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The upsides and downsides of diversity

The Lime Group | Articles

Shani Harmon

The rational arguments (and volumes of research) are irrefutable – divergent thinking produces measurably better ideas and solutions to problems. Teams that are more diverse in thinking and capability create better results. My personal experience, however, is that being in a team of people who think differently than I do is really not that much fun. Too often it feels like no one fully understands or values, what I am saying; and I suspect at times they may feel the same of me. Why is it so hard to operate well in a diverse team and is it worth the heartache?

First of all, among the most fundamental subconscious human motivators are ‘being right, being included, and looking good’. When everyone thinks the same way and produces the same ideas, we all get to BE RIGHT or to FEEL INCLUDED! Whoo hoo! And if we’re all right and feel included, then we all LOOK GOOD. And that feels great.

But at the same time, I have firsthand experience of the downsides of homogeneity. I grew up in Clifftop, WV. (I dare you to find it on a map!) In my high school, everyone was the same color, had the same religion, earned about the same amount of no money and had much the same aspirations. And I couldn’t wait to get out of there. I wanted to see what else the world had to offer. To find something…. different… and better.

Years later, I was sitting in a business school class at Stanford and happened to take a moment to notice my environment. I was in arguably the most diverse room on the planet. The 65 other students represented every ethnicity, socioeconomic origin, sexual orientation, profession, religion and political belief. And yet, it felt entirely natural because we had the same goal – to learn more about the world of business and how to be a leader in it.

And therein lies the secret to managing difference – focusing on sameness. Particularly sameness around shared goals. Even in the most rigorous debates, when we stay connected to a shared destination; a shared purpose that feels more compelling than the differences between us, we can wring all of the good stuff out of our difference and tolerate the little inconveniences of not being the same. When we do that, we unlock greatness and the results are extraordinary.