Be Influential, Holding Diverse Teams Together

09/30/2013 06:35 pm ET | Updated Nov 30, 2013

After seeing the anonymously sent photos of frightened women packed in the bottom part of the freighter, destined for sex slavery, an ex-diplomat hastily assembled our team. We were intensely dedicated to find out who was profiting from the human trafficking -- and to expose them. Three countries wanted to find out and so did my newspaper. Ironically, conflict soon cropped up within our team, as we followed the money trail, and almost sabotaged our work.

Yet the ways we ultimately got on sync and succeeded may hold lessons for any diverse team. Our group also included a former computer hacker, ex-counterintelligence officer and international banker.

The problem was that no one acted right, like me. And we all felt that way. It wasn't just our talents but also our different temperaments that got in the way. Amongst us we had introverts and extroverts, fast and slow thinkers, and pessimistic and optimistic mindsets. And we'd been recruited to this project so we began as strangers to each other. Yes we did find and expose the illicit network. While that was nine years ago, it remains a vivid memory to this day. Thriving in diverse teams is key to accomplishment and meaningful work in our increasingly complex yet connected world. Why not be a connective leader, the invaluable glue that holds such groups together? Here are some methods that helped us:

Make Your Differences Work For Each Other

1. Agree on Explicit Rules Of Engagement
To create a common ground on which we get more done with less friction we agreed up a few simple rules including that we could agree to change the rules as we went along. Since so much of what a team does is new together, it helps to have boundaries to ground a team, and thus leverage the comfort of those boundless times of co-creating or collective decision making. Here were some of ours:
• Always have a prioritized agenda when meeting
• First, say why you are bringing a topic up before diving into it
• Do not negatively personalize the discussion. For example, don't say "That is stupid."
• Always directly respond to a question rather than giving background first or changing the topic.
• When ever possible, do not just disagree; offer another option

2. Meet And Decide in Conversation And In Writing
Slow and fast thinkers can be equally smart. Fast thinkers flourish in conversation and slow thinkers benefit from time for deliberate thinking then writing as Daniel Kahneman famously describes in Thinking, Fast and Slow. A smart team provides for both needs. Further, introverts thrive with adequate alone time and deep relationships with a few friends, as Quiet author, Susan Cain explains. Extroverts prefer to be engaged with people more often, and enjoy having wider circle of friends. Thus introverts also need down time to think and make gain faster support from their close friends. Extroverts can still get the face time they want to get things done and make be better able to tap the wisdom of crowds for insights because they have a wider group of contacts.

3. Consider Both Best And Worst Case Scenarios
Optimists often tend to view situations through a rosy lens, minimizing or ignoring possible obstacles yet tending to be more tenacious in overcoming them. When a problem arises pessimists are more likely to see it as permanent (it will always be this bad), pervasive (everything, not just this problem, is bad) and personal (it affects me affects the most). While they are inveterate doubters, they are also, according to some research more realistic in their view of a situation than optimists. Thus discussing both extremes of what might happen, when choosing a course of action, can lead to smarter, collective decision making.

4. Praise Specific Actions of Teammates Especially Those Extremely Unlike You
Just like smiling (or even slightly elevating your eyebrows) not only raises your mood and likeability -- and that of those facing you -- authentically praising those who think and act differently than you makes you both feel more likeable and familiar to each other. Thus you are more likely to focus on the convivial, helpful parts of your work together rather than on the fractious moments -- making more productive times a self-fulfilling prophecy.

5. Meet Around Round or Oval Tables
Minor as this seems we tend to listen and get along better when we talk at angles from each other.

Collaborating With Diverse Individuals Is Not Easy -- Just Vital
To reinforce your motivation to cultivate diverse colleagues and be adept at recruiting and leading teams of diverse people, be prepared with the bad and good news. "People in diverse groups are less happy. Their views are challenged, and they feel like the outcomes were manipulated. Based on their experiences, they will self-report that it was not better than when they were on a homogenous team," The Difference author, Scott E. Page told angel investor, Steve Jurvetson, and others at a Santa Fee Institute meeting.

Yet when diverse teams experience success they know wouldn't have happened without each other, they tend to form strong bonds, so it's well worth finding out how. The key to being smarter together than as individuals is that the group is sufficiently diverse so that they, "got stuck less often than the smart individuals, who tended to think similarly," according to Page. Reinforcing that research, a recent Deloitte study cited by Alison Griswold, found that "diversity of thought" spurs "innovation and creative problem solving" and reduces groupthink.

An added benefit of being in the frequent company of those with different talents, temperament and beliefs is that you reinforce a flexible rather than fixed mindset, as Carol Dweck recommends. Plus you don't get increasingly extreme in your opinions as Cass Sunstein in Going to Extremes. To attract more learning and opportunity, keep cultivating strangers as recommended by Melinda Blau in Consequential Strangers and Alan Gregerman in The Necessity of Strangers.

Bottom Line: The most powerful leaders in a connected, complex world may well be the ones who can recruit the right team fastest to solve a problem or capture an opportunity. Why not be one of those sought-after leaders?