Breaking down barriers to effective team diversity

What are the barriers to forming an effective team? We know there are barriers to developing cohesive groups. Humans - after all - are wired to be tribal. We seek out those similar to ourselves and find it hard to trust ‘outsiders’.

We’ve been investigating the challenges and benefits of breaking barriers down in teams and we’ve learned a lot about what the barriers might be and how best to break them down. Potential barriers include location and competence but three important ones that relate to team diversity include:

  • Demographic barriers where members have different gender, race, age or sexual orientation.
  • Cognitive barriers caused by differences in the way team members think and behave.
  • Values barriers caused by differences in our values and motivations.

How do these barriers impact performance?

Society has recognised, quite rightly, that there’s a legal and moral obligation to break down barriers of race, gender, age and sexual orientation. These are called “protected characteristics” and, thankfully, it’s illegal to discriminate on the basis of any of them. There’s also growing evidence that breaking down these barriers has a positive impact on performance.

McKinsey’s ‘Diversity Matters’ study indicated a statistically significant connection between diversity and financial performance. Companies in the top quartile for gender diversity were 15 per cent more likely, and those in the top quartile for racial/ethnic diversity were 35 per cent more likely, to have financial returns above their national industry median.

Breaking barriers between people that think and behave differently are also beneficial. This is especially true when we are solving complex problems (and providing those involved have a basic level of competence). Scott Page’s excellent book ‘The Difference’ highlights this effectively. “Solving a problem, cognitive diversity can trump ability, and when making a prediction diversity matters as much as ability”. When an organisation manages to build teams emphasising cognitive diversity, desired outcomes – better decisions and better innovations – are far more likely. Advocates of diverse thinking include the CEO of the largest asset management firm in the world, Larry Fink. “The most important component of good management is ensuring “diversity of mind.”

Read: June Sarpong on creating agents of change at work

Diverse values

Perhaps the greatest barriers in teams relate to diverse values held between team members. Values are the principles that we hold dear that drive our judgments and decision making. Research by Amy Kristoff Brown amongst others has shown the problems teams face when their basic values and motivations are very different. This perhaps shouldn’t surprise us. Most organisations state a desire to develop a “shared set of values.” Yet, this can feel at odds with the desire to also promote ‘diversity.’ What to do?

  • It is important to develop shared values in your organisation. They help establish a common consciousness. But these should be open to discussion and interpretation. Values fundamentalism is as unattractive as any other kind of fundamentalism. Teams and individuals should understand how values play out in their own context. I think of Judaic teaching that the Torah can be interpreted in different ways. It’s the act of engaging and interpretation that yields the benefit.
  • Common advice of coaches is to encourage people to live life according to their own values. This is good advice. We will be happier if we make decisions that are in tune with our own values. But remain curious and tolerant of people who have other drivers and values. It shouldn’t be a zero sum game.
  • A great way to remain curious about what drives others that are different from you is to ask about their experiences. We help teams understand how values are similar and different. We ask them to explore the difference. We hear amazing stories of how values have developed through life experiences. In some cases people just feel they were born that way. It’s always an interesting discussion. Self-disclosure is the best way to generate trust.

Watch: Charlie Craggs on dealing with transphobia

  • Leaders can “set the tone” regarding how difference is embraced in a team. Leaders should pay special attention to listening to minority voices or give airtime to those that may feel apprehensive about contributing.
  • Take real care and make the effort to define goals that appeal to all of the team - even if their values and drivers are different. In some cases just reframing a goal may make it more compelling for different people. Creating team goals together is a craft that takes hard work.
  • In 2016, Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev carried out one of the biggest studies of what works in diversity and inclusion in the US called ‘why diversity programs fail’. They found that mandatory diversity training - such as unconscious bias training and grievance systems - tended to backfire; actually reducing diversity on average across the 829 US firms they monitored. The authors found that encouraging the development of self-managed teams and mentoring had a positive effect on diversity alongside targeted recruitment.

Listen: Breaking Barriers podcast - episode one: Motherhood

Breaking barriers in teams are important for moral reasons and to improve performance. But not all barriers are similar and those caused by different values are the hardest to break down. Perhaps they are the most satisfying to bust because of this?

The world is feeling more and more polarised. We mix with people similar to us and feel alienated from the ‘others.’ Our presence on social media can exacerbate the problem. We find ourselves drawn into groups offering points of view that confirm our starting bias. I can’t help but feel that politicians of many nations would benefit from learning some of the lessons we’ve learned from breaking down barriers in teams and applying them more broadly.

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Please see for more details. Thumbnail from gettyimages.

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