Before Paul Slezak joined Australian startup RecruitLoop, he was managing a business in Hong Kong. His team there was, in a word, diverse. Local staff from Hong Kong and mainland China mixed with expat staff from Australia, the U.K., France, the Netherlands, Singapore, the Philippines, the U.S., and Canada. Additionally, Slezak recalls, “Some had kids, some didn’t, some were married, others were not. The youngest person was 23 at the time and the oldest was 51. The nearly 30-year age spread prompted some of the younger team members to refer to their older colleagues as “grandpa” and “mumma,” but Slezak says the nicknames just added to camaraderie.
Teams that, like Slezak’s, look like more like a random grab bag than a matched set are a good thing, posits Margaret Neale, the Adams Distinguished Professor of Management at Stanford’s business school. “Teams that are too homogeneous are more likely to experience groupthink where agreement is privileged over high-quality decisions which often require explicit task conflict,” she explains. Age, for example, whether it’s chronological or seniority, allows for differing perspectives. “Older, more senior team members can bring a perspective on the organization or the team’s history,” Neale points out, while younger members bring new information or perspectives, often changing how the old-timers think about their task and the team. “The mere presence of diversity can enhance the team’s expectation of and capacity to deal with conflict, resulting in better decision making,” she says.
Though it took place on another continent, Slezak’s experience isn’t all that uncommon in any workplace. For the first time in history, four generations are toiling in tandem. And technology is breaking down geographical barriers by allowing global businesses to have staff anywhere in the world and partnerships to flourish between those who’ve never met in real time.
You Need a Facilitator; Outspoken Asshats Need Not Apply
Steven Snyder, a former Microsoft executive turned workplace conflict expert, agrees. “The more diverse the group, the better ideas that will come out of it,” he says, because taking people out of a constrained system (i.e., their regular roles in the office) allows cognitive processes and creativity to flow. But rather than let brainstorming–an important first step in group processes–go unbridled, Snyder recommends appointing one person on the team to be its facilitator.
Contrary to what you might think, he says, this is not a role for the outspoken, alpha person in the group. “You need person who is cognizant of goal of the group but also people-oriented,” Snyder explains.
In Slezak’s office, for instance, one challenge was that English wasn’t everyone’s native language. “It would have been very easy [for the non-native speakers] to hide behind the more gregarious Aussies, Yanks, and Pommies and appear to go unnoticed,” he says.
A good facilitator, then, can help focus a diverse team on inclusiveness during both brainstorming and evaluating those ideas to form a cohesive action plan. “That ensures that it’s nourishing to all participants,” Snyder says, and can actually create a stronger group when the work is done.
Encourage Participation, Especially From the Quiet Ones
Though the power of introverts has been well-documented, it takes a special kind of group dynamic to bring them (and their ideas) out of their shell. When she arrived five months ago at Q&A site Ask.com, Susan Morrow, now vice president of product, made an important discovery. “We get more traffic than eBay and Apple,” she says, “But what also happens when you have a 17-year-old tech company is that things can really drag down.”
Taking a page from her former career in activism and community building, she started a “product intensive” to generate new ideas. The teams brought together people from different departments, so Morrow says it was important to keep the group size to about eight people. She approached these newly formed teams with an eye toward values-based leadership. “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. Emotion is a huge factor in team communications and execution [toward goals],” she says. Then, every day during the intensive, teams were given a “lesson plan” and told that everyone must contribute.
To draw out the ones not used to speaking up in group sessions, Morrow says she employed a simple technique. All members sit in a circle facing each other and count individually from 1-25. “Only one person can speak at a time, and if anyone misses or speaks over someone else, you have to start again.” The point being: You have to start really looking at the other members of the group and look for nonverbal cues to join the conversation.
Reluctant participants were also encouraged to chime in with improv exercises. The more you speak up, the easier it gets, says Morrow, in both improv and business. The trick she says, is to give the team guardrails and a safe space to express themselves.
Mix Up the Roles–and the Seating Arrangements
While Paul Slezak was manager of that motley group in Hong Kong, he had to attend every team meeting. But it didn’t mean he had to run the show. In addition to regularly shuffling the seating arrangement in the office to encourage different people to talk to each other, Slezak alternated the role of meeting chairperson. Every week, different employees had the chance to prepare the agenda, gather information from colleagues, and keep the meeting to a reasonable time. He also had alternating team members present for at least five minutes on any topic–as long as it had nothing to do with work.
“At first the English speakers volunteered to have the limelight, but it didn’t take long for others to really step up,” he recalls. Talks ranged from family stories to cooking demonstrations. “I didn’t care if the presentations went for 15 minutes as long as I could see them gaining confidence in front of their peers and, more importantly, gaining their respect,” Slezak observes.
Guarding Against Power Plays
In smaller companies or smaller teams, Snyder cautions that a person in power (a manager, founder, or chief executive) needs to be mindful of their position. “That person needs to play a delicate role of not imposing their ideas so forcefully that they suffocate the process,” he explains, “because people will defer to the person in power.” It’s up to the leader to make it clear that it is not only okay for others to disagree, it is appreciated and welcome. Says Snyder: “That can reinforce leadership with buy-in.”
[Image: Flickr user Håkan Dahlström]