Diverse teams get better outcomes, but why does it often feel like hard work?


Diversity is good, right? We have been hearing for a while that diverse teams get the best outcomes. So why does it often feel like hard work to operate with people who are different to us?

The benefits of diversity don’t materialise unless everyone feels included and respected.

In an environment of low trust, or when people lack self-awareness or flexibility in their behaviour, differences in style can be judged as difficult or undermining. This causes people to become more entrenched in their positions. ‘Different = wrong’ is the prevailing paradigm.

However, when team members better understand each other, truly aim to see each person’s contribution, and operate in a climate of trust, this shifts to ‘different = different’ and to ‘different = diversity we can levesrage’.

Discomfort and tension within diverse teams lead to better results; yet too much discomfort sends threat signals to the brain. There is a balance for leaders wanting to maximise the collective genius in their teams and organisations.

In my work with leadership teams, the lens of diversity is on ‘thinking diversity.’ This often stems from other types of diversity: gender, age, professional training, cultural background etc. Thinking diversity shows on spectrums like introversion/extraversion, rational/emotional, loose/structured, future-/past-focused.

The most effective leadership teams with whom I have worked recognise and respect the existence of thinking diversity (‘different = diversity we can leverage’ rather than ‘different = wrong’). They find ways of actively including different thinking styles.

Are you accidentally excluding?

Neuroscientists and leadership practitioners from around the world gather each year in New York for the Neuroleadership Summit.1 In 2017, Dr Heidi Grant2 made this statement that stuck with me: ‘If you aren’t actively including, you are probably accidentally excluding’. That’s a tough accusation!

Inclusion isn’t just a nice to have. The research presented by Dr Grant outlined some known effects of exclusion, including reduced intelligent thought, indulging self-defeating behaviour, impaired self-regulation and a reduced sense of meaning and purpose. Exclusion results in decreased well-being, both physically and mentally.

Surprising? No, not when you consider that social pain – such as when you feel excluded from a group – is just as real to the brain as physical pain.

How inclusive is your work place?

This is not just about feeling good. The 2017 Diversity and Inclusion Report (Bersin by Deloitte, 2017) highlights that inclusive organisations have better business outcomes, including being six times more likely to be innovative, three times more likely to be high performing, eight times more likely to have overall better business outcomes, and twice as likely to meet or exceed financial targets.

Can you afford to lead a team that’s not both diverse and inclusive?

So how do we build inclusive teams?

There are personal and commercial benefits gained from building diverse and inclusive cultures.

As a team member, here are three significant steps you can take today:

  1. Build self-awareness. When we understand our own leadership style, motivations, and communication preferences, we are better placed to understand others and so appreciate diversity of approach.
  2. Look for the intention beyond the behaviour. When someone you work with is being ‘difficult’ or has a view that seems oppositional, get curious about their intention. Perhaps they want the same thing as you, and have different strategies to get there.
  3. Commit to actively including others. If you see someone on the fringe, invite them into the team dynamic. (You may need to do this repeatedly.)

When you are leading the team, ensure that:

  1. There is a clear and shared team purpose that aligns with the organisational purpose and provides a framework for what’s in and out of team scope.
  2. You are creating an environment of trust. Trust is central to diverse teams as it enables people to be vulnerable and open, and provides the safety net that allows people to be creative, take risks, and fully express themselves.
  3. Develop team communication protocols. With agreed ways of relating to one another, inclusion becomes the standard.

What could you do today to build an inclusive culture and leverage the thinking diversity in your team? What will you do?

1 The NeuroLeadership Summit is an annual event in New York that brings together leading Neuroscientists and practitioners. See

2 Dr. Heidi Grant is a social psychologist who researches, writes, and speaks about the science of motivation. Associate Director, Motivation Science Center at the Columbia University, Senior Scientist for the Neuroleadership Institute, and best-selling author.

3 Diversity and Inclusion Report 2017, Bersin by Deloitte

About Corinne Armour

CORRINNE ARMOUR is a leadership expert who helps leaders and organisations develop Fearless Leadership and deliver transformational results. She is the author of Leaders Who Ask: Building Fearless Cultures by telling less and asking more. For more information visit

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