Manage a Diverse Team

Last Updated Aug 20, 2007 4:44 PM EDT

Recent Research Highlights the Paradox of DiversityDiversity is a reality in today's workforce. What are the benefits and challenges inherent in having a team drawn from backgrounds as divergent as Tuscaloosa and Tibet? An interesting Boston Globe article by Michael Jonas yesterday entitled "The Downside of Diversity," looks at the difficulties surrounding this most central fact of American life through recently published research by the Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam, author of the famous study of civic engagement "Bowling Alone."
Putnam's latest research,
"has found that the greater the diversity in a community, the fewer people vote and the less they volunteer, the less they give to charity and work on community projects. In the most diverse communities, neighbors trust one another about half as much as they do in the most homogenous settings."
These unsettling findings however fit into a larger mosaic of research which concludes that,
Diversity... makes us uncomfortable -- but discomfort, it turns out, isn't always a bad thing. Unease with differences helps explain why teams of engineers from different cultures may be ideally suited to solve a vexing problem. Culture clashes can produce a dynamic give-and-take, generating a solution that may have eluded a group of people with more similar backgrounds and approaches.
The Globe notes that the "paper argues strongly that the negative effects of diversity can be remedied" and goes on to list specific remedies suggested by Putnam including "expanding support for English-language instruction and investing in community centers and other places that allow for "meaningful interaction across ethnic lines."

These finding are relevant not only for politicians trying to bind together society at large, but also for managers trying to increase the productivity and satisfaction of their team. But looking squarely at both the upsides and challenges of diversity, leaders can find ways to maximize the benefits gained when different perspectives and experiences spark off each other, while minimizing distrust and loss of community feeling.

(Image of city street by alykat, CC 2.0)

  • Jessica Stillman On Twitter»

    Jessica lives in London where she works as a freelance writer with interests in green business and tech, management, and marketing.