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Team Diversity, Conflict and the Need for Robust Discussion – Part 1

Originally posted on Slaw, Canada’s online legal magazine. This is the first of a two part series exploring how teams can operate effectively in organizations and environments characterized by complexity and constant change.

Each of us works in multiple teams. Think law firm partnership meetings, law firm committees and practice groups, professional organizational teams, project teams, pro bono teams, multi-disciplinary teams working on a large client file, etc. In the “old days”, teams were stable and relatively homogeneous. They set goals, used Gantt charts, planned the work and worked the plan.

Today, the environment in which we work is complex and constantly changing, team members come and go and there is constant rethinking about goals, approaches and adaptation. As Zaid Hassan says, the old ways just don’t work anymore.

Complexity requires approaches that are systemic, collaborative, and experimental.

Collaboration requires a diverse group of multi-disciplinary participants from across the system and not only experts or authorities. In this context, we need to employ a broad definition of diversity, embracing more than just race, culture or gender but also extending to diversity of background and ways of thinking. We simply can’t answer today’s “wicked questions” with only people who think like we do. Otherwise we risk echo chambers, “groupthink” and various forms of implicit bias.

A variety of viewpoints (or “cognitive diversity”) is essential to excellent decision-making . Diversity can help us to avoid “cognitive arthritis” . In his article Why Teams Should Argue, Adam Kahane highlighted the need for honest and robust discussion:

“…it is only by stretching out of our comfort zones and engaging honestly and openly with others who are radically different from us that we can see afresh what we ourselves are doing and therefore what we might need to do differently… This same principle applies in assembling ongoing work teams. It may be easier to work with like-minded colleagues who have similar backgrounds and approaches. But such homogeneity creates enormous risks – especially shared blind spots. Heterogeneity can be hard to deal with but it enables us to understand more and to act with greater creativity.”

This is not simple. It is not enough, for example, to improve gender diversity by an “add women and stir” approach. Instead real diversity needs an integrated approach that also works to change the cultural and structural parts of the system that continue to sustain gender bias (or any other bias we are addressing).

So diversity has many benefits. And yet, we need to acknowledge that increased diversity leads not to harmony but to conflict, disruption and the possibility of fractured relationships. One can’t expect to throw a group of people together in a room and expect them to produce great results without some level of disruption. How can teams achieve the desired goal (optimal decision-making) while holding the ship together?

My research and experience has led me to conclude that the best approach is not to try to eliminate conflict but, rather, to build the capacity of the team to handle conflict well. Why?

1.     Handled well, conflict can be a gift, an opportunity, a link to creativity and first step to important social change. “Peace is not the absence of conflict but the presence of creative alternatives for responding to conflict — alternatives to passive or aggressive responses, alternatives to violence.” Dorothy Thompson

2.     Adam Grant notes in his article “Why You Should Argue in Front of the Kids” [link] that we all need to learn how to argue well and parental modelling of healthy argument can be a key learning moment.

One important approach for teams is to create a safe container for disagreements and personality clashes. Some people refer to this as “psychological safety”. My interpretation of this phrase is the need for a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking i.e. being able to show one’s self without fear of negative consequences for self-image, status or career. [footnote to article].

Alison Reynolds and David Lewis say in their article The Two Traits of the Best Problem-solving Teams:

“Psychological safety is the belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes. It is a dynamic, emergent property of interaction and can be destroyed in an instant with an ill-timed sigh. Without behaviors that create and maintain a level of psychological safety in a group, people do not fully contribute — and when they don’t, the power of cognitive diversity is left unrealized. Furthermore, anxiety rises and defensive behavior prevails.”

When we fail to foster a high quality interaction, we lose out on the benefit of discourse between people who see things differently. The result is a lack of deep understanding, fewer creative options, diminished commitment to act, increased anxiety and resistance, and reduced morale and wellbeing.”

Research shows that psychological safety benefits organizations and teams in many ways including:

·       Improving the likelihood that an attempted process innovation will be successful

·       Increasing the ability of members to learn from mistakes

·       Boosting employee engagement

·       Improving team innovation


Examples of how psychological safety is demonstrated in a team setting include:

·       To have courage to speak one’s mind, candidly

·       To engage with others in dialogue that might be difficult and uncomfortable

·       To risk being criticized or disagreed with (or ignored)

·       To take a chance that you might be wrong or that your proposed course of action might fail

·       To be willing to ask hard questions that speak truth to power

·       To invite and encourage contrary views

·       To resist moving quickly to judgment; rather, start with curiosity

·       To use excellent listening and communication skills

·       To learn from failure

It is important (and possible) to improve your teams’ effectiveness by increasing diversity AND building the capacity of your teams to manage inevitable conflict.


Kari Boyle

Until recently Kari D. Boyle was the Director of Strategic Initiatives and previously the Executive Director at Mediate BC. Kari enjoys using her legal, mediation and management experience to encourage collaboration to improve BC citizens’ access to viable and affordable conflict resolution options. Previously, she practiced corporate commercial litigation in… MORE >

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