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  • Writer's pictureJulia Makhubela

How to manage a diverse team - and become a better leader in the process

What is a diverse team, exactly? In essence, it’s a set of individuals with different identities. Diverse teams cover a range of races, genders, ages, cultural backgrounds and more - and they’re the cornerstone of any successful contemporary organisation, 

Diverse team benefits

With a diverse team, you have a melting pot of lived experiences. This creates an environment ripe for different ideas. What’s more, people from varied backgrounds often have distinct skills to bring to the fore, which can be a powerful productivity tool.  

As the Harvard Business Review reports, diverse teams are smarter than homogenous groups: they remain more objective, productive, and free from individual blindspots or biases. 

But diverse teams aren’t perfect. Managed incorrectly, conflict can arise quickly. That’s why, in the article to follow, we’re going to unpack 6 ways you can get the most out of your team without diluting anyone’s individual qualities.

How to be a diverse leader

Move away from a me-first mindset

many of us aren’t equipped to lead well. Why? Because, in our formative years, we’re almost always judged on our performance as an individual. As a consequence, we cultivate a me-first mindset, only to be promoted to a leadership position where we’re suddenly faced with a team that depends on us. 

To tackle this transition, shift your mindset away from your own performance to that of the team. If you can make this mental adjustment, and continuously ask “what’s best for the group as a whole”, you’ll set the whole team up for success. Along the way, you’ll shine too. 

Takeaway: Leadership is the mental shift away from the performance of the self and towards the performance of the group. 

Understand that people have different life circumstances

A leader that knows how to manage diversity is aware that people come from different circumstances. They don't think everybody started off on the same footing. 

For instance, one team member might be a single parent: in this instance, you give them the leeway to leave work early to care for their child, and to make up the hours later in the day.

Another person might live far away and be reliant on public transport to get to the office. You let them come in a little later, when the sun is up, so that they’re not waiting at a taxi rank in the dark.

By getting to know your team - and the challenges they’re facing - you can manage their individual circumstances accordingly. 

Takeaway: Make an effort to get to know your team and the challenges that they’re facing. 

Be curious

Many of us are raised in a corporate climate where perception is everything: the leader should know best. But in reality, good leaders are curious and interested in the opinions of others. 

With this in mind, don’t be afraid to ask questions of your team, because by doing so, you’ll make them feel valued and foster a culture of collaboration in the process. 

One great tip? Set up meetings with a basic agenda, but ensure everyone in attendance gets a say during the meeting proper. That way there are no passengers sitting quietly, afraid to have their voices heard. Consider everyone’s opinion and adopt a consultative approach to any group session. 

Takeaway: For a diverse team to succeed, you want to lead outside of your ego. 

Multiply rather than diminish

In the book Multipliers, authors Liz Wiseman and Greg McKeown demonstrate the importance of amplifying the smarts and capabilities of a team. They draw a distinction between multipliers - who are a force for good - and diminishers who drain team morale in the quest to always appear smart. 

To be a multiplier, you don’t need any innate talent, but you do need a few key skills:

  1. The ability to remove the fear of failure, while promoting a culture of intensity and hard work

  2. The ability to define opportunities, so that team members know what they’re working towards

  3. The ability to create a culture of debate, so that everyone feels they have a say

  4. The ability to give people ownership and full accountability for the work people do (people own their successes and failures, and reap the awards accordingly) 

Takeaway: Create a culture where everyone gets to take part - and is expected to deliver their best.

Challenge people - don’t just be their friend

The best leaders are respected first, liked second. 

Indeed, in the vast majority of leadership case studies, staff report satisfaction when they’re pushed to be better. They very rarely report satisfaction simply because their boss is “nice” to them. 

As a leader, focus on challenging staff to improve. But do so positively, because criticism only erodes confidence over time. 

If someone makes a mistake, show them the error of their ways, before ensuring that they fix the mistake. You want people to continuously develop and learn in a hands-on fashion, rather than simply papering over the cracks yourself.

Takeaway: Challenge your staff to be better in a positive, can-do way. No one wants to work for a leader who’s A) endlessly critical or B) only interested in being everyone’s friend. 

Manage conflict transparently

Conflict is inevitable in diverse teams because of diverse perspectives. Imagine, for instance, that two polar opposite people are paired together: one is diligent but resistant to change; the other is spontaneous and eager for change. Right from the off, they have different attitudes to how the project should proceed, and conflict brews from there.

As a leader, you need to sit with your staff and resolve these problems as a unit. Compromise is key, but so is the desire to engage with these issues. If you avoid conflict as a leader, problems fester and coagulate. 

Takeaway: Recognise that conflict is unavoidable, and keep lines of communication open so that your team can forge a path forward. 

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