Harness Differences to Create Strengths

A number of years ago, my husband Tom and I attended a seminar titled “Right Brain, Left Brain.” The course had been designed to help companies compose the ideal teams for innovation by selecting people who approached problems from different perspectives. My company was thinking of offering it to help with our internal team formation and, as an incentive to get me to give up a Saturday to check it out, paid for Tom to attend as well.

A few weeks before the session, we each filled out a questionnaire on our preferences and habits. Almost as soon as we arrived that Saturday, the instructor announced that two teams of people were to be sent out of the room to do a special exercise. As it happened, Tom and another guy were one team, while I was on the second team with another woman from the class. We were given our tasks and off we all went.

What we didn’t know was that while we were out, the instructor explained to the remaining class members that one team was composed of the two most left-brained people in the group, while the other had the two most right-brained individuals. He then went on to explain the expected characteristics of left- and right-brained folks.

When the allotted time for the assignment was up, Tom and his partner returned promptly to the classroom. They had done the assignment exactly as requested and carefully rehearsed the presentation they would make to the group.

The instructor had to send someone to track me and my teammate down. To tell the truth, we’d forgotten all about the class — never did the assignment — and, by then, were deep into gales of laughter at all sorts of shared stories.

We were a bit astonished to find the class in laughter, too, when we finally made it back — with prompting — to the room. What was so funny?

Nonplussed at our lack of preparation, we comfortably ad libbed a response to the assignment, enthusiastically building off each other’s ideas in real time, only mildly distracted by the continuing laughter of the class. What was their problem?

Of course, as the instructor eventually pointed out, the two groups had just put on a perfect display of the extremes of right brain — my partner and I — and left brain — Tom and his — approaches. The theory was that, brought together within a team charged with problem solving and innovation, these different approaches will help stimulate new thinking, assuming they are able to work together.

When Tom and I told him we were married, the instructor’s surprise tipped us off to the difficulties of getting diversity to work. He said he’d never had a married couple be in the two extreme groups. “You two don’t even speak the same language,” he said.

Maybe true, but over the years we have made a good team — dividing responsibilities based on the tasks we each enjoy and do best — filling in the gaps in each other’s interests and capabilities. It was an example of team diversity, positively harnessed.

Diversity can be very beneficial to team performance, particularly when innovation is the goal. However, to get the benefits of diversity, the team members must work well together.

My research has identified specific conditions that support collaboration within diverse teams. Overall, they relate to forming strong personal relationships and fostering trust among team members, although some may seem counterintuitive paths toward that goal.

• Articulate the importance of the team’s task — create a sense of shared meaning.
• Make sure the task is challenging — people are less likely to collaborate on tasks that are routine.
• Clearly define individual roles and responsibilities — don’t create overlapping or conflicting roles.
• Make any associated processes as productive and efficient as possible — don’t distract people with an inefficient infrastructure.
• Treat people like adults — trust begets trust, so don’t over-manage details like when and where people work; encourage the team to use its own good judgment.