How to build trust on a diverse team

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Sep 05 2022 by David Livermore Print This Article

Diverse teams have a harder time trusting each other than homogenous teams do. Consequently, global leaders not only need to gain trust from diverse teams, they also need to build trust among diverse team members.

Our research on culturally intelligent organizations finds that formalizing a set of culturally intelligent routines is critical part of building team trust. These include standardized routines for meetings, decision-making, soliciting feedback etc. And they include creating team routines that emerge from the research on CQ and trust-building.

Here are three evidence-based foundations for creating trust-building routines on a diverse team:

Leverage In-Group Bias

One of the most startling aspects of bias is how easily it's triggered. But leaders can turn bias on its head to shape a strong team identity. Henri Tajfel discovered the minimal group procedure," an experimental technique in which people who have never met before are divided into groups based on minimal information (e.g., a preference for one type of activity or somewhere everyone in the group has visited). Groups formed on the basis of almost any distinction are prone to in-group bias, even if the distinctions are random, such as the "green group" versus the "blue group."

Look for what members of your team uniquely share. Start with the team's function and purpose but also look for other shared idiosyncrasies (e.g. none of us like kale; all of us have worked here more than five years; we all prefer Slack over email). This approach has to be done carefully or it erodes organizational inclusiveness. But when done carefully, it strengthens team bonds and trust.

Shared experiences are one of the best ways to create in-group bias. As more hybrid teams spend little if any time together in-person, investing the time and money to be together a couple times a year can pay enormous dividends in building trust and increasing team effectiveness.

Build Team Efficacy

Building trust on a diverse team also requires group efficacyóa belief that the team can succeed at its objectives. To what degree does each individual think the members of the team are competent enough to perform the team's task? This assumes you've put the right team together in the first place. Assuming you have, create small wins often and allow the team to experience successes that they couldn't have had without being together.

A culturally intelligent leader builds team efficacy by amplifying differences and mapping them to team tasks. Individualists are ideally suited to taking on responsibility to efficiently get things done. Collectivists are better at consensus building and considering the impact of a external circumstances. Team members with the "woo" trait from the StrengthFinders inventory are ideally suited to get buy-in from diverse stakeholders while those with the "input" strength are better at gathering new and interesting information to help inform team decisions.

Assess diverse strengths through assessments like StrengthFinders or the Cultural Values Profile. Then outline a core challenge your team is working to address and explicitly note how you can use the differences on your team to more effectively address the challenge.

Create Psychological Safety

One reason diverse teams consistently perform worse than homogeneous teams is a lack of psychological safety - a climate where members are confident their teammates won't embarrass, reject, or punish them for speaking up with their ideas or questions.

Despite the popularity of psychological safety over the last couple years, some DEI approaches go directly against creating psychological safety. Individuals are afraid to speak up for fear they'll be perceived as sexist, homophobic, or ignorant. Culturally intelligent leaders need to leverage the benefits of conflict and disagreement while managing the social tension it creates. They may need to silence more dominant, powerful team members and use a variety of strategies to ensure everyone can safely and openly share their divergent ideas.

Use brainwriting as a more inclusive way to generate diverse ideas and strengthen team trust. Brainwriting is when team members write down their ideas independently before sharing them with the rest of the group.

There's a plethora of research that supports the benefits of conflict and disagreement for innovation and team effectiveness. But apart from trust, there's little hope that diversity will yield anything more than frustration and gridlock. Culturally intelligent teams can use the benefit of culturally intelligent routines and norms to not only improve effectiveness, but to improve the enjoyment that comes from working on a diverse team.

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About The Author

David Livermore
David Livermore

David Livermore is a thought leader in cultural intelligence (CQ) and global leadership and the author of "Leading with Cultural Intelligence". He is president and partner at the Cultural Intelligence Center in East Lansing, Michigan and a visiting research fellow at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.