The Dynamic Power of Diversity: How Diverse Perspectives & Inclusive Thinking Can Create Powerful Teams

June 14, 2019

By By Arin N. Reeves

A stick of dynamite is comprised of a unique combination of diverse chemicals that is stable and unworthy of notice, but when its fuse is lit and its blasting cap explodes, the intense power that bursts forth…is dynamic.  The power of dynamite, when harnessed appropriately, allows us to literally blast through mountains to create works of art like sculpting the faces of U.S. presidents into the hard stone of Mount Rushmore.

The collective effort of teams is akin to a stick of dynamite.  When a team has the right mix of diverse perspectives and the activating fuse of inclusion, the team becomes capable of achieving powerful results.  Diverse perspectives without the blasting catalyst of inclusion cannot become dynamic, and an inclusive spark without diversity fizzles uselessly.  The dynamic potential of diversity, combined with the necessary spark of inclusion, can create powerful teams who can blast through outmoded ways of working to achieve levels of excellence in problem-solving and innovation, which every organization needs to compete in today’s world.

How exactly do teams with diverse perspectives and inclusive thinking create the explosion of excellence that teams without diversity and inclusion just cannot achieve?  The answers to this question are simpler than you might imagine; however, just because the answers are simple, doesn’t mean they are always easy for humans to implement.

1. Working on a diverse team that is inclusive of each other’s different perspectives makes people more critical thinkers.

Our brains have the potential for unimaginable brilliance, but our brains are also hardwired to conserve energy by doing as little thinking as possible on a daily basis.  If your brain can find a way to make something automatic (implicit bias), it will find a way.  If your brain can engage in predictable interactions with people who feel familiar and comfortable, it will gravitate towards those interactions.  Our brains are hardwired to seek out familiarity, comfort and predictability in order to conserve energy; and, when we engage in the familiar, comfortable, and predictable, we feel relaxed and good because we are not expending a lot of energy in our thought processes.

When our brains have to negotiate the discomfort and unpredictability that diverse perspectives stimulate, we are pushed out of our relaxed comfort zones into dynamic thinking zones where we can be our sharpest and most creative selves.  

Similarity makes us comfortable.  Diversity makes us smarter.

Diverse perspectives allow us to create a dynamic mix of ideas that will blast us through the status quo, but diverse perspectives need inclusive behaviors from everyone on the team to transform into powerful results.

After you create a diverse team (yes, it’s easier said than done, but there is no easy way around this first step), implement inclusive behaviors like the following, to activate the dynamic power of diversity you have assembled:

  • Create a culture of curiosity where people are rewarded for asking questions.  Implement a rule on calls and in meetings that, when someone throws out an idea, everyone asks one question about the idea before they offer their opinions on the idea.  
  • Take turns talking during calls and meetings.  Although the “jump in when you have something to say” model of dialogue feels more organic, it is less inclusive.  This model favors the extroverted over the introverted, the interrupters over the listeners, and the overrepresented over the underrepresented. Talking in an ordered way can feel more formal, but it is more inclusive.
  • Take a break between brainstorming and deciding.  The break doesn’t have to be long, but the clear demarcation between “what are all the possible answers” and “which answer will we choose” allows people to shift from brainstorming together to deciding together.

2. Working on a diverse team that is inclusive of each other’s different perspectives makes people focus more on facts.

When our brains encounter agreement, we feel good and when we feel good, we don’t question the basis of the other person’s point of view.  Can you think of a time when you wanted proof – facts – from someone who agreed with you?  Can you think of a time when you didn’t want proof – facts – from someone who disagreed with you?

Our brains are hardwired to conserve energy, and it takes more energy to process a thought that is in disagreement than it does a thought in agreement with our own.  When diverse perspectives are present in an inclusive dialogue, more people focus more consistently on objective facts.  This is powerful because diverse groups tend to identify the right data to solve the problem, and they create solutions faster than their non-diverse counterparts.

