It’s often said by teams that “diversity is our strength.” We take for granted the idea that diverse teams bring more lived experiences, ideas, and solutions to the table. When asked, “How does diversity affect teamwork?” most leaders assume that teams composed of individuals from different backgrounds, cultures, and perspectives are more likely to approach problems from various angles and come up with innovative solutions. And hence most leaders assume that diversity is a source of greater performance.
And while that’s true—it’s not as clear cut as we assume.
When you look at the research, the relationship between diversity and high-performing teams isn’t always a positive correlation. For diversity to truly enhance teamwork, teams need to establish psychological safety and build shared understanding. Otherwise, diverse ideas, perspectives, and experiences can cause more friction than innovation.
In this article, we will explore the importance of psychological safety and shared understanding in diverse teams. By understanding the impact of diversity on teamwork and implementing these practices, teams can harness the full potential of their diverse members and achieve better problem-solving and value creation.
Psychological safety is crucial for diverse teams to tap into the benefits of diversity. When team members feel psychologically safe, they are more likely to share their ideas, take risks, and engage in open and honest discussions. As a leader, it is essential to create an environment where team members feel comfortable expressing themselves without fear of judgment or negative consequences.
One way to build psychological safety is by demonstrating vulnerability as a leader. When leaders openly share their own challenges, mistakes, and uncertainties, it creates a safe space for team members to do the same. This builds trust and shows that it is acceptable to take risks and make mistakes. By embracing vulnerability, leaders can set the tone for open communication and encourage team members to bring their authentic selves to the discussion.
Another important aspect of psychological safety is teaching respectful dissent. Disagreements are inevitable in any team, but it is crucial to handle them in a productive and respectful manner. Encouraging team members to express their differing opinions and perspectives fosters a culture of healthy debate and prevents the formation of echo chambers. By establishing guidelines for respectful dissent, teams can ensure that disagreements are seen as opportunities for growth and learning rather than sources of conflict.
Shared understanding is important for diverse teams to work together effectively. When team members have a clear understanding of each other’s work preferences, strengths, and weaknesses, they can collaborate more efficiently and leverage each other’s skills and expertise. Building shared understanding requires intentional efforts to create an environment where team members can openly discuss their working styles and expectations.
One strategy for building shared understanding is to use exercises like the “manual of me.” This exercise involves team members sharing information about their preferred communication styles, work habits, and personal preferences. By understanding each other’s preferences, team members can adapt their communication and collaboration approaches to accommodate different working styles.
Creating a team working agreement is another effective way to establish shared understanding. This agreement outlines the team’s norms and expectations, addressing questions about how the team wants to work together. It can cover topics such as communication channels, decision-making processes, and conflict resolution strategies. By collectively defining these guidelines, teams can ensure that everyone is on the same page and reduce misunderstandings or conflicts that may arise due to differences in working styles or expectations.
Diversity, when combined with psychological safety and shared understanding, enhances teamwork, and leads to improved performance. By creating an environment where team members feel safe to express themselves and fostering shared understanding, teams can tap into the full potential of their diverse members. Embracing diversity as a strength allows teams to approach problems from various perspectives, leading to better problem-solving and value creation. And that helps everyone on the team do their best work ever.
About the author
David Burkus is an organizational psychologist, keynote speaker, and bestselling author of five books on leadership and teamwork.