Techniques for Managing a Diverse Team

Think about a great manager who's really motivated you in the past. What comes to mind? Many people describe such managers as fair, respectful, encouraging, objective, clear, and good listeners. The key in a diverse work environment is to be this way with everyone, and not only with the employees you feel comfortable with. Managing a diverse team requires a commitment to demonstrate these kinds of behaviors with everyone on the team.

The more you can really connect with each of your team members, the more you'll be able to create a highly productive environment. Once you've established your initial approach to managing diversity by building diversity awareness in yourself and your team, you need to use different techniques to maintain the approach. The techniques for managing a diverse team are to communicate inclusively, consider individual needs, delegate fairly, and evaluate objectively.

Communicating inclusively

The first technique, communicating inclusively, means being careful that your language doesn't make anyone feel marginalized. All team members should feel comfortable and know their contributions matter. And listening is one of the most important communication skills. Listen actively to what team members have to say to be sure you understand what they're trying to communicate. You also have to be clear when you communicate. Especially in diverse environments, you need to check to make sure all team members understand you.

In addition to listening well and being clear, to communicate inclusively you can use two specific techniques:

  1. be open – share all appropriate information, recognize and accept differences, change, and new ways of doing things, and respond honestly
  2. use inclusive language – call people by their preferred names, avoid stereotypes, and avoid using metaphors that may exclude someone

Do you know the background of each of your team members? Demonstrating an open and flexible mind is easier when you know who you're communicating with. Remember that communication is a two-way process, and every team member has had experiences that have shaped their views, opinions, and biases. You also have opinions and biases. So you'll need to adjust your language in a way that helps all your employees feel like part of the communication process, especially when they come from backgrounds different from your own.

Because language is powerful, you need to be careful you don't use language that makes others feel excluded. Inclusive language is nonsexist and nonracist. Some people think using "politically correct" phrasing is a trivial matter, but words can shape people's realities. Not many little girls grow up wanting to be a "chairman." But children of either gender can see themselves as a "chairperson."

You can use more inclusive language in several different areas:

  • gender – Avoid gender-specific pronouns, and don't use language that suggests human beings only come in one gender.
  • stereotypes – Respect team members' desires to name themselves by using the language they prefer. But equally importantly, avoid stereotypes and labels.
  • Metaphors – Avoid metaphors or other comparisons that can cause confusion and be off-putting to someone who doesn't know what they mean.

If you can't avoid gender-specific pronouns altogether, alternate them by using "he" and "she" equally or change to a gender-neutral plural form such as "they," "their", or "them." Use "people" or "humanity" instead of "man" or "mankind." Substitute a descriptive, neutral term for titles that end in "man" or refer to the person's gender. For instance, woman doctor, male nurse, and female supervisor all should be simply doctor, nurse, and supervisor. And chairman should be chairperson, while mailman becomes mail carrier, and so forth. Ask team members what term they prefer to be referred to by, such as African American, Oriental, or Senior. But remember, there's no need to refer to someone as a member of this group unless it's relevant. Team members should be defined by who they are as individuals and what they accomplish, rather than by their religion, race, age, or cultural background. Referring to people by a group designation can lead to stereotyping. It gives nonpertinent information that may affect how others behave toward them, while not grouping them includes them more fully. When communicating with people from different backgrounds, the image a metaphor creates is often unclear. As a result, the people from different backgrounds are left out, excluded from the communication. Sports metaphors are particularly problematic. A baseball metaphor like "three strikes and you're out" will leave people out of the conversation if they don't understand it. Military metaphors can also exclude. Many military metaphors are hard to understand unless you're part of the military or interested in it.

Considering individual needs

The second technique to manage a diverse team effectively is to consider individual needs of the team members. You have to decide how to implement policies without showing favoritism, while at the same time, recognizing each person's differences. It's a fine line to walk, especially when you have to enforce company policies and guidelines.

It may sometimes feel as though you're expected to treat everyone the same, but also differently. But it's not as hard as it sounds, since the most important thing is to be fair. Being fair doesn't necessarily mean treating everyone alike. As any good manager knows, to get the most out of each person, you have to tailor your message so that person can best understand it. While every employee has to be held to the same work expectations, policies, and procedures, managers can still accommodate individuals. Different approaches to areas such as coaching and motivating, communicating, and resolving conflicts will help to promote an environment of inclusiveness.

Another way to consider the needs of all individuals is to learn your team members' professional aspirations and support their efforts to achieve them. To make career development programs more effective in a diverse environment, take an interest in your employees' careers, and create opportunities for talented team members to interact with company leaders they might not otherwise meet. Each team member can then follow their own path to success.

Delegating fairly

When considering individual needs, you may need to delegate different tasks to help team members achieve their individual goals. But be sure to delegate fairly – don't always delegate to the same people by default.

To develop all team members – and not just the ones you know will do good work because you've delegated to them before – you need to identify projects, tasks, and responsibilities that can build individual skills. Once you decide to delegate a task to a person, be specific about what you expect and what the end result should be. And of course, be available to coach the employee as needed. But also, be supportive of different ways of doing things. Be positive, and try to avoid judging or insisting that your way is the only way to complete a task.

Evaluating objectively

Another technique for managing a diverse team effectively is to evaluate objectively with regard to performance. To avoid the appearance of favoritism or discrimination, you need to monitor, observe, assess, and evaluate each employee's performance on a regular basis. When you give feedback continuously, neither you nor your team members will be surprised when it's time for performance reviews.

To avoid evaluating employees unfairly, remember to check your assumptions about them. While it's never easy being completely objective, managers shouldn't base judgments about an employee's work on stereotypes about age, gender, or ethnicity. Also, it's imperative to give employees clear job descriptions and goals. If clues from management regarding objectives and desired job behaviors are unclear, employees often can't do a good job no matter how much they want to. These descriptions should include the criteria for measurement used in performance evaluations. When you have clear criteria for the skills and expectations for the job, it's much easier to be fair with every employee.

It's important to know your team members' backgrounds. In some cultures, feedback is discouraged, especially from a subordinate to a superior, or from a younger to an older person. In cultures that emphasize facts, feedback about feelings may be particularly difficult.

Some managers think a diverse team achieves its goals in spite of the team members' differences. But a well-managed diverse team can make you realize that diverse teams can achieve deeper, more successful solutions precisely because each person lends a different perspective. Helpful techniques for managing a diverse team are to communicate inclusively, consider individual needs, delegate fairly, and evaluate objectively.