Communication Principles for Diverse Teams
How to make space for colleagues who express themselves differently.
Ari grew up in a culture where indirect communication was a sign of respect. Tom grew up in a household where the most assertive person got what they wanted. When they were asked to work together on a project, they struggled to make headway because of constant misunderstandings.
According to Korn Ferry research, diverse and inclusive teams are 87% more likely to make better decisions than their peers. With the rise in remote work and remote hiring, more people than ever are working with colleagues spread across the country and the world. Every group has local nuances and cultural differences—and assumptions about other groups.
Because of these assumptions, a team that’s diverse by design won’t automatically be productive. “Heterogeneous groups can thrive in an inclusive environment but underperform in a noninclusive environment,” says Omer Ongun, a senior consultant at Korn Ferry.
These are our tips for effective communication on a diverse team.
Become aware of the water you swim in.
We each have a cultural history that forms unconscious biases. Look for assumptions you might be making about other people’s performance based on their communication style. “The challenge arises when our own preferences translate into biases, which translate into the way we treat others,” Ongun says. He recommends reflecting on your own diversity story and the ways your gender, race, immigrant status, native language, sexual orientation, or other elements of your lived experience intersect to form your assumptions.
Practice inclusive leadership, wherever you are on the org chart.
Inclusive leadership is a mindset, not a title. Whether you’re in an official management position or on an equal level with others on your team, you can step up and invite others to share their differences and bring their fullest selves to work. “With inclusivity, we almost always talk about leaders as superstars who will change the entire culture, but individual team members can do a lot with their peers,” Ongun says.
Model what inclusive collaboration looks like by reaching out to colleagues who don’t tend to speak up, and demonstrating humility, curiosity, and a willingness to learn.
Create a space where people can express their uniqueness.
“It’s in our nature to stick to our comfort zone, so inclusivity won’t happen because you hope it will,” Ongun says. Intentionally create a process by which people can share about their upbringing, tendencies under stress, conflict management style, and communication differences.
You can use virtual tools like Slack or Microsoft Teams to have small group check-ins, or start team meetings with an exercise designed to give everyone an equitable opportunity to participate. Make sure you promote comfort and safety in these situations, and offer multiple modes of communication such as speaking, typing, and even anonymous interaction.
Examine the first moment of conflict.
Conflict is bound to happen on a diverse team, and that’s okay. Conflict can even be productive when managed well. Career experts say that the first conflict that happens on a team is very important, because the way you handle it will determine whether, going forward, you accept and appreciate the individuals you’re in conflict with, or avoid and tolerate them. “No one wants to be tolerated,” Ongun says. “Tolerance happens when we ignore differences because we just want to get into action.”
Instead, slow down in the moment of conflict and reflect on what happened, how you feel, and what your triggers are. If you can manage to be vulnerable with your colleagues in that moment, you can seize the opportunity to establish trust among team members.