Australia’s population is one of the most culturally and linguistically diverse in the world. Over 43 percent of people have a parent born overseas and more than75 percent identify with an ancestry other than Australian. The challenge for business is harnessing the competitive advantage of diversity in the workplace while minimising the all-too-common communication and coordination problems that undermine the benefits of collaborative work efforts.
Teams are a core building block for organisations. When executed well, they allow individual members to contribute their unique knowledge and skills, so that when combined, better performance, quality, creativity, innovation and customer service results. This can be especially true for culturally diverse teams; their resource base is stronger, and they can draw upon a greater repertoire of responses, perspectives and expertise. Social capital–or the ability to connect with and gain knowledge from people external to the team–is also greater. All of which should lead to superior team performance in diverse teams. Yet, they often fall short. And herein lies the paradox–people prefer similarity.
From decades of research in management, psychology and sociology, we know that individuals who work with people from a similar background, culture or ethnicity have more positive attitudes and behaviours at work, and are less likely to quit. Individuals are attracted to those they see as similar to themselves. They prefer to join groups of similar others and are more likely to interact with them. One reason for this is characteristics such as race or ethnicity are automatically categorised in the mind and influence how individuals react and interact with one another, evoking conscious or subconscious stereotypes, biases and judgments. Those from different cultural backgrounds are categorised as ‘outsiders’ while similar others are categorised as ‘insiders’ and consequently perceived to be easier to communicate with.
When individuals work in a team comprising similar others, they tend to feel a greater sense of psychological safety, exhibit greater satisfaction and loyalty, and have a stronger desire to remain in the team than individuals working in diverse teams. In contrast, racial or ethnic differences among team members can result in disintegration, lack of cohesion, interpersonal or task conflicts, as well as reduced morale. That’s why achieving the promise of superior performance outcomes in culturally diverse teams can be challenging. Similarity is good for individuals. Diverse teams can be good for organisations. So, how can we overcome the potential conflict and communication problems to reap the benefits of diversity, and still have individual members who are satisfied and committed?
Together, good team fit, accepting leadership, training, learning, and time can overcome differences and begin to harness the benefits of a culturally diverse team.
FOCUS ON FIT
When hiring, focus on finding people who fit the team. This is often easier said than done. More often than not, the focus on finding the ‘right’ person is too much about finding someone who has the appropriate skills and abilities for the job, and little else. That’s a good starting point, but good fit involves more. Consideration should be given to how a new hire’s skills and abilities complement the skills and abilities already present in the team. Of equal importance is that new hires fit the values and norms inherent in the team culture to enhance team functioning and harmony. A new hire whose personality fits with those of existing team members will also adapt more readily and enhance team performance.
It’s important to pay close attention to the composition of the team. Diverse teams with a racially dominant group or where large status differences are present between two sub-groups tend to underperform. One strategy is to construct moderately diverse teams where team members have some peers who are similar to them to provide psychological safety, and other team members who are different to capitalise on the benefits of diverse perspectives.
TRAIN TO GAIN
All too often, teams are established and expected to figure out how to work together on their own. They’re often ill-equipped to handle conflicts, solve problems, develop good work processes and delegate work in a way that maximises each members’ contributions. Cultural awareness and cognition also matter. Trust, information sharing and collaboration are enhanced when team members believe in their ability to be culturally aware, and are confident making adjustments during intercultural interactions. Training in basic social and communication skills can be an effective starting point to help members overcome their differences in approaching work.
LEARN TO LEARN
Individuals in teams who have a strong orientation for learning and continuous development are more willing to communicate and collaborate with their culturally dissimilar peers. In contrast, when the team orientation is to avoid mistakes, members are more reluctant to work with those from different cultural backgrounds, exaggerating intragroup segregation and conflict. Rather than hope that the team naturally develops an orientation to learning, recent research shows that teams can be trained to develop learning objectives and use errors as learning opportunities.
LEAD THE LEADERS
Leaders at the top need to be role models for team leaders by demonstrating vision, cultural intelligence, and acceptance of diversity. The attributes and behaviors of team leaders are, in turn, critical in facilitating–or impeding–team processes in diverse groups. A team leader’s charismatic style, cultural intelligence, and the degree to which they categorise members into sub-groups impacts the success of a culturally diverse team.
GIVE IT TIME
Many aspects of diversity are surface-level and easily observable, such as race or ethnicity. These attributes are used to automatically categorise people and can be the cause of social interaction problems among team members. Deeper-level diversity attributes are psychological and less observable–such as cultural values, attitudes, and personality. These differences are communicated through verbal and nonverbal behaviors that emerge as a result of frequent and extended interactions. The potential negative impact of surface-level diversity attributes tends to dissipate over time, while differences based on deeper level attributes become more evident and can hinder team processes and performance.