I like to think that if I was about to do something stupid on one of my projects, one of my colleagues would speak up and tell me.
Unfortunately, here’s the reality: they wouldn’t.
Margaret Heffernan, author of “Wilful Blindness”, knows exactly why this happens. In a presentation she gave earlier this year, she explained that we actively create teams where speaking out isn’t going to happen—even if we don’t realize it.
The problem is our brains.
What’s going on?
We create mental models and shortcuts that help us process vast amounts of complex data. For example, let’s say you’re traveling and arrive at a train station you’ve never been to. When faced with a new situation your brain says, “Have I ever seen anything like this before?” It pulls up pictures of train stations you’ve experienced in the past. And then it responds with, “Yes, I know what a train station is like, I can make assumptions safely.” And off you go on your journey.
Your brain on prioritization
The brain prioritizes what seems most familiar, and what is most familiar to you is . . . you. Anything that matches you (your experiences, preferences, values) gives you a high degree of comfort. And you’ve got a lot of mental models and shortcuts already programmed in.
The trouble here is that it creates a bias for the brain to favor people like ourselves. And when you surround yourself with people who are similar to you, then they tend to think like you. Consequently, they don’t end up challenging your ideas and actions because they probably don’t think there’s anything wrong with what you’re doing.
And here’s where you get in trouble: You’ve edited out the opportunity for challenge, disagreement, and debate because the team is not diverse.
Create a team of diverse thinkers
Diversity in project teams goes beyond the adequate representation of men, women, race, religion, and ability. These are the characteristics that you might notice (or notice the lack of) as you look around your office. But there’s another important component—diversity of thinking.
When putting together your project teams, look for ways to include diverse outlooks. Pick the developer with 20 years’ experience and add a business analyst just out of a top school. Choose the accountant who crunches numbers for a living, and pair her with an administrator who paints watercolors in his spare time.
Look for ways to create a project team of people who each bring something unique to the vision of the work you’re doing. Consider viewpoints based on personality and experience that together contributes to a deep and varied pool of skills to drive that creative challenge, and strong teamwork.
This diversity benefits managers
When you’re staffing a project, you want to pick the right people, instead of simply going with those who are available. Yes, it takes a bit more planning and time. But it’s worth it in the long run.
Here are five diversity benefits for team managers:
- Better identification of risk
Different people think differently. That’s not rocket science. Get a group of similar-minded people together and you’ll get the same old risks. A diverse project team, on the other hand, will identify risks that you didn’t see coming. This is what you want—because then you can plan for arising issues and do something about them.
- More creative solutions
Do you need a way to take online payments but without getting stuck by that technical constraint? Put a group of technical people from different backgrounds in a room and let them thrash out a creative solution. They’ll come up with one. Or twenty.
- Better problem solving
there are normally several different ways out of a problem. But the more solutions you can identify, the better chance you have of picking the one that’s going to work the best. Creative brainstorming can help uncover lots of solutions, but you need a creative team—or the right collection of people—to do it.
- Responding to client needs
Guess what? Your customer base is not made up of people just like you. The more diverse your project teams, the more they represent your clients and help you identify with and address the right pain points and needs.
- Retaining talent
People like working in companies where they feel valued and that their contribution matters. Plus, it’s motivating to be part of a diverse and successful team. As a hiring manager, your intellectual and experiential diversity can act as a recruitment tool as well: attract the best people, regardless of their background.
Create an environment for diversity
We need to create the right environment for diversity to flourish. In other words, not just creating a team that represents varied viewpoints, but encouraging people to be upfront with their points of view.
Returning to Margaret Heffernan and an interesting fact she mentioned in her presentation: There’s a high likelihood that people don’t say what they feel because they want to be part of the group more than they want to get their ideas heard. Belonging is a powerful feeling.
As managers, we should always be looking to create working environments where people can belong and feel part of the team, while still having the confidence to challenge what might seem like stupid ideas. Diversity should be celebrated and supported. Managers need teams where individuals know they can speak up, share their experiences and use their expertise—even when it feels at odds with the team.
It takes time
A culture change like this, which is also behavioral, isn’t something that you takes place overnight. It’s also not something that can be put into effect by one person. The entire team, form leadership to team members to support staff needs to pull together and recognize the longer-term business benefits of creating diverse teams. However, if there is no corporate focus on diversity at the C-suite level you can still take actions yourself.
For starters, change your own outlook. Look for opportunities to get diverse views on your project proposals. Invite others to contribute and ask the question, “What have I missed?” Be open to a challenge, even if you don’t agree with what is said. You never know what the team—collectively—may come up with.
What steps are you taking towards creating a diverse workplace? Tell us in Comments.