How Great Bosses Build Diverse Teams

A global market requires employees with a wide range of backgrounds and experiences. Here are nine ways to make a diverse workforce work for you.

By Wanda T. Wallace, Ph.D.

It’s easy to say great bosses build great teams. But what does it take to build a dream team that delivers results and enjoys the process?

The best results are going to come from a diverse team, one with a variety of experiences and perspectives. You need diversity to challenge the status quo and generate truly disruptive ideas. But diversity is itself disruptive, and not always in a good way.

First there’s the challenge of managing people who think and communicate differently. Then, at the team level, people from different backgrounds may find it harder to connect. Without connection you can’t build trust, and without trust you can’t have the challenging conversations that create breakthroughs.

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Successfully building a great team means building both trust and inclusivity. Each person needs to feel valuable. Value comes not from fitting in, but by standing out—offering a unique perspective rather than an imitation of the majority view. 

Let’s get specific: Imagine that your company is expanding into new domestic and international markets where the majority of your customers speak Spanish. You’ve just brought in Carlos as your team’s first Latino employee. Carlos brings much more than language skills, as valuable as they are. He knows your new customers in ways that are strategically important to the success of not just your team, but your entire organization.

But how do you get the most out of what he offers? Carlos will be acutely aware that he’s different from his new boss and coworkers. And, like every new guy, he wants to make a good first impression and contribute right away to the team’s success. But he won’t know how to do it. He can’t simply flip a switch and be different when that’s what you need, and exactly like everyone else the rest of the time.

Picture Carlos in his first few meetings with your team. He sees how connected they are. They have common work experiences and all the shorthand references and inside jokes that go along with those things, which any new hire would expect. But they share a lot more. They talk easily about sports, fitness, family stuff. He realizes there’s a lot of socializing outside of work. Some of the team members’ spouses are friends; even their kids have grown up knowing one another, and may go to the same schools or play on the same teams.

Carlos sees what he’s up against. No matter how genial his coworkers are in the office, or how many meetings he’s included in, he sees that decisions aren’t always made during business hours. Nobody’s trying to cut him out; but when his colleagues get together, whether it’s on the golf course or watching their kids play soccer, they’re going to talk about work.

This isn’t as rare as you might think. I recently spoke with two very senior managers of large, successful enterprises. Neither spoke the language of the majority on their teams. Conversations inevitably drifted to the native tongue, and both felt out of the loop. As one put it, “I don’t have difficulty when I am with one or two of the majority. It’s when there are eight of them and one of me that I feel totally out of the discussion. I just stop talking.” If this happens at the top level of successful businesses, among accomplished executives, just imagine what goes on farther down the ranks.

It doesn’t matter if the difference comes from language, ethnicity, gender, education, experience, or personal style; the team member who’s different experiences it in more or less the same way. His engagement starts to drop, followed by confidence and trust.

Research shows that once you see yourself as part of the in- or out-group, you start to experience the insiders as more homogeneous than they really are, and the outsiders as more different. What can a leader do to alter these dynamics? Fortunately, small things can make an enormous difference.

Strategy #1: Seek and listen to the outsider’s perspectives

Model this every day, in every meeting: Ask the “other” to speak; don’t wait for her to jump in. Listen to what she says. Reference those comments in what you say next. You’ll signal that this outsider’s point of view is valued. Just as important: If you don’t do this, you signal what isn’t valued. 

Strategy #2: Silence the interrupters

Allowing a team member to derail an outsider is another way to signal that you don’t value her point of view. But if you call out the team member for interrupting or cutting off comments, you actually make it worse. You embarrass the speaker and allow the interrupter to feel victimized. Let the interrupter finish, then have the original speaker repeat what she said or add additional details to support the point she was trying to make. This courteous but firm approach sends the signal that the interrupter has nothing to gain by derailing his colleague.

Strategy #3: Spend equal quality time with the outsider

Here’s what you never want to do: Walk by every team member’s desk, stopping to share a story about a mutual acquaintance or needle each other about rival sports teams, and then give a polite nod to the other because you aren’t sure what to say.

