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How to Tackle Diversity Challenges

December 13, 2021
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At Diversity Atlas, we love to espouse the value and benefit of diversity. And we’re right to do so! Diverse teams do generally perform better, yield better results – and creating more inclusive environments is just the right thing to do. But we also need to remember: diversity can be a double-edged sword. This is a post on the diversity challenges, and how to manage diversity in teams to yield the best results.

A few years ago, I had two teams working on two projects. One project, a video game we were developing, had a team of game developers who fit a certain profile – white, male, youngish, and from English-speaking backgrounds.  The other project was an application we were developing – this project had developers from a range of cultural backgrounds, ages, a balance of genders, and various languages are spoken.  As a firm believer in the benefits of diversity within a group, I had thought the second group would be more innovative, more creative with solutions to problems, and would generally perform to a higher standard. I had under-estimated the diversity challenges!

I was wrong

The group of game developers all had a similar approach to problems based on unanimity and consensus with their understanding of the requirements of implementing ideas – they had all graduated from more or less the same course at university at more or less the same time.  They all spoke the same language (English), and their approach to problem-solving – while perhaps not always the most inventive – was streamlined by their general consensus on issues.  

The second group, the one I imagined would reap the benefits from what we understand about diversity, had a range of different diversity challenges that hindered the process of their project.  Firstly, there were language barriers – while a few of the team members were from English-speaking backgrounds, many were not, and though they all attempted to communicate in English, it was done with varying degrees of success.  This is understandable – expressing ideas in a second, or even third language is a challenge many people do not wholly comprehend. It was a time I was facing diversity challenges that close!

This was compounded by the different educational backgrounds of the team members – what was best standard practice and taught at university in some parts of the world, other parts of the world preferred other standards and practices. This lead to arguments when it came to finding solutions to the problems that arose during the development process. 

It was even apparent in the day-to-day communication practices within the group – those members from Western backgrounds, where individualism is valued, would sometimes dominate conversations with their opinions.  Team members from backgrounds that lend themselves to a more conflict-avoidant style of collaboration would feel steamrolled, and then not share their ideas in order to keep the peace. 

I would like to emphasise that nobody in this group was more right or wrong than any of the others, and nobody was deliberately causing problems – but the end result was that the group ended up breaking down before the completion of the project. 

Diversity Challenges and the Benefits

We talk all the time about the benefits of diversity – teams that are heterogenous are meant to be more innovative and problem solve more interestingly, which is supposed to lead to increased profitability.  What went wrong?

When this happened, I second guessed what I believed to be the true benefits of diversity.  I had to dig a bit deeper to discover the truth – that the benefits of diversity are many, but as with all things involving people, careful management is required in order to fully realise them. I, as their manager, neglected to take into account the points of difference in my team that would lead to problems. The issues I encountered, too, forms part of the reason some people believe that diversity is anti-white – that the benefits are too few, and that white person are unnecessarily singled out.

An understanding of intercultural communications techniques and early intervention when the issues and differences began to emerge – had I understood the various backgrounds of my team members, I would have had an idea of their cultures and the communication styles they all possess.  

Harold Andrew Patrick and Vincent Raj Kumar, in a 2012 journal article Managing Workplace Diversity: Issues and Challenges define the term diversity management:

“Diversity management intends to create and maintain a positive work environment where the similarities and differences of individuals are valued, so that all can reach their potential and maximize their contributions to an organization’s strategic goals and objectives. Diversity management ensures that all employees have the opportunity to maximize their potential and enhance their self-development and their contribution to the organization. It recognizes that people from different backgrounds can bring fresh ideas and perceptions, which can make the way work is done more efficient and make products and services better. Managing diversity successfully will help organizations to nurture creativity and innovation and thereby to tap hidden capacity for growth and improved competitiveness.”

Harold Andrew Patrick and Vincent Raj Kumar

The authors further define many of the barriers to these benefits – prejudice, ethnocentricism, stereotypes, blaming the victim, discrimination, harassment, and backlash.  In my own example, I saw several incidents where these elements were in play – often subtly, but for those who were feeling victimised, the impact would have been significant.  

It is safe to say diversity is a double-edged sword. There are diversity challenges – we can reap the benefits of it, but if we do not manage diversity, there can be significant and lasting damage.

What then are some solutions?

How do we Navigate Diversity Challenges?

There are many answers to this – firstly, a data-driven approach is essential, especially within larger organisations. We are always saying, here at Diversity Atlas: you cannot be what you cannot see.  First, we need to understand the cultural and demographic makeup of our own teams in order to appreciate in advance the diversity challenges, and how to overcome them.  We must manage diversity.

Once we understand who we are, we can take further measures – we can fight the use of prejudices, and debunk stereotypes. It is necessary for the organisation to make diversity management a priority at all levels – cultural days, for example, that celebrate the differences between people are one way of doing this.

Unconscious bias training may be utilised to confront commonly held, insidious forms of discrimination.  

On a practical, day to day level, management can intervene and minimise the chance of miscommunication – the authors of the above study suggest: 

  • Educating oneself about differences by reading, listening, and broadening one’s experience base about diverse people 
  • Communicating effectively by listening attentively and asking questions about what one did not understand 
  • Avoiding terms that spotlight certain groups and imply the individual is an exception 
  • Avoiding valuing one’s message based on dress, mannerisms, accent, or eye contact

Effective communication is the key to managing diversity within teams.  For large organisations, the benefits of diversity are many, and they are profound, but to yield these results diversity must be managed.

The best place to start is to embark on a data-driven approach to understanding who we are, so we can assess how to work together more effectively – the results yielded by a survey tool such as Diversity Atlas can then lead to a much larger conversation. We must recognise the diversity challenges in order to realise the benefits. We need to talk about interculturalism, about the differences between male and female communication styles, generational differences – and then, we can succeed in collaboration, and realise the full power of diverse teams.

I also want to thank my colleagues, Peter, Jane, Kevin, Michael, and Quincy for the amazing conversations we had about this topic, however they may not agree with everything I wrote above.

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