Few people enjoy conflict, especially in the workplace. Most of the time, we try to avoid it, which is totally understandable. Especially when working in a team situation, it’s much smoother when everyone gets along and goes along. And when everyone is coming at an issue from the same angle, it’s much easier to sidestep conflict.
But when you have diversity in the workplace, people won’t necessarily be on the same page about how to solve a problem or what the best way forward is. They may not even be on the same page about what the problem is that they’re trying to solve. It could get messy. It could get uncomfortable.
So, is this an argument against workplace diversity? Hardly.
Diversity in the Workplace: What High-Performing Teams Know
There’s a wealth of research on team performance out there, and as a whole, it shows that teams that fear conflict:
- Have boring meetings
- Create environments where back-channel politics and personal attacks thrive
- Ignore controversial topics that might be critical to team success
- Fail to tap into all the opinions and perspectives of team members
- Waste time and energy with posturing and interpersonal risk management
Getting great results from a team isn’t just about everyone getting along or coming to quick agreement. In fact, when the problems are complex or you need to push the boundaries for innovation, creative abrasion, which comes from the collaboration of a diversity of thought and perspectives in the workplace, can make the difference.
In other words, a team’s diversity can be its biggest advantage. Yet even when teams have that diversity, the fear of conflict or negative repercussions can keep people from contributing their ideas or challenging the prevailing views. If that’s the case, why bother with putting a team together in the first place?
Avoiding conflict isn’t the key. The goal should be to channel that energy productively.
Putting Conflict in its Place
Diversity of thought, including concepts like open networks and informational diversity, is getting a lot of attention these days, and for good reason. The data is clear: if you want to get more creative, make better decisions or solve problems more effectively, you need all of the perspectives you can get.
Just as essential, you need to give voice to that diversity. Team members have to be encouraged both to contribute their own thinking and to be open to the ideas and perspectives of those who think differently than they do.
One of the most effective ways to do this is to kick off team engagements with a discussion about different thinking preferences and how they each add value to the work the team needs to get done.
Diversity of thought is a particularly effective starting point for discussions about diversity in the workplace because it’s something everyone identifies with and relates to. Everyone has thinking preferences, and everyone has the ability to adapt their thinking based on the needs of the situation or of others. Because it’s a nonjudgmental way to view differences, it gives the team new context for how they can tackle the inevitable challenges that come up.
When we work with teams, these discussions almost always end with “aha” moments all around: This person isn’t trying to drive me crazy! They just think differently than me!
As a professor who uses this approach in MBA team programs says, “Once they get that the concept that we all have brains, we just use them differently, and that we need all of those differences to get the job done, they get over the typical quibbling that takes up so much team energy and drags down the team’s effectiveness.”
Channel Workplace Diversity into a Strategic Advantage
Diversity of thought can deliver a powerful strategic advantage when it’s applied to achieve specific business outcomes, but those differences will create disagreement.
Irritation between team members can signal that the brain has been hijacked by a negative emotion. Rather than avoiding conflict—or on the other end of the spectrum, allowing the team to ignore or belittle different perspectives—channel that energy into creative contention that gets better results:
- Give teams the tools to understand and apply their full diversity of thought to get the best results.
- Have a skilled leader in place to ensure all thinkers have a voice and to help reduce miscommunications.
- If the problems are complex, don’t prioritize quick agreement over results. Difference takes more time, but the payoff is worth it.
Remember, if a team isn’t getting the full benefits of its diversity of thought, then the organization isn’t getting the advantage of having that team in place.