Can organizations go where humans fear to tread?
Time and again, studies have shown that diversity improves performance. A strong project team with varied skills and experience, not to mention gender, race and age diversity, will routinely outperform a homogeneous team. This is widely recognized, a proven fact.
Yet assembling such teams is no easy task. And managing them can be even harder. Diversity leads to better outcomes, but the process can feel inefficient because emotions may need to be addressed. Even extremely talented leaders can falter in the face of such intense and intensely personal dynamics
New research from Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business confirms this truth and got me thinking: what if organizations were able to step into the emotional breach?
What if organizations could take on the emotional heavy lifting that individual managers are now having to shoulder, often without adequate training? What if organizations offered strategies to help people recognize and even leverage the discomfort that working across boundaries can surface?
Wouldn’t this improve all of our lives?
The Duke study, authored by Ashley Shelby Rosette, analyzed attitudes towards women in the workplace. But I believe its conclusions have broader applications and offer a clue on how to manage diversity in a more agile fashion.
For example, Rosette’s study found that, among women leaders who defy stereotypical nurturing or communal management styles, 3 traits in particular contributed to their being seen as promotable:
This is good news. But there was one kryptonite-level trait that killed otherwise high performing women’s perceived promotability: dominance.
Conventional wisdom might suggest that the takeaway from this finding is that dominant women should tone it down. But Rosette concluded the opposite:
“I hope our research brings to light that the burden should not be on women but on organizations to understand the dilemma women face in how they are perceived.”
In other words, individual efforts are not enough to diffuse conflict and enhance team performance.
Adding to this burden, work settings can be unforgiving. For example, Rosette found that employees who are pushed to compete aggressively with one another create environments that end up generating an even stronger backlash against dominant women. Team leaders therefore face a stiff challenge in trying to simultaneously protect these women and foster competition.
So organizations need to step in. They are the ones with the resources to do the emotional heavy lifting that individual managers may find hard or not be sufficiently trained to do.
Specific strategies, such as reframing, could be implemented on a company-wide, division-wide or team-wide basis. This is what Rosette recommends, so that people can “lead authentically and not be penalized.”
Reframing can allow a trait that is seen as a negative, such as a woman giving frank feedback, to be perceived as a demonstration of another, more favorably viewed trait, such as competence, honesty or independence.
Using such a strategy as an agile method-- that is, iteratively-- can change team members’ perceptions, by allowing them to acclimate over time to the source of their discomfort and better focus on the goals at hand.
Without such strategies in place, however, we can only rely on the talent and training of individual leader-managers, which varies greatly. Such a catch-as-catch-can proposition means that most team members will remain hostage to their emotions, feeling rattled and distracted by behaviors that cause discomfort.
(You can read more about handling discomfort through reframing in my post from November about the heroic MIT researcher and prosthetic innovator, Hugh Herr.)
What organizations need to do, according to Rosette, is build greater awareness about the sources of emotional discomfort within their teams and then give those teams the tools to manage it.
Indeed, striking the right balance between cohesion and discomfort has long been the hallmark of diverse, successful work groups. Organizations that give teams the wherewithall to deal with emotional discomfort in a forthright manner will benefit from the outstanding work such teams are known to be capable of producing.