Most of you now agree that hiring and maintaining a diverse team, with a variety of ethnic backgrounds and experiences, is a good thing. Yet, in my experience as a business advisor, I find that many of you business leaders still aren’t sure how to deal effectively with diversity, and may actually negate the benefits and lose their respect by not communicating with them correctly.
I found great support for my own observations in a new book, “It’s Time to Talk about Race at Work,” by Kelly McDonald. Kelly brings a new level of awareness and credibility to this topic, based on her own experience with major client companies all around the world. I will paraphrase here her seven recommendations on how to get respect from and capitalize on a diverse team:
- Listen without interruption, arguing, or defensiveness. When working with people who are different from you, actively listening to their ideas, feedback, thoughts, or concerns conveys tremendous respect. Obviously, this is good practice with any team, but I find that leaders new to diversity try to cover their qualms by talking more than listening.
For example, billionaire entrepreneur with many diverse teams, Sir Richard Branson, once said that leaders frequently interrupt and talk rather than listen, mistakenly thinking it makes them look smart. Instead such people usually only succeed in looking foolish.
- Ask questions to encourage sharing of ideas and input. Not only are you potentially uncomfortable in a diverse environment, but new team members may initially be reluctant to contribute as well. Questions are respectful because they provide the opening equally for everyone to contribute, and you can solicit feedback from specific team members.
- Highlight diverse experience, instead of discounting it. We all come to the table with a natural bias for what we know and our own experiences, so we often unintentionally or overtly discount any contrary evidence. For maximum value, without being judgmental, you must honor all diverse experiences before moving to the decision or action phase.
Particularly in this age where every business is essentially global by default, it’s valuable to understand the differences in culture, for marketing and product priorities. What you may think is important, may actually be negative in another language, race, or culture.
- Recognize diverse contributors to peers and leaders. By validating a team member’s contribution, you show respect for their efforts as well as their ability to deliver results. Don’t wait for the rare “big moment,” or assume that a private bonus will always be more appreciated. We all need recognition for the smaller contributions that define our role.
- Avoid teasing, which can be perceived as mocking. What you may intend as playful joking, could actually embarrass or hurt someone from a different background or culture. With a diverse team, it’s especially important to keep all communication professional and business-oriented. No need to be accused of bullying, sexual innuendo, or intimidation.
- Focus on constructive outcomes, rather than blame. It’s very important in a team environment to identify how mistakes have been made, and where processes have broken down, but it’s only productive to focus on a better future outcome and getting it right, rather than assigning past blame. Public blame discussions are disrespectful.
- Respect all personal cultural boundaries. Show respect to team members of other races, ethnicities, and gender by not overstepping their personal and professional boundaries, such as work-life balance, travel expectations, and personal requests. If you give them respect, they will respond in kind to your need to get diverse jobs done.
For example, a boundary that often gets abused is expecting a member of a minority culture to speak for the expectations of all members of that community. No matter what your race, people should never expect you to speak for all members of that race.
Improving your communication and trust with a diverse and inclusive team is challenging, but well worth it, for the potential to improve team engagement and productivity, as well as the business results. I invite you to use the suggestions outlined here to be the role model for others in your company, and to enhance your own career as a business leader.