by Robin Denise Johnson, Ph.D.

One of the most common mistakes leaders make with multicultural, mixed-gender teams is trying to “homogenize away” the differences. Well-meaning people often make this mistake.

Robin J. Ely1 of Harvard Business School continues her research into the conditions that make it probable that demographic diversity and multiculturalism will deliver their promise of high performance in work teams. Her research provides powerful support for the idea that learning from different perspectives is THE key factor in creating high performing mixed-gender multicultural teams. Rather than report the details from Ely’s most recent research report, I will organize her findings into 5 steps you can take to mine perspective diversity gold on your team. 1. Use both types of learning available on your team. 1a. Mine the specific learning that comes from the team members’ gender identity and cultural knowledge. Actively seek and use information that comes from members’ cultural knowledge, especially when there is an obvious link between identity knowledge and task. An example would be asking Latinos/Spanish speaking team members to investigate issues related to the pursuit of a Latino target market. 1b. Encourage and support the learning that comes through the interaction of people with different perspectives when performing generic interpersonal management tasks such as giving feedback, managing conflict, or coaching people. For example, a team member complains that a male member is ‘rude’. Ask them, “what did that member do or say that you saw as ‘rude”. The response might be, “he interrupted everyone”. You could offer an alternative interpretation of that behavior, such as, “In the masculine culture interrupting may signal passion and commitment to ideas.” At the same time you affirm that you can see how interrupting might be construed as rude when people expect others to offer their ideas and then shut up while others take their fair share of air time (as many women do). You are simultaneously managing impending team conflict, providing feedback to the interrupter about how that behavior could be seen, and educating team members about some common gender-culture behavior differences and interpretations. 2. See cultural and social identity as a team resource. People’s gender and cultural identity are a source of insight, skill, and experience that are valuable potential resources to the team. Having a climate where identity is seen as a resource for learning makes a positive difference for creating and sustaining high performing multicultural teams. Ely’s research is specific in demonstrating how avoiding gender or culture discussions, avoiding conflict around social identity, trying to homogenize away differences, or have a culture where aspects of identity are invisible, all contribute to low performance on diverse teams. It is better to treat cross-cultural experiences as opportunities to learn – even negative experiences like discrimination – than to avoid or to suppress them. If you try to minimize, avoid, or suppress differences due to culture or gender, you end up making the potentially negative experiences un-discussable. And then it is just a matter of time before unresolved conflicts infect your team. 3. Understand how culture and gender identity dimensions are axes of power in society. Ely’s research demonstrates that race, gender, and culture matter in teams, because they are axes of power within many societies. We all learn in teams by experimenting, by seeking, using and giving feedback, by asking for help, and generally taking a risk to put our ideas out there. However, because of the way demographics work, numerical minority team members risk their careers in climates where stereotypes abound or where people pretend to be ethnicity or gender blind. If those with less power feel the leader and some or all of their teammates are closed minded, then that diverse team is likely to under perform If people with less power in society are not operating in an inclusive, respectful climate at work, then lower-power minorities are less likely to open up – and are even less likely to share with their teammates how they are feeling about the climate. When team members found the climate closed to learning and disrespectful of any of its member’s ideas, then the entire team performed poorly. 4. Create and sustain a positive diversity climate. A positive view of the climate and learning behaviors from all team members made for more effective diverse teams. The behaviors associated with an open-to-learning-from-differentperspectives climate include: A team leader who encourages different styles and approaches to solving work problems, Team members and leaders who actively seek, value, and use different perspectives, Team members who are encouraged by the leader, and each other, to offer new and better ways to do things. The way to leverage the learning in diverse teams is actually to seek and use ALL the different perspectives. This is an inclusive approach that is actually good leadership for any team. 5. Use metrics to motivate and celebrate team achievement. High performing teams get the job done (output), learn from each other (learning) and enjoy working together (satisfaction)2. By calculating and sharing the performance results, and linking it to the contributions from all the team members, you reinforce the learn-fromdifferences norm within your multicultural team. High performance metrics in Ely’s research included: Revenue from new sales, Higher customer satisfaction ratings Five weighted performance measures. Ely’s research is very powerful for a number of reasons. First of all, she examined 800 real, diverse work teams. This is not about people in labs. Nor is it about individuals aggregated together and called teams. It is rare in team research to have real teams. Second, it is methodologically powerful. She was looking at dynamics in teams, and specifically at the interpersonal interactions and the resultant effects from those interactions. The research finding here is a function of group level dynamics – not an individual level phenomenon. This is rare in team research. Third, this research found powerful interaction effects (the behaviors between members of diverse teams – especially learning from differences) that drive actual performance outcomes – sales, customer satisfaction, and performance. We’ve been waiting for this kind of research linking real diverse work teams to quantified performance outcomes. Brava Dr. Ely! References / Resources Ely, R.J. 2007. Work in Progress Research Report at the Anderson School of Management at UCLA. Westwood, CA. April 6. Ely, R.J. and D.A. Thomas. 2001. “Cultural diversity at work: The effects of diversity-perspectives on work group processes and outcomes.” Administrative Science Quarterly, 46:229-273. Hackman, J.R. 1987. “The design of work teams.” In J.W. Lorsch (ed.), Handbook of Organizational Behavior: 315-342. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice- Hall. Johnson, R.D. 2007. “Leading your multicultural team to high performance”. Audio-book. Claremont, CA: EQUEST. 1 Robin Ely presented her research at the Anderson School at UCLA in 2007 attended by the author. The publication associated with this research is current under review in academic journals. Dr. Ely gave Dr. Johnson permission to summarize and share the results of her research with practitioners in audio and written media. 2 J.R. Hackman’s criteria for evaluating performance in teams. See references.