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How diverse teams can excel during disruption


Diversity in the workplace often leads to higher conflict. Only after collecting a few battle scars do diverse teams start showing signs of greater creativity and innovation; two traits the world needs a lot of right now!

But in the face of immediate disruption, how can you accelerate a team past conflict and into much needed creativity and innovation?

One of the answers may be in what lies beneath the surface of diversity. That is, deep diversity.

What is deep diversity?

The evidence for diversity is, well, diverse.

On the one hand, diversity can mean better decision making, creativity and more innovation. On the other hand, it can increase conflicts and reduce performance[1].

Often, the things we think about as diversity are often only skin deep. That is our genders, ages, nationalities, professions. These things, often referred to as ‘shallow diversity’, are only somewhat related to the different ways we think, feel and act in the workplace – or ‘deep diversity’. It’s this deep diversity which really matters. Shallow diversity does not guarantee there will be different styles of thinking, feeling and acting in a team. Deep diversity does.

It’s deep diversity that has the potential to bring better organisational outcomes, but it’s also where there is greater potential for conflict.

The good news in all of this is that a team high in shallow diversity that’s also experiencing conflict is exceptionally difficult to work with if we only see the shallow diversity.  Invariably, conflict comes down to how we do or don’t work with differences in norms and expectations in thoughts, feelings, and actions in the workplace.  And that’s a much more manageable problem.

How do you manage conflict stemming from deep diversity?

There are two main things that predict whether teams high in deep diversity will work together effectively: Interaction quality and Transformational Leadership.

Interaction quality

Some of the most compelling research on interaction quality and deep diversity has been conducted at the board level.  A study of 16 UK boards (98 directors) found that without looking at interaction quality, deep diversity alone was related to higher levels of dysfunctional disagreements[2].  In a study of 386 Norwegian boards, if a board had a generally higher quality in the way they interacted together, they were more creative in their approaches and had lower levels of conflict[3].

More generally, where diverse group members make a greater effort to understand reasons underlying others’ decisions and incorporate different perspectives, groups reach more harmonious consensus[4].

How do you improve interaction quality?

Listening to others and making an effort to understand others’ perspectives sounds straight forward – and on paper, it is – but where there is conflict, there is likely to be a glut of understanding.  When there is a history of conflict, we often underestimate the effort it takes to really listen and incorporate different perspectives.

One of the things we do is put people through their paces in simulated situations of high conflict.  Using simple models, but embedded in an immersive experience bakes in how to improve the interaction quality when it really matters.

Transformational leadership

Transformational leadership is one of the most widely studied and supported leadership theories to date.  It relates to leaders’ abilities to coach others, how much they inspire, encourage innovative thinking, build trust and act with integrity.

The links between interaction quality, or communication and transformational leadership are actually closer than one might assume.  Inspiring others requires talking optimistically about the future and acting with integrity requires talking about your most important values and beliefs.  People need to know your perspective to interpret whether your actions are in line with it or not.

In a large study across 62 teams, teams high in deep diversity were more motivated and creative if they were led by a transformational leader[5] [6].  What really stood out in this study, though, was just how poor deeply diverse teams performed if their leader was low on transformational leadership. Let’s call these leaders transfixional leaders.  The authors suggested that those working for transfixional leaders lacked the supportive environment to understand a collective goal, and instead pursue goals in self-interest.  From our detached view, it makes sense that people with deep levels of diversity in how they think, feel and act keep to their well worn grooves in how they do things without someone to pull them all together with a common vision.  Someone, who like a conductor, could understand them as individuals, and leverage their differences to work in harmony.

How do you increase transformational leadership?

At Mapien, transformational leadership has been our dominant leadership model for over 15 years.

To increase levels of transformational leadership, the first step is to understand how much you have.  If you wanted to do this across an organisation or department, a suite of leadership 360s would be the way to do it.  However, if you’re new to transformational leadership, starting with leaders in areas experiencing high conflict might be more financially manageable.

If the key leaders in the area are through the roof in transformational leadership, great!  That’s probably not an area you need to invest in developing straight away.  But if there are serious concerns about conflict in an area, there will likely be room for movement.  That’s when we start breaking down what transformational leadership is with your leaders through a mix of traditional learning and development, as well as supporting them in their growth with leadership coaching.

The take home message

Factors of deep diversity are not perfectly related to age, religion, gender, or race.  There is nothing magic about transformational leaders that let them resolve our underlying prejudices.

Instead, the magic recipe seems to be in the quality interactions that overcome the challenges of being different from one another on a deeper level, and it seems that transformational leaders are particularly effective at driving that improved communication within their teams.

If we all prioritise the need to fully and deeply understand not just others’ perspectives, but their reasons for their perspectives, conflict tends to be replaced by innovation.

That has always been true, but it hasn’t always been so important.

Connect with us...

To find out more and for help ensuring your teams excel during this disruptive time, contact Jason Wessel.

Alternatively, contact us today and one of our Mapien workplace strategists will be in touch within 24 hours.

Written By
Jason Wessel
Jason Wessel is a Senior Consultant and Psychologist with Mapien. He is completing his PhD with a special research interest in using digital mediums to increase productivity. Jason is dedicated to helping others unlock potential and works to push the very natural human boundaries of achieving goals and motivation.


[1] Guillaume, Y. R. F., Dawson, J. F., Otaye‐Ebede, L., Woods, S. A., & West, M. A. (2017). Harnessing demographic differences in organizations: What moderates the effects of workplace diversity? Journal of Organizational Behavior, 38, 276-303. doi:10.1002/job.2040.

[2] Walker, A., Machold, S., & Ahmed, P. K. (2015). Diversity and conflict in boards of directors: An exploratory study of personality traits. International Studies of Management & Organization, 45, 25-42. doi:10.1080/00208825.2015.1005995;

[3] Torchia, M., Calabro, A., & Morner, M. (2015). Board of directors’ diversity, creativity, and cognitive conflict. International Studies of Management and Organization, 45, 6-24. doi:10.1080/00208825.2015.1005992;

[4] Mohammed. S., & Ringseis, E. (2001). Cognitive Diversity and Consensus in Group Decision Making: The Role of Inputs, Processes, and Outcomes. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 85, 310–335. doi:10.1006/obhd.2000.2943.

[5] Kearney, E., & Debert, D. (2009). Managing diversity and enhancing team outcomes: The promise of transformational leadership. Journal of Applied Psychology, 94, p. 77;

[6] Wang, X., Kim, T., & Lee, D. (2016). Cognitive diversity and team creativity: Effects of team intrinsic motivation and transformational leadership. Journal of Business Research, 69, 3231-3239. doi:10.1016/j.jbusres.2016.02.026.