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Keeping a Diverse Team United in Polarized Times

There’s no question that working with a diverse group can be more challenging than contributing to a more homogenous one. There are more opportunities for misunderstanding and conflict, especially in times when personal, professional, and societal tensions are running high. However, these hurdles are easily overcome with intentional leadership and teamwork. Start by establishing team…

There’s no question that working with a diverse group can be more challenging than contributing to a more homogenous one. There are more opportunities for misunderstanding and conflict, especially in times when personal, professional, and societal tensions are running high. However, these hurdles are easily overcome with intentional leadership and teamwork. Start by establishing team norms that set the stage for psychological safety before stressful events occur. Work to find deeper connections through which you share and learn. Talk through challenges rather than ignoring them. And, finally, work to spread the culture through your organization.

What did it take for a diverse team to work well together through 2020 into 2021?

We six are all officers on the team of a senior executive responsible for the daily operations and strategies of the U.S. Army.  But apart from our military training and functional roles, we are decidedly different.

  • Rich, initiatives group deputy director, is a Black man hailing from central Florida with a background in business management, data analytics, and artillery operations. He has lived in Uijeongbu, South Korea.
  • Kelly, legislative assistant, is a white woman from central Pennsylvania trained in journalism and political science, as well as medical service. She has spent time in Izmir, Turkey.
  • Sean, acquisition planner, is an Asian man who grew up in a military family and studied engineering and consumer banking. He has lived in Fussa, Japan.
  • Will, executive planner, is a Black man and a native of southeast Michigan with a background in urban geography, maneuver operations, organizational communications. He has lived in Grafenwoehr, Germany.
  • Erick, executive speechwriter, is a white man from central Oklahoma who has a background in business management, advanced military studies and strategic messaging. He has lived in Poznan, Poland.
  • Isaac, public relations officer, is a Black man also from a military family who serves as our resident psychology and communications expert. He ministers in countries around the world, and has lived in Kaiserslautern, Germany.

We’re a mix of extraverts and introverts, we range in age from 34 to 47, and our political and religious affiliations and family situations vary.

And yet our group came though the past 18 months — a period defined by global pandemic, a bitterly divisive national election, and civil unrest in the United States — more connected than ever. No question: Working with a diverse group can be more challenging than contributing to a more homogenous one. There are more opportunities for misunderstanding and conflict, especially in times when personal, professional, and societal tensions are running high. However, as our experience shows, these hurdles are easily overcome with intentional leadership and teamwork. Here are a few lessons we learned during last year and this one.

Set the stage before stressful events.

The moment any new member joins our team, they learn the ground rules. Our shared goal is to work together to find solutions for complex problems, so all voices are welcome. Everyone is encouraged to confidently, yet respectfully, give their opinions, regardless of background, seniority, subject matter expertise, or political leanings – or how well they converged with others’ views.  The idea is to create a psychologically safe, judgement-free zone in which to experiment with ideas.

More specifically, we focus on certain internal norms — a form of social contract — all with the goal of establishing trust. The team agrees to protect the privacy of every member: Views or any personal information shared won’t be spread outside our circle.

Finally, we explicitly acknowledge that we might offend each other from time to time but agree that we’ll deal with such situations by quickly and efficiently addressing and discussing the issue. For example, when one of t

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