Diversity of Thought Results in Higher Performing Teams

Lisa GuessBy Lisa Guess, VP of Systems Engineering, Juniper Networks

“That person just isn’t a good cultural fit…”  

Have you ever heard this phrase when a panel interviews a candidate for a job? Or worse yet, have you ever uttered this phrase yourself? While cultural fit can be an important factor, too often it is used as a way to avoid hiring someone who thinks differently than the group.

Yet when we choose only those we are most comfortable with, we end up with extremely homogeneous teams where everyone thinks the same way. The team doesn’t challenge popular assumptions and devolves to “groupthink,” where the desire for consensus and conformity results in inferior decision-making and outcomes.  

Achieving Diversity

Studies show that diverse teams perform better. They provide greater ROI and shareholder return; they hold more patents; their research is cited more often. The list of advantages goes on and on depending upon the context of the study and the team.    

Diversity, however, isn’t only represented by race, nationality, skin color or gender. Diversity is truly achieved when there are different ways of thinking, developing solutions and problem solving. This means people with different temperaments, personality profiles and life experiences are represented on the team. As an example, diversity could be that there are both introverts and extroverts on a team. Each type brings a different strength to the group. One is more outgoing, vocal and quicker to come to closure, and the other is more thoughtful, internalizes more aspects of a problem and takes longer to decide. Both are valuable to the team dynamic and lead to a superior outcome for the team.  

It is hard to achieve and foster diversity of thought and get to a high functioning team. It involves attracting, developing, retaining and supporting the various members of the group. But how can we get diversity on the team despite our own natural inclinations?  

To start, examine your hiring protocol, removing as much unconscious bias as possible via process.

  • Demand a diverse candidate pool from talent acquisition for your open roles.
  • Remove names from résumés during the initial screening. Names may imply nationality, gender, even age.
  • Enlist an interview panel made of diverse people that think differently, have different backgrounds and serve different roles in your organization. This will fully round out your investigation of the candidate because members of your panel will all reveal different aspects of the potential hire.  
  • Decide ahead of time on objective criteria mapped to the job requirements and ensure the entire panel leverages questions around these criteria.  

Following this good hygiene avoids a narrowly screened employee that is someone folks “most want to have a beer with.” Get out of your comfort zone, and the resulting team will perform better.  

Managing the Mix

Once the candidate is hired, how can individuals on the team support this diversity of thought?  Simple things: be patient with someone else’s thinking process, hear them out, actively ask someone who is not speaking up in meetings about their ideas. Give them time to consider concepts more deeply. Speak up for those who might be spoken over by more boisterous members of the team.  

What can leaders of these diverse teams learn? With diversity comes a greater potential for conflict. It is important for the leader of these teams to foster relationships among the team and set solid ground rules. Once a decision is made, everyone unites, but during the process, everyone is heard. Teach the team that defensiveness has no place. Pride has no place. Be open. Actively listen. Foster an environment where members don’t interrupt and are humble and willing to learn and grow from the others.  

It can be a very rewarding experience to work in a diverse team. I recall a team where each individual had a very different way of problem solving, and the process of getting to a common decision was challenging. It required patience and seeking to understand, but we ultimately came to a superior solution as a whole, rather than what a homogeneous team would have developed. The team united behind the decision and went on to win a top award in excellence from the company.  

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▶ Read more from the September 2016 newsletter.


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