17 July 2017

Managing Diversity: How Leaders Optimize Social Dynamics

Daniel Gallan (@danielgallan)

The world might be hurtling towards a hegemonic global village, but it’s not there yet. Multiple cultures, worldviews, identities and philosophies permeate throughout every facet of society and sometimes, coalescing individuals under a unified ethos can be a challenge for even the most astute leaders.

With Professor Jennifer Chatman at the University of California, Berkeley, CONQA explores the challenges of managing a diverse team.

Creating a unified ethos with a diverse team is a challenge for any leader.

Creating a unified ethos with a diverse team is a challenge for any leader.

Athletic Club Bilbao is one of the most remarkable sports teams on the planet. Situated on the banks of the Nervión River in the Basque region in the north of Spain, La Liga's fourth most successful side has an unusual selection policy.

Indicative of the regions proud heritage, there is an unwritten rule that anyone selected to represented Los Leones (The Lions) must hail from local Basque stock or at least have grown up and developed as a footballer in the area. The club’s motto, “con cantera y afición, no hace falta importación” – translated as “with homegrown talent and local support, you don’t need for imports” – encapsulates the ethos of the club and region.

This is a far cry from the globalised, commercially driven identities of most modern clubs. As romantic as the policy may be, it has drawn criticism from those that deem it exclusionary at best and overtly racist and classist at worst. Either way, manager José Ángel Ziganda does not have to contend with a variable that most leaders around the world face.

Diversity within organisations is often a sign of an eclectic, open minded philosophy but a mix of worldviews brings its own set of challenges that require deft leadership. For Prof Chatman, the Paul J. Cortese Distinguished Professor of Management with the Haas Management of Organisations Group at the University of California, Berkeley, the greatest obstacle in a diverse team lies in their inhibition to share their true disagreements.

“Even if a group attains a veneer of agreement, members may be harbouring conflicting views,” Chatman says. “As such, they may not be as fully committed to the group’s decision.”

This is understandable. Our views are the products of our environment and each and every one of us will grow up with different experiences. In difficult times, conflicting ideas may seem like a hindrance to performance, but for Chatman, who has worked with some of the world’s leading companies such as eBay, Pixar, Salesforce and the US Treasury, diversity is an advantage in challenging periods.

“Diversity is most important when things are not going well,” Chatman says. “Challenging situations are exactly when you want to leverage a group with a wider range of perspectives so that you do not overlook any of your options.”

However, Chatman, who teaches, researches and consults on leveraging organisational culture, leading change and managing complex teams, offers a word of caution:

“That said, when people feel challenged they tend to, unfortunately, revert to those whom they trust. That tends to be whom they are most similar to.”

Again, this makes complete sense but could spell disaster for a team in a crisis. If individuals coalesce around like-minded colleagues or teammates, cliques can develop which can often become destabilising forces within the larger group. Different cliques are likely to become mistrustful of others around them and depending on which clique holds the lion’s share of power and influence, an entirely new vision could guide the collective down a wholly different path.

In order to avoid cliques from developing, in good times or bad, Chatman offers a simple solution. “Leaders can mix and match employees across tasks and opportunities,” she says. “They can also create opportunities for people to gain shared experience with different people. One way to do this could be to create a rotation programme.”


By amalgamating individuals within a team, a leader can foster an environment of shared consequences and reward. In study co-authored with Eliot Sherman (London Business School) and Bernadette Doerr (CrossLead Inc), titled “Blurred Lines: How CollectivismMutes the Disruptive and Elaborating Effects of Demographic Diversity on Group Performance in Himalayan Mountain Climbing”, Chatman shows how the collective threat of failure, which could result in death, pulled individuals from different backgrounds together.

Outside of threatening the life of your employees, how can you as a leader replicate the sense of urgency and keep everyone huddled under one unified mission? “Creating a sense of urgency is possible under all kids of circumstances,” Chatman says. “An effective leader can create a sense of urgency by inspiring and stoking their passion rather than from failure and risk. The most important thing a leader can do is share a strategy with members of the organisation so that they can make good decisions and judgement calls on a regular basis.”

When faced with a diverse team, a leader needs to create opportunity for people to have shared experiences. This is an effective way to break down barriers. “Creating a team event in which group members are working together on some cause or issue (sometimes even against a competitor) can reduce conflict considerably,” Chatman says. “Familiarity often breeds fondness.”

Chatman speaks of the “blurring effect” in a post on the Berkeley Haas website. She describes it as a phenomenon that is “cognitive in nature” and “is among the most profound I’ve seen in my research career. It is easily manipulated and has dramatic consequences.”

In essence, the effect occurs when individuals are unable to focus on the attributes that differentiate group members in much the same way that, from a distance, it is difficult to distinguish individual trees in a forest. When teams or organisations “blur”, the individual motives, identities, nationalities and desires become less relevant than the collective goal.

Ultimately direction needs to come from the top and any leader in any industry needs to be at their best in order to set the example.  As Chatman says, “A leader cultivates and exemplifies an organisation’s culture more than any single individual.  Leaders have symbolic impact and if they don’t realise that everyone is watching them all the time, they run the risk of sending signals to people that conflict with the culture they are trying to create.”

Chatman is adamant that a diverse team is a team that is better equipped to handle a diverse range of challenges. Being able to utilise the individual skillsets within the team and focusing them towards a unified goal is what separates great leaders from the rest.