While it’s true that companies have much to gain from having a diverse workforce, it can also initially bring about greater conflict and misunderstanding in teams resulting from deficient intra-team communication processes.
Whether it’s under-communication, callous disregard, or unintentional hostility, all of these things have a direct impact on the extent to which a team benefits from its diversity. Most of the time, especially for minorities, it ends with people learning that self-censorship is the safest route to take so as to not undermine team consensus.
If you felt that no one really wants to listen or values your opinion, why bother speaking up? Consequently, interpersonal problems are swept under the rug; they’re neither spoken of nor directly addressed until those communication bottlenecks erupt.
Hence, everyone (except those holding their tongues) tends to overlook diversity-related issues at work. Ultimately, it stunts the beneficial effects of workplace diversity. It comes down to three different factors that explain why diverse teams often miscommunicate. Here’s what they are.
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Through Project Aristotle, Google’s re:Work team found that the most important ingredient to team performance isn’t what most people think it is. Instead of factors like intelligence, talent, or knowledge, psychological safety is the secret sauce behind high-performance teams.
People want to come to work feeling like they can be their complete authentic selves; they want to take interpersonal risks like asking questions or voicing dissent, without feeling like they’ll be socially penalised for it.
In diverse workforces, this is critical. Common social habits like mansplaining, microaggressions, and even inappropriate jokes carry veiled messages of hostility (regardless of intentions) that can make people feel small and maligned. The more people feel this way, the more they tend to censor and silence their voices at work.
This, again, cripples the benefits of workplace diversity. The less likely people are to speak up at work, the lesser information they’ll share with one another, which in turn neuters the effects of diversity on idea generation, problem-solving, and empathy.
Having a diverse team doesn’t matter much if they end up having the same thinking styles and perspectives. Diversity of thought is also essential for a team to truly thrive at work, because it mitigates common team biases like groupthink. According to the 2018 Hays Asia Diversity & Inclusion Report, though, less than half of respondents said their organisation encourages debate and diversity of thought.
Team discussions, for example, tend to be dominated by a few very vocal participants, to the exclusion of others. In these situations, people are likelier to make decisions based on upholding the group consensus instead of objectively and exhaustively considering all options.
When you have a team that’s both demographically and cognitively diverse, though, it makes the playing field much more level. Now, it’s much easier to maximise the power of constructive argumentation for better problem-solving.
In a multicultural team, cultural brokers are those people that can comfortably and effectively straddle the cultural divide in teams. These are people who have extensive experience directly interacting with different cultures represented within and outside of teams.
According to research in the Harvard Business Review, cultural brokers determine how well a multicultural team can harness its strengths. Teams that have one cultural broker tend to be more creative than those with no cultural brokers at all.
Again, though, it comes back to the issue of psychological safety. Bridging a cultural divide is generally no mean feat; cultural brokers will be much more effective if they know that their words and actions won’t be taken the wrong way.