Is your organisation so afraid of conflict that it’s created the team equivalent of homogenised milk?
Do you actively seek out diverse opinions or are you married to the idea of calm consensus?
And do you really want to be a sheep?
There are countless questionnaires and psychological profiling tools out there, all confirming what we fundamentally know – that we are all different.
So why do we continue to be irritated by these differences and expect everyone else to be just like us?
Of course there’s a gap – unless you’re Dolly the cloned Sheep! And do you want a team of Dolly’s in your organisation?
Personality gaps are good – it’s the clashes that cause the grief.
The Full Ark
Clashes are often the result of thwarted expectations.
Expecting conformity; considering ourselves as the ‘norm’ against which everyone else is benchmarked; and insisting that people see things the way we see them is setting ourselves up for massive disappointment.
And it’s dull! I don’t want a little town of Tim Lamberts pottering around me (and neither would you, believe me!). It would be like arguing with myself – where victories are so unsatisfying because they are so inevitable; and I’d always believe I’m right, even though I’m probably hopelessly wrong! It would be insufferable.
And where’s the stimulus, the creativity, the extras? I desperately need those personality gaps; and I need different people to help fill them in for me.
There’s a reason why Noah took a range of species with him onto the Ark. Can you imagine if he’d only taken 160 sheep?
Too Many Animals?
That’s fine. But what happens when you find yourself in a team where:
No-one thinks or acts like you?
No-one is as interested in the things you are interested in?
No-one shares your history or cultural references?
No-one shares your ambitions?
No-one shares your primary values?
No-one shares your sense of humour?
No-one is as good at some of the things you are good at?
That’s hard. Noah probably had to separate his animals on the Ark. He had the added problem of one species looking like lunch to another, which perhaps makes our teams slightly more appealing, but you can’t get away from the fact that working in a zoo team is hard.
Of course, I’ve been trained to say, “Great! Bring it on! What a fantastic opportunity to get things done”.
But then reality hits, and I find myself thinking, “Why are these people so obtuse?” Or “why don’t they care?” Or even, “What is wrong with these people?”
You see, deep down, I secretly want them to be more like me. I know myself better than anyone else I know, so it would be much easier if other people were more like me. I’d understand them better. I’d know how to communicate with them better. I’d be able to by-pass various preambles and overtures, because I could more safely assume that some things were taken as read. I could reasonably expect them to share my passion and support my ideas.
Alas, my high ideals about embracing such variety are tarnished by my own desire for a quiet life. I want my Dolly!
A Comfortable Habitat
It’s as if we just can’t help ourselves. Intellectually, we know that diversity is good for us and makes for productive teams, but when we find ourselves in diverse teams, this diversity becomes an irritant.
It’s like many marriages I know of where one partner spends their whole life trying to mould the other to a closer image of themselves.
This despite the fact that one of the things that attracted them in the first place was their partner’s difference or uniqueness – “I’d never met anyone like her before”, “He opened my eyes to so many new experiences”.
But ‘Attraction’ is one thing. What happens when you have to live (or work) with them? Attraction isn’t enough to carry you through. It’s all about being comfortable with each other in a safe and non-threatening habitat.
So time is spent co-ordinating diaries, schedules, friends, social occasions, trips. Energies are spent on establishing common procedures and protocols; bringing roles into line; smoothing out the rough edges so that the ‘team’ becomes more homogenised.
This might work for a marriage, but does it work so well for our work teams? Is it a model we would want to replicate?
Sadly, we do. We allow our teams to take on a new identity which doesn’t have space for diversity, difference, and dissimilarity. Team members become subsumed into a cohesive whole that buries their individuality.
Our search for consistency, commonality and belonging, succeeds in creating a team that has under-utilised strengths, reduced ambitions, and no spark. We end up with a team of Dollys.
Recruitment practices have historically resulted in homogenised teams, where team members have been recruited in the image of the person recruiting them.
TV’s ‘The Apprentice’ is a classic example of this. Alan Sugar is attracted to people who remind him of himself when he was their age, and these are the people who are more likely to win through.
The ensuing entertainment is provided as contestants attempt to contort themselves into the image they think he wants to see. You have a herd of twenty-somethings running around like sheep, while the good shepherd Sugar and his sheep dogs preside over the bleeting.
The result is incongruous and outrageous behaviour, which all goes to make great television.
But would you seriously wish to recruit your team in this way?
Carnival of the Animals
Too many team-building events are focused on helping people to ‘like each other’. But the evidence suggests that ‘liking’ each other is more often than not a barrier to team success.
What seems truer is that “You don’t have to like each other to work productively with each other.” You can still get on a do a great job, even though you don’t think of yourselves as soul mates. You can even be different species!
Removing the need to ‘like’ and replacing it with the need to ‘respect each other’s contribution’ seems to be a more sensible way of going about things.
In this way, no-one expects other team members to be like them, or to like them.
Everyone expects everyone else to play a full part in making the team successful, and that means being themselves.
The team is now set up to draw upon every ounce of individuality, every different perspective, the full range of skills and strengths; and to embrace all temperaments.
Like Noah, you must create some central norms of behaviour that ensure you can manage and control the diversity of the team, and enable constructive and productive relationships to develop; but be careful not to exclude vital characteristics of challenge, conflict, and originality by doing so.
A New Breed of Team
If you are the manager of a team that is more like a herd than a zoo, more like a cosy marriage than a dynamic family, stop to reflect on why it has become so.
Has the team:
Settled for the lowest common-denominator?
Assumed an appearance that best avoids conflict?
Sheared the fringes of personality (where the exciting stuff happens)?
Only allowed a fraction of its available resources to be utilised?
Got too woolly?
The only responsible thing to do in this situation is stir it up a little.
Reconfigure – separate, move people around, bring in ‘new blood’ (but make sure it’s a different type!)
Encourage and stimulate genuine debate
Invite guests to team meetings who bring different experiences and opinions – and listen to them!
Find out what hidden strengths people have – and use them!
Get used to a bumpier ride!
And finally, if you need any extra reminder of how you should deal with diversity, perhaps this little ditty will help.
You’re different. Get over it!
They’re different. Get on with it!
We’re different. Thank god for it!