Source | Harvard Business Review : By Richard Farnell
We know that diverse teams are more creative and productive than homogenous teams, but how do you get individuals who aren’t alike working together smoothly? As I’ve seen from teaching over 960 recruits as a basic-training company commander in the U.S. Army, people from various backgrounds struggle to discover shared interests during the early stages of team building. Inclusion is one thing, and integration is something else entirely. I’ve found that people with disparate life experiences often require help from their leaders to see and develop common ground.
Take my recruits, for instance. Many classes include both men and women, representing a range of ethnicities, countries, and religions. Trainees are usually hesitant to get to know one another at first, and people sometimes unintentionally offend each other, so the instructors and I spend time early on promoting cohesion by defining core values: respect, integrity, selfless service, and a sense of duty. We discuss these values in great detail in a classroom environment before assigning any team-oriented tasks. Recruits are asked to give examples from their life experiences so we can identify and address discrepancies in how people understand and apply the values. This is critical for preventing what I call “synthetic integration” (pretending to embrace the same values and one another for the sake of good order and discipline).
My instructors then identify problems for trainees to solve together — problems that will require them to draw on our core values. For example, recruits go through obstacle courses in small groups so they can see and appreciate the benefits of diversity in completing team tasks. (If a team of six recruits must climb over a nine-foot wall, they have to work together to accomplish that task, regardless of their differences.) When recruits complete the obstacle courses, the instructors elaborate on the values that enabled each group to succeed — this recruit put others first when she did X, this one demonstrated great respect for his teammates when he did Y, and so on. That reinforces the bond.
If there are weak links, everyone pulls together to overcome those weaknesses. One recruit could not complete one sit-up during his first week of basic training. Many believed it would be impossible for him to pass the physical fitness test, but I thought the team could help him and felt it was worthwhile because he had important strengths to contribute. He was a team motivator and demonstrated exceptional organizational skills.
I asked my senior and midlevel leaders to work closely with him by giving him additional strength training and advice on nutrition, and we got the whole team to focus on the good things he had to offer while also helping him physically develop. For instance, the recruit’s organizational skills significantly contributed to his team’s success in passing a barracks inspection, so the instructors called everyone’s attention to his well-organized wall locker. As a result, his team members asked him for guidance on how to organize their wall lockers to pass future inspections.
When people saw that he was beneficial to the team, they were compelled to invest in his efforts to pass the physical fitness test. They cheered him on during the sit-up exercise as he reached maximum exertion. They treated him with respect and loyalty. The recruit passed the test and went on to be an excellent soldier. And throughout the process of supporting him, his fellow trainees grew to understand the importance of helping every team member achieve goals for the welfare of the whole organization.