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A Difficult Subject

In a recent leadership workshop, we had deep discussion about diversity. Participants were looking for answers to an issue leaders face that seems to have no good answer. The conversation centered on two questions: how should a leader view diversity and why does this seem to be such an explosive and often no-win situation?

That’s a difficult subject and even such a discussion can be fraught with danger. But it cannot be avoided.

Teams are most effective when members develop a sense of loyalty to the team. Leaders must approach their team with the understanding that each member is a unique person. But the individual member’s race, religion, politics, sexual preference, etc. should be irrelevant to the cohesiveness of the team. Rather, the leader must develop a team culture that recognizes and encourages the differences among the members. At the same time, members must place the success of the team above their own desires. To that end, leaders should strive to develop each member’s feeling of being a valued part of the team and strive to keep the team functioning smoothly.

But, that can be really hard. The workshop participants complained that everyone is so sensitive. Any attempt at an interpersonal relationship can become a minefield.

True, but leaders must not be paralyzed by fear. I know, that’s easy to say sitting here at my desk, but a little harder in real life. It’s true that three facts about people provide the perfect opportunity for an explosive crash.

  1. There are a few people who spend their days waiting for the next insult. They know it’s there; they just have to figure out how what you just said disparages them. I want to believe these people are few and far between; however, constant repetition in the press and on social media is making this more common than ever before.
  2. People grow up in different situations and are influenced by other’s ideas and attitudes early in life. It can be difficult to overcome biases that were learned at an early age.
  3. Most people have deeply held beliefs that can be contradictory to other team member’s deeply held beliefs.

The trick is to put all that aside and concentrate on the team, its mission and goals.

That’s a lot to ask.

To develop this culture and to reach a high level of team cohesiveness, the leader must develop trust. The team must trust the leader, the leader must trust the team, and members must trust each other. The best way to establish that trust is open communication and controlled conflict. That’s right; I’m suggesting teams work best when there is conflict, conflict like discussions about the best way to approach a challenging issue or arguments about the possible pitfalls of a new idea. But, it must be constructive conflict that recognizes and encourages differences of opinion while never allowing those differences to become personal attacks. The leader’s responsibility is to keep the team focused on mission and goals in order to keep conflict at a high level and never allow personal attacks to become part of the discussion.

The unfortunate truth is that a leader cannot prevent people from searching out personal offense. It’s very hard to change biases developed in a person’s early years, and deeply held beliefs are just that. But all those things make people who they are and it is the individual differences that make the team powerful.

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