident other team members do not already know about them. Three of the facts are true and one is a little white lie or untruth. Team members are invited to share information about hobbies, accomplishments, family, work experiences, travel, food, cultural background, style preferences and aspirations.
After everyone has completed the card, the leader reads her four facts. Individually, without conversation, the other team members write down the number of the statement they believe to be false. Next, the entire team takes turn sharing the statements on their card and writing down the statement they believe to be untrue about their colleagues.
Next, the leader asks all of the team to weigh in and share what statement they believed to be untrue. After sharing, the team leader shares the correct answer. The process continues for every person on the team. As team members share, they begin to learn things about others they did not know before. They begin to see the fabric that makes up an entire person.
When I debrief the exercise, I usually ask the following questions — how did you select the statement you believed was untrue about your colleague? Was it an accurate perception? What is the consequence of having preconceived ideas and beliefs about our colleagues? What did you learn about your team members you did not know before? How will this help the team communicate and collaborate more effectively together?
A second technique I would share to generate creative abrasion, beyond building trust, is to encourage team members to flex their communication and collaboration styles when interacting with others who are very different. For example, an extrovert will dominate a conversation with an introvert unless he is aware of the style differences and makes a focused effort to be inclusive. When preparing to meet with people who are detail oriented, get organized and have your facts/data ready.
Many team members have been through personality style training (Myers-Briggs, DISC, Colors, etc.) and yet few know how to communicate and cooperate effectively with people who are not like them. They have an attitude that says “This is me. You’ll have to accept me as I am. Just live with it.” Creative abrasion encourages us to practice the Platinum Rule — Treat other people as they would like to be treated. Blessed are they who are flexible for they shall never be bent out of shape.
A great way to help team members maximize this skill is to have them share their personality strengths, blind spots, and suggest ways how others can communicate best with them. It helps when team members can openly discuss what works and doesn’t work in a setting where the emphasis is on what’s right with a particular style or preference. Lou Holtz, former coach and sports commentator, once said, “You can find a thousand reasons not to like someone. You have to work hard to look for what’s right, find that common ground and be committed to work together.”
The third and last technique is to be sure the team has a strong, compelling purpose and performance goals where everyone is clear about how they contribute to overall success. Personality conflicts, egos and petty backstabbing can take precedence when the team loses sight of why they are all there and what matters most. Find a way to keep the purpose and goals in front of the team. Celebrate progress, individual contributions and collective wins. A shared goal also helps to resolve conflict in making decisions — what solution is going to best move us in the direction of our desired outcomes?
Building trust, encouraging flexibility and keeping team members focused on the collective goal allows a team to maximize the diverse skills and talents in a team. In our likenesses, we connect. In our differences, we grow.
Gale Mote is a trainer, organizational development catalyst and coach in Cedar Rapids. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.