Top Ten Tips: How to manage diverse teams

Workplace teams today are more diverse than ever before. Simon Mitchell, director at talent management consultancy DDI, explains how to meet this new challenge.

by Simon Mitchell
Last Updated: 20 Aug 2020

The challenge of leading groups of people from different backgrounds, with wide ranging aspirations and experience, of different gender and ages shouldn’t be underestimated. More generations than ever before are coming together under the same workplace roof, as people stay in work longer. Add in the complication of location and a manager may be leading a team of people with large variations in age, experience and culture and trying to do that virtually. A tough job.

How best to meet this challenge? Here are ten top tips...

1. Don't have favourites

One in three employees say their manager singles out favourites. Good managers take the time to understand everyone on their team, regardless of differences in age, geography or experience, to find out what makes them tick and how they can best contribute. Ignoring the differences that exist in a highly diverse group is a mistake. Equally, beware stereotypes. Everyone is different, so generalising large groups of people is reductive and unhelpful.

2. Give feedback

Just over half of employees think their manager gives them enough feedback. People need to understand how they are performing and this is even more important in a virtual team. A diverse team needs to be visible to each other to help generate better understanding when they cannot rely on cultural shortcuts.

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Social media and online tools can bring people together; video conferencing no longer has to cost the earth. Technology can help but it has its pitfalls and won’t be effective without being actively managed.

3. Just because you've gone on holiday there once, doesn't mean you know the culture...

Don’t presume you can easily understand a culture. Executives often mistake visiting another market or country for giving them knowledge of the culture but 'executive tourism' is just too simplistic. To really understand the culture, there is no substitute for immersing yourself in the day-to-day, or even better, living there.

4. Use social tools to communicate better

Find new ways for people to share knowledge. It’s even more important for diverse teams to be able to share information and learning than for homogeneous ones. Teams have to be able to share with each other, especially across borders. Social media networks that can be operated internally and privately can facilitate sharing. One frequent criticism of managers is that they don’t help people solve problems themselves, rather they do it for them.

5. Have an open-door policy

Over a third of employees think their bosses do not listen to their workplace concerns. Leaders may have to be more comfortable in making decisions with less information than they would like but that doesn’t mean their teams are equally
comfortable. Helping people be more comfortable with ambiguity is important, particularly for teams working together virtually and across borders. Different people like to raise issues in different ways, and not always in an open forum. The leaders’ job is to understand the important concerns and remove the barriers. Leaders need to be seen to be listening to, and acting on, the concerns of their diverse teams.

6. Tackle conflict and build a common workplace culture

Not enough leaders handle workplace conflict well. Among a diverse team, whether of age, geography or cultural background, conflict will arise and the leader must be skilled in dealing with it. People need a set of ground rules that help them understand the expected consistencies amongst all the differences they experience, and to help deal with confrontation and conflict. Without solid ground rules, people won’t understand what they can expect and misunderstanding will often escalate into conflict. When describing effective leadership, employees do not point to the big, company-wide initiatives like values, but rather having a common set of guidelines for things like meetings and day-to-day conversations.

7. Communicate regularly to unify the team

Team members appreciate openness and sincerity but it seems that most leaders don’t communicate the rationale for their decisions. Sharing thoughts, feelings and rationale will help unify people from different backgrounds. Being upfront about the situation and involving people as much as possible in decision making engenders a sense of inclusion and will ensure everyone feels part of the same team. If they are not part of the process, the team won’t develop the understanding of the business they need to be effective.

8. Email is easily misunderstood

However you choose to communicate, a third of managers do not check what they are saying is being understood, for example, email is the wrong communication to carry the nuance of a complex message. Email has its place - it’s easy, efficient and fast, but a very poor channel if you want to make sure meaning is understood.

9. Treat others as you would like to be treated

One in three employees said that their managers damage their self-esteem. While employees aren’t looking for their boss to be their friend, they do expect courtesy, respect, honesty, and tact - and rightly so. For a project to succeed, team
members should feel valued and appreciated. Even discussions on difficult subjects should ultimately be positive and productive, not personal and demotivating. This is a universal basic of leadership that goes to the heart of team effectiveness – however diverse.

10. Set an example

Inevitably what the leader does, says and how they act is what the rest of the team will follow. It’s up to the leader to set the tone. If he or she doesn’t get the basics right - establishing the consistencies, motivating and supporting team members - it will be very difficult to create a effective team.

Simon Mitchell is UK general manager and european marketing director at talent management consultancy DDI

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