Diversity

3 ways to get better ideas from your diverse team

April 4, 2014: 11:54 AM ET

Diversity alone probably won't spark innovation. To avoid the same old groupthink, draw cultural differences out so you can put them to work. Here's how.

140327113127-varied-aged-workers-in-office-620xaFORTUNE -- Dear Annie: I work for a consumer-goods company that has made a serious effort to hire and promote smart people with a wide range of different backgrounds and ethnicities, since our customer base is getting more diverse all the time. Great, but I don't feel we're really getting the benefit of all this diversity. I've recently been made team leader of a 12-person task force that is supposed to be coming up with innovative branding ideas, especially new ways to appeal to the Latino and Asian markets. We have people from both those communities (and others), but the group has yet to come up with anything really fresh.

One problem in our meetings so far is that some people do most of the talking, and others just go along, even when I call on them directly for their thoughts. Do you have any suggestions for making the most of a diverse team, and for getting its quieter members to speak up? -- Frustrated

Dear Frustrated: In her work with Fortune 500 companies, Jane Hyun frequently comes across the same problem. "Most of the business world has done a pretty good job of recognizing, and increasing, diversity," she says. "But in many cases, the differences people bring with them are just supposed to magically produce new ideas, and that's not really how it works. Diversity alone, while it's a good starting point, is not enough."

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A New York-based consultant and author (with Audrey Lee) of a book called Flex: The New Playbook for Managing Across Differences, Hyun -- who is Korean-American -- observes that "people from some cultures, and some women too, have trouble speaking up. They have a deeply ingrained idea that stating an opinion, asking a challenging question, or particularly disagreeing with others is too aggressive or shows a lack of respect."

Compounding those cultural underpinnings is that most teams have at least one or two introverts, who "want an idea to be perfect, with all the details figured out, before they'll put it out there," Hyun notes. "They also shrink from confrontation, which many extroverts thrive on. So the extroverts tend to do all the talking -- but sometimes the quietest people have the best ideas."

As the team leader, you can counterbalance that, Hyun says, in these three ways:

1) Meet privately with your quietest people. Before the next group meeting, sit down in private with anyone who isn't contributing as much as they could be, and give him or her some carefully worded feedback. "The key is to describe the effect of what you've seen without blaming. Say something like, 'I've noticed you aren't speaking up in the meetings. Why is that?'" Hyun says.

"Then identify why that person's thoughts are important to the team, and emphasize that you want to hear more next time." You'll probably find that warning people in advance that you'll be calling on them for their thoughts gets better results than putting them on the spot when the meeting is in full cry.

2) Set ground rules for handling disagreements. Coming up with fresh ideas takes a willingness to disagree, and the most innovative teams are "always asking, 'Why are we doing it this way? How could we do it better? What if it looked like this?'" notes Hyun. "The goal is not to pick a fight or to make it personal, but to create healthy debate and a synergy of ideas."

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Unfortunately, cultural factors sometimes make people hesitate to challenge teammates -- unless you, as the leader, acknowledge at the outset that you expect arguments. Talk candidly about ways to handle dissent, such as, for instance, banning ad hominem attacks and agreeing to tackle major disagreements at a later meeting when two sides of an issue will have had time to prepare their cases. The whole point of diversity, after all, is that "people hold different ideas, values, and beliefs," Hyun notes. "It's a good thing." Rather than allowing your team to avoid conflict, encourage them to use it as a tool.

3) Keep the ideas flowing. Leading a diverse team often demands some extra effort, including a more active role as moderator than you may be used to, Hyun notes. "In order to keep the flow of ideas going, encourage 'yes, and …' interactions, rather than 'yes, but …' responses that can shut down dialogue," she suggests. "Ask people to defend or evaluate each suggestion on its merits, in a way that's both constructive and direct."

Casting a wide net for new ideas often means looking beyond your own company's business to cultural environments your team members know well. "Each employee brings external networks and knowledge and insight," Hyun observes. "The more you can harness that cultural capital, the more engaged your team members will be" -- and the more fresh ideas they're likely to come up with.

Talkback: How has diversity affected your company? Has it led to new ways of doing things, or has it yet to pay off? Leave a comment below.

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