It is critical to remember that this focus on facts is only possible when there are diverse perspectives engaged in an inclusive dialogue.  When dialogues occur without a commitment to inclusion, discussions can devolve into emotional arguments, and run far, far away from the facts. 

Emotional arguments thrive on using differences to divide people into their individual corners.  Inclusive dialogue is a commitment to harness the power of differences into a dynamic new collective.  To keep your team focused on inclusive dialogue, you can:

  • Practice and encourage others to practice the art of listening to understand, instead of listening to agree or disagree.  This can become the norm simply by asking people to say, “I would like to understand…” as the beginning to any comment they make.  “I would like to understand why you prioritized the list in that way” is heard by our brains very differently from “Why did you prioritize the list in that way?”  The former leads to inclusive dialogue that focuses on facts.  The latter has a greater probability of leading you into an argument that is untethered from facts.
  • Assign roles to people so that they have to discuss from the perspective of the role instead of from their own point of view.  “Playing” a role reduces the intensity of emotion in our responses, and a reduction of emotion increases the probability of inclusion.  For example, you can assign one person to a “Yes!” role and another to a “No!” role.  The discussions can still be animated, but the role assignments depersonalize the disagreements, thus making room for inclusion.

3. Working on a diverse team that is inclusive of each other’s different perspectives makes it easier for people to innovate.

If you had five people with very similar points of view, a dialogue between them will lead to agreement and consensus, but it won’t lead to much innovation.  The chances are slim that five similar perspectives can lead to something that none of them could have come up with on their own.  Five diverse points of view, on the other hand, will lead to disagreement, but the chances are high that what will emerge from a meeting of these diverse views is something that no one person could have come up with on their own.

Imagine cooking with five measurements of the same ingredient in comparison to five completely different ingredients.  The end product of the latter requires more thought and perhaps even some experimentation, but what is created in the end  might be better than what could be created with multiple quantities of the same ingredient.

The dynamic power of diversity in fueling innovation is exciting to consider and experience, but it can also rouse anxiety in people who would rather stay in their comfort zones.  If it feels scary or awkward to step out of your comfort zone to engage with diverse perspectives, you can start getting more comfortable by:

  • Deciding to be comfortable with difference, by challenging your comfort zones in ways that don’t involve other people.  If you always drive to work, take public transportation for one day.  Experiment with eating foods that are outside your normal diet.  See a movie that you would never see unless you were deliberately trying to stretch outside of your comfort zone.  With each new experience, you learn to step out of your comfort zone, and that will carry over into your dialogues with your teammates.
  • Reframing change as an experiment.  Our brains fight change because the status quo feels so good to our energy-conserving cognitive machines, but our brains don’t fight experiments (feels temporary) as much as they fight change (feels permanent).  Framing new ideas as thought experiments allows you to examine them without the “no, the old way was just fine” response that your brain is programmed to give to anything that sounds like change.

Thinking of teams as sticks of dynamite whose power can be harnessed to reach new heights of excellence is a good way to remember that you need the right mix of chemistry to create the potential for power, but you need inclusion to transform that potential into real power.  TSL

About the Author

A leading researcher, author and advisor in the fields of leadership and inclusion, Dr. Reeves studied business at DePaul University’s College of Commerce, attended law school at University of Southern California and received her Ph.D. in Sociology from Northwestern University.

She is a best-selling author of two books – The Next IQ and One Size Never Fits All – and she is the president of the research and advisory firm, Nextions (pronounced “connections” without the “co”), a new way of seeing and doing leadership and inclusion.  Dr. Reeves has designed and led several comprehensive research projects on leadership and inclusion in topics ranging from gender equity, cultural integration and implicit bias to transformational leadership and working through generational differences.

Her latest book features research on the neurology of lying and liars and how deception breaks down inclusive interactions and disrupts our abilities to gather and leverage collective intelligence.