The two of you may get along perfectly well in scheduled and structured meetings, but you still need to make an effort through informal conversations. Not only do they signal that she’s just as important as everyone else, they help you get to know each other. You don’t trust someone you don’t know; it works both ways. 

As you invest quality time with the outsider, she’ll feel more comfortable sharing her views and experiences with you. She’ll also learn to value your perspective, just as you value hers.

Strategy #4: Insist that the team spend time talking informally

A manager I know demanded that his team members have dinner together periodically. A male team member objected to going to dinner with his new female colleague, saying his wife would be upset. The boss said, “Go home. Tell your wife you’re going to dinner next week with your new colleague. Explain who she is, what you’re going to talk about, why you’re doing it, and where you’re going. Your wife will understand.” He was right.

Strategy #5: Point out all differences and commonalities

An outsider may have more in common with team members than he realizes, just as employees in the majority are more different than they at first appear. Find ways to illustrate what you have in common, without losing the advantage of diverse backgrounds and points of view. 

Strategy #6: Spot and stop exclusionary conversations and other activities

When you hear the team sharing jokes or reminiscing about past events, pause the conversation to explain the backstory. Notice when your employees go to lunch—or to a bar or gym or sporting event—without including one of your team members. If you can’t persuade them to invite the outsider, come up with new activities that involve everyone.

When a team I know does its annual off-site, the boss plans an evening activity that will be a new experience for everyone. The novelty ensures no one has an advantage, and also gives the team common experiences and stories that they can later share with new employees who come on board. 

Strategy #7: Appreciate what the other brings

Show your appreciation for a different perspective by pointing out specific aspects that you value. It makes the outsider feel good and signals that you don’t expect or want her to become a mirror image of her colleagues.

Strategy #8: Give feedback, particularly when there’s an issue that needs addressing

Here’s the flip side of appreciating the positive qualities an outsider brings: You also have to address problems proactively. The team sees deficiencies with his work and starts excluding him. You’ll start to hear phrases like “he doesn’t fit” and “he’s hard to work with.”

Don’t dance around the issue, hoping he’ll eventually understand. He won’t. If you don’t tell him, no one else will. You can and should seek advice on how to deliver the message in the most constructive way. But you must deliver it. 

Strategy #9: If you say you require diverse candidates for every position, make sure you enforce it

The first time you deviate, you open the door for all your leaders to make excuses for why they can’t find diverse candidates to interview. A manager I know gave instructions to a team member to interview a diverse slate of candidates for an open position.

The employee challenged him, saying he couldn’t find a candidate of X type to interview. The manager stood his ground, refusing to allow the team member to fill the position until he produced an appropriate group of applicants. The position remained unfilled for months, until the team found the right candidate. As the manager later said, you only have to do that once to send a clear message. 

Here’s the biggest key to making diversity work on your team: trust.

Based on my experience coaching top-level teams, there are five ingredients for turning the plan above into a diverse and successful team:

• Identify an interdependent and important mission—something the group can only accomplish together. They need to depend on one another to be successful. 

• Encourage a variety of thought, experiences, backgrounds, and perspectives to stimulate fresh, new approaches to old problems.

• Insist on honest discussions about differences in style. This requires self-awareness along with a language to talk about how each person likes to work in a way that’s neutral and nonjudgmental.

• Spend time together: talk, share experiences, and get to know one another in informal ways. Flying in for an eight-hour meeting a few times a year isn’t nearly enough.

• Be willing to be vulnerable with one another—to admit what you don’t do so well, what your biases are, or what you need from others. 

Those ingredients, if managed well, start to build trust. Trust then permits inclusivity. Once trust and inclusivity exist, tough conversations—disagreeing and debating—won’t pull the team apart. It’s the debate that leads to genuine commitment and ultimately results.

Diversity is magic, but only when you consciously incorporate the other in every action you take as the leader and actively work to build trust among team members by encouraging them to get to know one another’s experiences.

Wanda T. Wallace, Ph.D., is Managing Partner of Leadership Forum Inc., where she coaches leaders to build better and more diverse teams. She’s also the author of Reaching the Top: Factors that Impact the Careers and Retention of Senior Women Leaders.