5 Myths of a Diverse Team That Could Be Holding Them Back

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Many years ago, I began my involvement with diversity & inclusion, only in a different shape and form. Back in the late 90s, the dialogue wasn't about diversity & inclusion as a holistic area of focus, but more a subset of it called, cultural competence. This meant working with a sense of awareness and sensitivity towards those we perceived as different from us. Remember the days of cultural sensitivity training and when it was all the rage?

Over time, I stepped into another key subset of D&I, that is now firmly established as a key leadership ingredient - Emotional Intelligence! We spoke and taught about how we could be compassionate of our teams and customers, and the differences that caused friction.

With a surge of consolidation of skills that together make the space of diversity and inclusion a meaningful one, our voices have also converged.

As our voices have amplified, so have some misconceptions about what makes a diverse team even worth having. I recently wrote about how while diversity is a fact, inclusion is a decision.

Working well with diversity is not a cakewalk. It's much harder to manage a diverse team than it is to manage a homogenous one. The benefits of leading a diverse team are far greater though, than the fruits of a team that is made up of sameness.

In service to this paradox then, here are 5 myths that might disillusion a team leader if they weren't watching out.

Myth #1 Diversity comes naturally to people

What is natural is that differences are to be expected and the world is a highly diverse place. In spite of this universal truth, diversity does not come naturally to us, unfortunately. Human beings have a propensity to gravitate towards sameness and reject differences. It's called affinity bias. We tend to find people who look and talk like us, and grew up like us. We find comfort in our sameness and familiarity. We don't do the opposite. Looking for discomfort and unfamiliarity is not our natural state. Here's the challenge then. Diverse teams are not set up to feel comfortable, they have to work their way through the discomfort with your help and leadership. Without that, having a diverse team is more trouble than any good.

Myth #2 Diverse teams are innovative

Not necessarily. Diverse teams have a far greater chance to be innovative and come up with disruptive ideas than homogenous ones. The myth of innovation is perhaps the most pervasive and misleading one. Diverse people together don't automatically turn creative. Innovation is a function of a team that has learned to work with each others' differences and perspectives. The pre-requisite to innovation then is a team that's respectful of various ideas and listens in to different thought-processes. The better we listen in to differences, the greater the chance that disruptive ideas might flourish and not be shot down for fear of 'not fitting in'. To be innovative, we need to begin with listening, curiosity and respect as foundational expectations.

Myth #3 Diverse teams evolve into an inclusive one

This is a particularly dangerous one. We aren't experts at fighting our biases and falling into a pattern of comfort and quick decision making helps us get on with life a little easier. We need education on what makes a diverse team also an inclusive one. We need help and support and better information than we have on our own. It's important then for a team to be educated on both the benefits and pitfalls of being diverse. Knowing and learning behaviours that include our differences, and help enjoy our diversity, enable an inclusive culture to evolve over time. This is a journey that takes some time. Teach your team to be inclusive, so they understand what is expected and why it may benefit them. Then lead by example.

Myth #4 Diverse teams have constructive conflict

Conflicts are rarely constructive on their own, and without guidance and leadership, they may turn bitter. We don't indulge in conflicts with discernment and caution most times. When emotions run high, most conflicts turn corrosive and damaging to the team fabric. In a diverse team, conflicts can become complex and even take racial and cultural overtones that can do long-term damage to trust and mutual respect within the team. Conflicts can be constructive if this is out in the open as a strategy the team is ready to experiment with. With boundaries defined and agreed upon. This can look like a debate over ideas and strategies with the aim of coming up with unusual and contradictory thinking instead of agreeing with each other or toeing the line.

Myth #5 Diversity by default spurs higher performance

This has been the persuasive argument for innumerable diversity campaigns within organisations and advocates outside. This sounds intuitively true, and we want to believe this assertion. This can be true, and we can reap the benefits of diverse teams and boards, if we first lay a foundation of inclusion and respect for differences. When everyone's voice is heard and ideas are nurtured, high performance can be expected. This is because teams who leverage their differences to avoid groupthink and promote creativity outperform those who don't. The standalone act of creating a diverse team to perform better will disappoint us. As leaders, when we lead a diverse team, we have the crucial responsibility of creating an inclusive culture first.

Hope this helps and we can reflect on what we take for granted when it comes to diversity. It might need much harder work than assumed, perhaps.

Would love to hear your diverse thoughts and approaches that have worked while leading your team.

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