Diverse teams – psychological pitfalls and challenges

ARE YOU A MEMBER OR LEADER OF A DIVERSE TEAM?

 
Well, there are a couple of inevitable psychological challenges that you are facing, whether you have yet to realize it or not!

It is a well-established fact that diversity in teams or organizations is beneficial. Among other advantages, diverse teams produce better outcomes, they show a better working atmosphere and attitude. Diversity can encompass various characteristics, the most discussed are gender, ethnicity, age, or special needs. So far so good – but what’s the challenge?
 
Just staffing teams with a diverse group of people is not enough to harvest that benefit, the opposite might even be the case. It is crucial that you explicitly address (subconscious) psychological influences that are very likely to cause problems for diverse teams if disregarded. Here are three such challenges and how they can be tackled.
 
The FALSE CONSENSUS EFFECT

A common problem lies in the false consensus effect. We tend to assume that other people think as we do and share our values and preferences. This leads to misunderstandings that are often not detected until a serious problem pops up. Within a diverse team, this effect can be very problematic, because the individual backgrounds vary more, and the misunderstandings are worse.

A 3-step approach is well suited to tackle that challenge:

  1. Raise awareness of that effect –most people don’t know it and even if they are, they don’t consider it in their daily routines.
  2. Introduce regular not-task-oriented exchanges, e.g. joint lunch, and prepare to discuss “daily live topics”. These are topics for which you can expect diverse people to have diverse perspectives and insights, e.g. traditions, travel, or communities. Getting to know colleagues’ perspectives on daily life issues helps to grow mutual understanding. Start with weekly meetings for new teams and decrease to monthly as the team grows together.
  3. Introduce communication means by which team members can express their respective concerns in a safe way – create a psychologically safe environment where people dare to speak up!
The IN-GROUP BIAS

Another problem in diverse teams is the in-group bias. It makes us really believe that our own group (sports team, clique, etc.) is better in many ways, is doing better, is more trustworthy, and as such. In a diverse team, it is crucial that you avoid this bias within the team. If your team is unnoticed split into groups (e.g., the vegans – the meat lovers or the ex-pats – the natives) this can cause severe conflicts within your team.

Tackle that pitfall by watching out for such groups and provide the “opposite groups” with one strong common purpose and goal – seek to find commonalities and explicitly address those.

The SOCIAL PROOF EFFECT

A third example is the social proof effect. Briefly, it describes a behavior of people in uncertain situations: we look out for a person that seems to know what to do. Having found this person, we copy his or her behavior, hardly checking if that behavior is really a good idea. This effect leads to rapidly evolving group dynamics, which in diverse teams can tear apart a team within weeks.

This is a tough one, to tackle it you must seek an open communication with all team members to sense problems before they become critical. Therefore again: create a psychologically safe environment where people dare to speak up!

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Effects like these, and there are numerous more, will determine whether all people assigned to the team will feel as team members, acknowledged and welcome. Strong, diverse teams need time to bond and grow, if you look through the lens of psychology you can steer that process and avoid pitfalls right from the start.

Who will benefit from a psychological approach? Everybody! Not only the team members, team leaders, and overall management. Your whole organization will strengthen its DE&I strategy.

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