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Discussing diversity in a remote team

August 27, 2020

One of the biggest challenges for any team leader is to get the best from their diverse team members. People working in teams today are unlikely to be homogenous. Team leads will be managing diversity in terms of;


  • Physical location
  • Knowledge or expertise
  • Status or seniority
  • Demographics (like age, gender and ethnicity)
  • Nationality and cultural norms
  • Personality, values and motivations.


Amy Edmondson, the Harvard professor of management, uses the term “boundaries” to help describe how we can bridge differences. These are both “visible and invisible divisions between people, including gender, occupation and nationality”.


She advocates that Leaders need to learn to span boundaries. Spanning involves “deliberate attempts to reach across the barriers that exist within and between groups of all kinds.” We know from research that if diversity is harnessed it can lead to greater innovation and better performance. But this is hard for a number of reasons.


  • It can feel uncomfortable, awkward or vulnerable.
  • We are now working more globally, leveraging technology for communication and often working remotely. For a leader, “spanning boundaries” remotely can be particularly hard.
  • Training for leaders is either nonexistent, time-consuming or impractical and difficult to apply in their team.

Reflect on your team’s boundaries


Reflect on the questions below, are there any areas where you feel there are boundaries that need to be crossed with your team?


  • Is everyone engaged in conversation - regardless of hierarchy?
  • Does everyone feel valued for the distinct expertise they bring to the team?  
  • Are there cultural differences in team members' approach to work?
  • Are differences in age apparent in how we approach our work, does this cause tension?
  • Do different personality types work well together or generate disharmony?
  • Are “quiet” voices heard in our team?
  • Do team members share values and the motivation to perform?
  • Might any individual or sub-group feel marginalised in the team, in any way?


For example, there’s been a strong association for the cause of “Black Lives Matter”. But we hear leaders complain they don't know practically what they can do differently. Each team is different. Leaders need to be sensitive to which boundaries need to be explored. Race is a key boundary but there are others. If these indicate there may be a need to bridge boundaries, you might want to consider the next few steps:


Be brave and face complex conversations


Teams find it hard to have the conversations that span these boundaries. Our differences go undiscussed.  We muddle along and - especially in Britain - avoid the awkward conversation. This challenge is even harder when we don’t see each other face to face.  


But understanding diversity requires leaders, managers and team members to facilitate a complex conversation. Many don’t have the confidence and capability to do this. We must develop the facilitation skills in our leaders and team members to have boundary spanning conversations.


Clarity on purpose and goals


Every team needs a clear purpose and goals to unite team efforts. If the team is clear and aligned on why it exists and has spent the time to shape it’s shared goals - it’s much more likely that you will get the best from team diversity.


If the team is unclear on its purpose and has not spent time developing their goals there will be confusion. If those goals have just been mandated top down, differences may be exacerbated and problems arise because of lack of engagement.


Create a culture of psychological safety


Leaders play a critical role in developing a culture of psychological safety that enables open conversations. Are team members free to speak up and say what they think?


Leaders can do this through actively inviting participation from all members of the team. The role of a leader is to be genuinely curious and ask good questions. Pay attention to those that may not contribute because of their location, their status or the fact that they are naturally introverted and need space to think and speak. You can use a range of techniques to encourage participation: creating forums for input (like turn taking) or providing guidelines for discussion (techniques like the ladder of inference).


It’s critical that leaders express appreciation when team members do “speak up”. Nothing shuts down a safe environment like feeling retribution for speaking up. Leaders need to express appreciation; listen, acknowledge and thank team members for their input. It’s the role of a leader to step in if they see other team members shut each other down too.


Provide structures and techniques for “boundary spanning” conversations


Leaders and teams need structured exercises and prompts to help us have these important and challenging conversations that help us understand and celebrate differences. There are a range of structured exercises and prompts that can help you span boundaries. There’s a requirement to integrate team building and teamwork. It’s no longer possible to organise 2 day off-sites. Frankly they often didn’t have the impact intended. Team experts clearly point out that you team develop team bonds through addressing real problems together in day to day conversations. Here are few areas where we can support leaders.


Discussion our new working arrangements


As we change to work remotely we have had to adjust our working norms. There are many upsides to remote work but it’s clear there are potential downsides too. Research has shown that many people are actually working longer hours and there’s burn out risk. There are dangers that managers are out of touch with team members' needs and either micromanage or check out from management. There are risks of social isolation and loneliness. We have home demands that affect how we remote work. We need to create new norms that are right for the way we are working now. How can we do this effectively? How to consult across the team?


At Saberr, our platform contains a series of exercises to help the team do this. Creating a profile or an “operating manual of me” is a great way to start.


Discussions about race


There’s been a collective awakening to the injustice of racism that is still present in many societies. However, as Stephanie Creary at Wharton notes “racism is a topic that is often avoided in the workplace — many managers feel ill-equipped to offer sage advice on “what to do” when it comes to diversity and inclusion (D&I) in their organizations. As a result, D&I initiatives often never make it past the C-suite.”


We think that managers can use frameworks like Stephanie’s framework to hold discussions with their team.  We included osm of her exercises and others to support managers in these conversations.


Understanding our personality and values differences


We have found that people have a love-hate relationship with “profiling”. Some think it has provided them with a unique insight into themselves, others feel it's little more than horroscoping. We have a more nuanced view. Taking a profile can be an interesting start to a conversation but should be used with finesse.


We greatly admire the work of Brian Little. Brian is an academic at Cambridge University. He strikes the right balance between science and insightful application. He uses the Big 5 personality testing which we like because it has the strongest research base and doesn’t “box” you into a type. But he’s also done some fantastic research into understanding our “free traits”. This means that our actions are not determined by our personality along but our free will to decide the projects that interest us. Understanding our personality is just one dimension to help us understand how we show up at work. The environment and our free will and desire to pursue “personal projects” are just as important.  


We’ve included the option for a team to undertake a profile in the Saberr platform. We’ve also distilled some of Brian’s insight so that these are applied.


Discussions about culture gaps


In cross cultural teams sometimes we can struggle with cultural differences. Erin Mayer has put together a guide “the culture map” to help unpick these differences. Again, the aim isn’t to stereotype but to provide a start point for the conversation. As Mayer wrote “Yes every individual is different. And yes, when you work with people from other cultures, you shouldn’t make assumptions about individual traits based on where a person comes from. But this doesn’t mean learning about cultural contexts is unnecessary”.


You can access Erin Mayer’s tool and supporting materials to frame a discussion about cultural difference here.


Additional support to get started


All of the tools and exercises we have collated in our platform are self service. But in some cases team leaders are also keen to have an expert facilitator support the conversation. That can be helpful, especially if these conversations are new to you. We often find that once the first conversation has happened, they become more normalised and frequent.


Conclusion


If you are a leader of a team these days you are probably dealing with different perspectives. Increasing your facilitation skills so that you can understand your team better and harness the benefits of diversity is a significant management skill.The key is to be able to facilitate intelligent exploration of the boundaries in the team whilst avoiding negative stereotyping. Here’s the difference:


  • Spanning boundaries; Showing a genuine interest in other groups and their experiences. Understanding more of the perspective of others we work with. Increasing our social and cultural empathy and understanding.


  • Negative stereotyping; Using fixed and oversimplified ideas about a group or social category that negatively influence our expectations and behaviors. This can lead to prejudice, bigotry or nepotism and a reduction of opportunity.  


Be brave, with good intention and with the right framework these conversations can be very helpful. It’s empowering to be able to have an open and honest conversation about our differences. Our aim is to make this a whole lot easier for teams and team leaders.



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