How Diversity Optimizes Teamwork and Why You Should Care

It is a truism today in many professions that we should work hard to make sure that our organizations are diverse, particularly in the areas of race and ethnicity.  As search consultants we are always asked to find and court a diverse group of candidates, something to which particular importance is given for those of us working in education reform because we want our organizations - especially schools - to mirror the communities we serve.

I believe strongly that it is really important to build racially and ethnically diverse teams that share the experiences of and bring perspectives from the broader community, especially when our work is focused on social change for many groups who have not traditionally been part of the power structure of our leading institutions. And ensuring that our senior leaders represent a wide range of backgrounds is vital because in order to attract more diverse candidates at all levels of the organization, they need to see people like themselves in positions of power and influence higher up the chain.

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But there is a deeper reason to care about diversity on leadership teams and in our organizations. Building teams that feature people from a variety of backgrounds and personal experiences ensures that we will achieve greater levels of performance and make better decisions in service of our goals. It is interesting to me that this feature of diversity - that heterogeneous teams perform better over the long term - is often forgotten or not mentioned in our conversations about broadening the base of people we bring into our sector’s leading organizations.

I heard someone recently talk about the lack of diversity in startups.  Their example was tech companies here in the Bay Area, but this critique could be extended to many early-stage education nonprofits or school startups as well. One reason for this is that founders tend to pull from their own networks in sourcing talent initially and for many of us, our networks are full of people who look like us and share common experiences. Another reason that start-up organizations tend to favor homogenous teams is that when people share common perspectives, education, and other background experiences, they are more likely to develop a shorthand with one another and can arrive at - and execute on - decisions more quickly.

By contrast, working relationships between heterogeneous teams are more messy. Because people come from different starting points and personal perspectives, there is often more conflict and it takes longer for people to understand each other’s points of view and see the rationale behind their decisions and actions. However, this diversity is also a source of strength because the same principles that apply to pooling risk across insurance subscribers or financial investments apply to diversifying the sources of information and data you consider in making important strategic decisions. Including more and different perspectives will lead you to better outcomes in the long run, even if it takes a little longer to get there.

The cynic in me recognizes that sometimes those of us who do come from the dominant power structure like recruiting diverse candidates in service of the optics - it allows us to congratulate ourselves in attracting a range of people who don’t look like us and validates our status as open-minded, modern, race-conscious people. Sometimes I feel that hiring managers want to recruit folks that look, sound, and seem just like them - except they happen to be from a different racial, ethnic, or gender group. This isn’t really diversity in my view. True diversity is bringing together a group of people with a wide range of beliefs, perspectives, personal experiences, and ways of interacting with others and helping them reach a common understanding and work towards the organization’s goals together - all while being allowed to remain their own true selves in the process.

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I have one parting thought to leave you with in considering the importance of diversifying our teams. I remember over a decade ago, when the Supreme Court was debating affirmative action, that one of the most persuasive arguments it heard came from a group comprised of the leaders of our nation’s armed forces. These generals believed that complete racial integration was a military necessity. In their view, only by grooming a senior officer corps that looked like and understood the experiences of the enlisted soldiers and communities they served could they build a cohesive and effective fighting force. In fact, as one official said: "doing affirmative action the right way is deadly serious for us - people's lives depend on it."

Although the immediate urgency may not be quite as strong in education, we are in the business of changing lives. To paraphrase my friend and colleague Alicia Robinson, it may be messy to get in there and do this work, but if we are to build an effective force of change for our nation's students, it is our imperative to try. Too many lives depend on our success.