3 Tips to Successfully Lead Diverse Teams

While it is clear that there are many benefits to having diversity on your team, researchers have found that many diverse teams do not perform as well as they should. In fact, more diverse teams tend to perform either better or worse than more homogenous teams. Why is this, and how can team leaders create an environment that ensures diverse teams reach their full potential?

In a recent webinar event for our Power of Inclusive Leadership webinar series, Martha Maznevski, Professor of Organizational Behaviour and Faculty Director for Executive Education at Ivey & Laura Morgan Roberts, Professor of Practice at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business teamed up to answer this important question and share their advice for team leaders. 

To find more information about the research they discussed and shared in their PowerPoint presentation, you can view the slides here. Below we have outlined 3 of the tips they shared for team leaders looking to empower performance from diversity within their teams:

1. Be curious and learn about the perspectives of other people.

High-performing, diverse teams show great excitement, engagement, and curiosity – they want to go to work, they are engaged, they are respectful of one another, and they challenge each other’s ideas. 

The development of this type of environment starts with the team leader also displaying a high level of curiosity and interest in the perspectives of their team members. Team leaders should see curiosity as a necessary leadership characteristic. The single behavior of being curious and asking a question like ‘Can you tell me more about how you came up with that idea?’ can go a long way. 

“Be curious to ask the question and create space for the answer. Recognize that different people from different backgrounds will respond to curiosity in different ways.” – Professor Martha Maznevski

2. Create conditions where individuals’ differences are actively engaged. 

When you have people that are different from each other working with one another, they each bring different knowledge from both their backgrounds and also their lived experiences. 

As the team leader, you must understand that it’s your responsibility to create the conditions where your team members’ differences are actively engaged. The default is for individuals to draw towards similarity and only discuss information that’s commonly shared. You need to be proactive in facilitating an environment where people’s unique perspectives or backgrounds are not constrained, and your team members notice different things, ask different questions, and challenge different assumptions. 

You must also ensure that you are not creating what Professor Laura Morgan Roberts referred to as “facade of conformity”- when individuals mask their true beliefs, opinions, values to fit in with what they think the most powerful people in their org think, feel, and value.” This is a threat for diverse teams and organizations. 

“When we are exposed to differences, we all of a sudden start to question our own assumptions, and that is valuable for the work of the teams.” – Professor Laura Morgan Roberts

3. Use employee data to create cultural change.

Oftentimes organizations have employee engagement data they are looking at, but they fail to crosscut those experiences based on different groups like gender, status, career stage, and race. If they do conduct these breakdowns based on race, they may not make the data transparent or available. 

“The numbers definitely tell a story, but that’s just the first step – to acknowledge whatever disparities might exist. The real work comes in terms of what you do around the information that you glean from the data. I think we can lean too heavily on the numbers and metrics for measuring and holding people accountable and not the deeper work of cultural change within our teams.” – Professor Laura Morgan Roberts

On a team level, team leaders should be looking at data that also explores psychological safety – are your team members truly bringing their whole selves to work? Do they feel like they can express their ideas and identities freely in the context of the work? These data points and insights are important in understanding how you and other people of power should respond to differences of opinion and beliefs.

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