How to build a more diverse team

Michelle Gibbings explains how to push past unconscious bias to create a diverse team that can truly tackle complex problems

How to build a more diverse team

The more alike people are, the more likely they are to think along the same lines; therefore, there is less room for debate, discernment and disagreement

As organizations grapple with more complex decisions and an ever-increasing pace of change, building a workforce equipped with the skills and experience to thrive in this environment is critical. 

Finding this depth and breadth of talent means building a diverse workforce that covers full spectrum of diversity, including age, ethnicity, gender, thinking styles, disabilities and sexual orientation. This means leaders need to challenge their decision-making patterns.

Seek out difference
It’s natural to want to work with people you like and find easy to work with, and when you're building a team or forming work groups, you often seek out such people. This is either done consciously or subconsciously. In the case of recruitment, for example, search criteria often specifically reference the desire to find a cultural fit. 

Cultural fit can mean different things to different people. Typically, if you ask people how they define whether someone is a cultural fit, they'll give criteria such as:

  • Lives the organization’s values
  • Is able to work well with the team
  • Will fit in with the rest of the group
  • Understands the organization’s objectives and buys into its vision

However, when you strip away the layers and get to the base-level drivers, what the person is looking for is someone they feel comfortable with – that is, someone they connect with because they can see aspects of themselves in that person. 

Avoid likeability bias
It’s often suggested that one of the key success criteria for a job interview is to come across as likeable – the premise being that the hiring manager has already positively assessed the candidate's résumé for the required technical skills. Now all the hiring manager is seeking to test is whether they want to work with the person or not.

This likeability isn't just about being friendly and a nice person. It's about whether the hiring manager finds similarities with the person they're interviewing. Research shows that we like people who are similar to us in terms of interests, backgrounds and experiences, and this has consequential impacts on hiring decisions.

Researchers from Kellogg University found that getting hired for a job isn't so much about the "soft or hard dimensions of the role,” but rather how similar the person being interviewed is to the person conducting the interview.

It's very easy for leaders to want to hire people who are like them. Similarity makes a person feel comfortable. However, when you hire people like you, you're simply filling the team or work group with people who have similar backgrounds, experiences and thought processes.

Improve decision-making
Homogeneity can negatively impact how decisions are made. The more alike people are, the more likely they are to think along the same lines; therefore, there is less room for debate, discernment and disagreement.

Separate research from Kellogg University found that diverse teams make better decisions.  That diversity isn't just about gender or ethnicity – it also includes age, experience and background. The diverse groups outperformed the more homogeneous groups, not because of an influx of new ideas, but because the diversity triggered more careful processing of the information that's discussed.

Complex problem-solving and critical thinking are the top two competencies that the World Economic Forum identified as crucial to surviving in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. This involves challenge, exploration, suspending judgment and being equipped with the cognitive capacity to look at problems in a different way – all of which is aided by having a diverse workforce.

Successful, sustainable organizations recognise the need to equip their workforce with the capability and capacity to dig deeper into the mental models that drive their thought processes and be ready to acquire knowledge from multiple sources and environments.

Consequently, leaders need to be prepared to challenge their assumptions and expectations when building their team.  This involves:

  • Acknowledging the potential for bias, because we all have it to varying degrees
  • Actively seeking diversity of experience, background, ethnicity, age and gender (and all forms of diversity) when forming teams and work groups
  • Recognizing that the person at work who really annoys you is often the person you need to spend more time with. Why? Because the source of tension comes from their seeing the world differently than you, and this challenge to your frame of reference is good for your thought processes
  • Inviting other people into the decision-making process who can shift and provide alternate perspectives

Build on strengths
As part of this approach, leaders need to understand and then leverage the strengths of their team. Research conducted over the last 30 years shows that taking a strengths-based approach leads to greater work satisfaction, engagement and productivity. This is evidenced in Tom Rath and Barry Conchie’s book, Strengths Based Leadership, where they detail how working with strengths helps leaders be more effective.

Leaders play a crucial role in bringing strengths to life at work – for both themselves and their team members. It starts with the leader understanding their own strengths and how they are best used at work. 

The next step is to help team members appreciate the strengths they bring to their role, and recognize and value the strengths their colleagues bring to their roles. This is best done through a series of team development activities, which help team members best understand and leverage their individual and collective strengths.

Michelle Gibbings is the founder of Change Meridian and works with leaders and teams to help them get fit for the future of work. She is also the author of Step Up: How to Build Your Influence at Work and Career Leap: How to Reinvent and Liberate your Career. For more information, visit