Team building: The diversity paradox

Diversity is a popular topic when you talk about team building. And for good reason: people with a common background are likely to have a similar approach and way of thinking. They are also more likely to have similar blind spots in their thinking – something which can make it difficult to adapt and develop as a team, or understand different people, cultures and situations.

Trying to create diversity it is tempting to take the easy road. Maximum diversity is easily achieved, if that is the only goal. You will get diversity just by having people with a different education, gender, age, work experience, or even place of birth, just to mention a few external factors.

But then there’s the other side of the coin. Building a team that doesn’t want to kill each other every other day. A team that is excited to work towards a common goal and shares the company’s values. Shared values and goals combined with different approaches and backgrounds is a much more complex issue than diversity alone, both for recruiting and daily leadership. That is the diversity paradox.

Here are some things we’re doing to promote the working kind of diversity.

#1 Discuss ways of working often and openly
People are usually quick to see what annoys them in other people, but are often much less aware of what they themselves do. Talking openly about how you like to do things or what is an easy approach for you helps others in the team understand how their ways of thinking, feeling and doing differ from others. This builds self-awareness and acceptance of the fact that there is no single right way to do things. Another important dimension of self-awareness, especially in a team of people who are used to being right, it is important that people learn not to be right all the time.

#2 Discuss company values and what they mean
Company values are not marketing. They are the guideline for making choices and creating a foundation for success. Making money is not a value, it is a result of what you want to accomplish. But if you don’t discuss your values, keep them fresh, even update them when necessary, they are nothing more than a piece of paper, and worth just as much.

From a team building perspective, in order to have a common goal and vision, the values of the company need to be shared and embraced by everyone. This can only be accomplished by talking and feeling what they mean (1) for you individually, (2) as a team, and (3) on a company level. From a recruiting perspective, this means that you should never hire someone who is in conflict with your company’s values.

#3 Personality is more important than external factors
One dimension of diversity that is not so much affected by external things – where you grew up, where you studied, and so on – is personality. So one approach to creating diversity is to look at who people are, instead of what they are or what they’ve done. A diverse team should have both big picture people who like to think and dream, as well as practically oriented people who get their kicks out of doing things. In the same way, a balanced team should have both emotional flashy people and rational analytical people. And so on. Personally, I have always liked to recruit people with a strong personality, because they usually have something they want to make happen. That energy is often more valuable than the leadership challenges they may cause.

#4 Everyone should have a special skill
When adding a person to a team it is not only about getting one more person to share the workload with. Everyone should bring something to the team that makes it stronger. Preferably something the team does not currently have the skills for that opens new possibilities and ways to look at things. This is where a person’s history comes into play. Someone with an uncommon career track has possibly learned something unique. Someone from a different country or university will have a different network. And so on.

#5 Life experience is more important than work experience
People who have overcome obstacles and even walked along rough paths usually know more about dealing with difficult situations. It is easy for everyone to enjoy champagne and sunshine, but developing a business is often just the opposite. It is hard work helping people solve their problems. And it is tougher still if you need to learn the basics about life while trying to do your job at the same time.

In conclusion: you should have a good mix of different kind of people with different backgrounds - but you cannot compromise on a common goal and shared company values for diversity’s sake