Managing Diverse Teams

There is a good article in Sloan Management Review (Summer 2007—sorry, the reading has been piling up!) that talks about the challenges of managing diverse teams. According to the authors’ research, diverse teams naturally break into subgroups along demographic lines (any kind of demographic, French/American, male/female, engineering/marketing, etc.). If the divisions become too entrenched, then performance falters because trust doesn’t develop and communication is limited.

What I found most interesting was their solution. Their research indicated that a key factor in avoiding the pitfalls was the team leader’s approach to managing the team along the “task v. relationship” scale. There is a continuum ranging from complete focus on getting things done (relationships don’t matter), to complete focus on trust, relationships, and dynamics within the team. Common sense would dictate that you need some kind of balance between the two when managing a team.

Their research, however, indicated that the most successful path was to START with a heavy task focus, and then later on, when the divisions might be causing trouble, switch to the relationship side. As the article states:

Simply put, in a team’s early going, the more people interact with one another, the more likely they are to make snap judgments and to emphasize their differences.

So there were some teams that quickly recognized “fault lines” forming and moved to prevent that by focusing on teambuilding and relationship building activities, but this only made the fault lines even deeper and the performanc worse.


But this doesn’t mean you can focus ONLY on task issues. The divisions and subgroups will eventually catch up with you. But if you can build a foundation of team performance by completing tasks, you’ll have more room to successfully handle the people issues down the line.