· 2 min read · Features

Leading a diverse team: co-operation is not enough


Co-operation is about motivation to work together, but more important is co-ordination, which is about ability

Today, companies expect managers to work in complex and multicultural environments with multiple external actors outside of historical team and organisational boundaries. So the need for high-performing teams has never been greater.

Managers are expected to move from country to country, and manage in a change-oriented environment. So diversity is an everyday reality for many team leaders. At their best, diverse teams promise information sharing and exchange, team learning, and improved group decision quality. At their worst, they have the potential for a downward spiral of debate, conflict, and poor performance. Indeed, many studies, including my own, find that diverse teams often underperform their more homogeneous counterparts.

So how does a team leader maximise learning and information exchange in order to get the most from diversity around the table, while at the same time managing the risk of conflict and poor cohesion? The traditional emphasis has been on team leaders encouraging cooperation between teammates by aligning individuals around shared goals. Cooperation is critical for an effective team, but as diversity increases in work teams, it is simply not enough.

Perhaps more important is coordination. Coordination is distinct from cooperation. It is about interacting individuals achieving reciprocal predictability of action rather than willingness to work together. Failure to cooperate is caused by people’s unwillingness to work together due to unshared or conflicting individual goals. Failure to coordinate is an inability to work with others effectively due to miscommunication. Cooperation is about motivation to work together, coordination is about ability. And it is well known that even groups that are highly motivated to work together are likely to suffer poor performance when they neglect group coordination.

Research from across the social sciences, including organisation theory, behavioural economics, social psychology and psycho linguistics all show that coordination problems arise due to lack of common ground, defined as ‘knowledge that is shared and known to be shared.’ Diverse groups fail when individuals talk past each other.

For example, a product launch team can easily agree that building trust with customers is critical to product success and brand reputation. But trust means different things to different people. For some, trust means benevolence – taking care of people when they are vulnerable. For others, trust means behavioural integrity – following through on promises made. This misunderstanding can lie dormant in a group until a crisis emerges that puts these two understandings of trust at odds with each other.

When the launch date of a new or improved product approaches but some important flaw is discovered, is it more important to launch on the promised date, albeit with a flawed product? Or is it better to delay launch until you get the product right, no matter the delay? That depends on one’s view of trust.

To improve the chances of coordination success in diverse teams, there are a number of things team leaders can do:

  1. Make a point of visible diversity. When your team sees visible diversity, it is more likely to anticipate coordination challenges and thus proactively resolve them before they disrupt the group.
  2. Encourage your team to see coordination failure as normal. When something goes wrong in a team, members tend to search for other members to hold accountable. This is dangerous in any team, but especially a diverse one where minority, new, or ‘different’ individuals will tend to get assigned blame, alienating those individuals and reducing their motivation to cooperate.
  3. Emphasise shared values and identity. To build good will and trust that can survive coordination failure, your teammates all need to see a shared fate where everyone should continue to cooperate with each other.
  4. Take the time to define clear goals at the outset. The more diverse the team, the further back the team has to go to find common ground and get started. Carefully define outcomes from the very beginning.

Randall S Peterson is professor of organisational behaviour and academic director of the Leadership Institute, London Business School