Many people, especially in international business, have asked this question:
Does team diversity promote performance or hinder performance?
The argument can go two ways:
- diversity may hinder performance in that we tend to work more effectively with people who are similar to ourselves;
- diversity may enhance performance by promoting creativity, new thinking, and enhanced problem solving.
So, what is the truth? The reality is that there are no simple answers – it depends how well team members manage various factors. Here we explain some key ones.
One insightful study found that individuals and organisations can value cultural diversity in different ways and that this affects the performance of teams:
- High value: a beneficial resource for learning, change and renewal
- Moderate value: a beneficial resource for market entry
- Low value: necessary for ensuring justice and equality
They found that these attitudes affected individual members’ sense of being valued and respected for who they are. This in turn affected relations among group members, their level of morale, as well as their overall performance. Team performance was highest in organisations that valued diversity and lowest where it was just implemented for justice and equality reasons.
Lesson 1: Learn about the benefits diversity can bring. Don’t treat it as a tick-box exercise
Similarities and Differences
As mentioned above, we all have a natural tendency to prefer working with those who are similar to ourselves. So how can we overcome this tendency? One very valuable way is to openly explore our similarities and differences with team members, mapping those aspects that are similar and those that are different. In relation to this, Sue Canney Davison, a consultant specialising in international management and teams, gives the following adage: “Start slowly and end fast; start fast and maybe not end at all.”  By this she means that teams should not immediately launch into working on their project; rather, they need to take time to get to know each other. In this way they can build common ground which is an important foundation for team rapport, smooth relations, and effective communication.
Lesson 2: Take time to know your team
Ways of working
Getting to know your team members is not purely, or even mainly, a social exercise. While it certainly involves that, it also means finding out about people’s different ways of working and preferences for doing so. This includes a very wide range of elements, including norms for problem solving and for decision-making, attitudes to time and pace, interpretations of the role responsibilities of the different team members, beliefs about hierarchy and the position of the leader, and so on. Such differences can de-rail a team if they are not handled appropriately and need to be talked through. Unfortunately, it is not always easy to explore such differences at the beginning of a project, because teams often need to be working together before they become aware of the differences in each other’s expectations. The key is to be constantly on the look-out for potential differences in ways of working, and always talk them through on a regular basis. Many teams find it helpful to develop explicit protocols to guide their ways of working together.
Lesson 3: Explore preferences for ways of working and agree on team protocols
One of the most widespread differences in ways of working relates to team communication. At the most fundamental level is the question of what language or languages team members should use to communicate with each other. Then there can be differences in numerous other elements including:
- preferences for directness/indirectness in handling ‘sensitive’ messages such as disagreement, negative feedback, and refusals
- different patterns of participation in group discussions, so that some may feel excluded while others dominate
- differing interpretations of the meanings of words and phrases (see the Insight Piece, Minimising Misunderstandings)
- evaluations of others’ use of language as respectful or disrespectful
All of these, and more, need very careful attention.
Lesson 4: Learn techniques to manage language — to foster mutual understanding and promote good relations
The challenges of ‘regular’ communication are often exacerbated when teams are located in different geographical locations, and/or when other factors (e.g. time, expense, or pandemic restrictions) prevent members from meeting face to face. There are two main reasons for this: enhanced complexity and reduced interpretation signals.
Virtual teams typically face greater complexity in their working environment than those who work primarily face to face. Moreover, that complexity may not be highly visible. Matrix management and reporting can play a negative role here. While this approach aims to break down silos and facilitate working across different business functions, it can mean that employees are working in several different teams and reporting to different managers. So, when teams are working virtually, some may have difficulty keeping abreast of relevant information from different team projects, while at the same time, members of a given team may be unaware of the range of responsibilities and tasks that these other individuals are shouldering.
Modes of communication add a further challenge. People need to decide which channels (e.g. email, phone call, video call) are most suitable for what kind of communication, and there can be cultural differences with respect to this. In addition, interpreting someone’s meaning and underlying intent can be very much more difficult when internet connections are poor and signals unclear. Moreover, managing participation in online discussions can be highly challenging when subtle signals as to who can speak next are missing.
Lesson 5: Seek to understand the complexities members of virtual teams are experiencing; develop protocols for online communication
If you’d like to map your current strengths and weaknesses in teamworking and to learn more about ways of enhancing them, get in touch with us. Our Global Teamworking Profiler (GTP) provides in-depth insights into key facets of working together as a team, as well as into individual member and leadership/management factors. Please email us for more details.
Professor Helen Spencer-Oatey, Director
 Ely, R., & Thomas, D. (2001). Cultural diversity at work: the effects of diversity perspectives on work group processes and outcomes. Administrative Science Quarterly, 46, 229-273.
 Canney Davison, S. (1996). Leading and facilitating international teams. In M. Berger (Ed.), Cross-Cultural Team Building. Guidelines for more Effective Communication and Negotiation (pp. 158-179). London: McGraw Hill.