Increasingly, companies are embracing diversity. It is right on moral grounds alone, but also they feel it can contribute directly to competitive advantage. Many corporate websites echo the thought that the real power of diversity comes in the form of happier customers and increased profit. Many companies routinely create diverse work teams seeking to capture the financial value of leveraging diverse and opposing views. If only it were so easy. The teams need supporting structures, organizational norms and real tools to achieve their goals.
Without tools and processes, the quality of thinking from even the most diverse team is likely to match that of the loudest person in the room. Unless people are taught how to integrate there will be no additional value to having opposing views and no integration across views.
Why is leveraging diversity so hard? When two people meet who hold different models of the world the result is often anything but productive. Clashing models tend to produce interpersonal clash. In such a moment – faced with opposing views – we tend to do one of two things:
Neither of these two approaches is optimal. In each, decision making is hampered. The better option is to leverage the tension of opposing ideas to jointly create a new and better answer – to integrate them in such a way as to create new insights and new value. To do so, we must believe that better answers are possible.
It requires an open stance about the world – one in which we see it as our job to integrate between opposing models rather than choose between them. It takes interpersonal norms and communication tools that balance advocacy of one’s own position with genuine enquiry into another person’s view. This approach, which Riel terms ‘assertive inquiry’, is one of the central tools for integrative thinking and a key to unlocking the power of diverse teams.
It means rather than advocating one’s conclusion in abstract terms, it is imperative to share how we reached that conclusion – the data and reasoning we used to come to our model. It also means exploring another person’s logic explicitly.
Assertive inquiry works best when there is shared understanding of the challenge. Acknowledging to yourself the fallibility of your own models, auditing the logic behind your conclusions and seeking out opposing views to improve your own model is a powerful path to better, more integrative answers and greater business success.
At a time when managers are under pressure to meet though financial targets, seeking diversity can be seen as a luxury. In fact diverse teams, when operating at optimum capacity, have the power to transform business performance and the bottom line.
For teams to reach peak capacity their leaders needs to understand potential pitfalls presented by the clash of diverse opinions, such as: the marginalization of quiet or minority views, and the tendency to move on leaving difficult issues unresolved.
• ‘Integrative thinking’ provides a key to this by harnessing the tensions of opposing views, and rather than choosing one over another, creating a resolution that contains elements of the individual views, but is superior to each.
• ‘Assertive inquiry’ is one of the central tools for integrative thinking. It balance advocacy of one view with genuine enquiry into the opposing view.
“Leveraging Diversity: Spurring Integrative Thinking in Cross-Functional Teams through Assertive Inquiry,” Jenifer Riel, Developing Leaders, Spring 2012, ISSN: 2044-2203
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