Diversity Ignites Effective Work Teams

September 1, 1994
Several years ago, Rohm & Haas Texas Inc., a Houston-based chemical company, jumped on the total quality bandwagon to boost its competitive position. Work processes were redesigned. Mission statements were drafted. And to encourage employee input and participation, workers were reorganized into mandatory teams designed around natural work processes.

For example, the company formed a team of employees to monitor sulfuric-acid manufacturing. In the past, an employee may have been responsible for only three kettles out of a process that involved 17 different manufacturing kettles. As is typical in many factory environments, this employee rarely was concerned with what happened before the chemical substance reached his or her kettles, nor did the worker care much about what happened to it afterward. He or she fell prey to the classic "It's-not-my-job" syndrome.

By cross-training employees to understand the entire sulfuric-acid manufacturing process, management believed employees would care more about the end result; that they would search for ways to eliminate mistakes and come up with ideas for process improvements. Like other companies involved in teaming efforts, Rohm & Haas believed a newer, better company could be grown from a cross-pollination of employee ideas, values and perspectives.

Unfortunately, as managers discovered, the diversity that makes teams so successful also can stand in the way of their success. Why? Because it just isn't that easy for people to overcome their differences, whatever they may be, and work together effectively.

Rohm & Haas is typical of many Houston companies in that the work force is diverse-about 40% of employees are considered legal minorities. These individuals often feel overlooked by the white male power structure, explains Rolando De La Pena, the company's internal consultant for Total Quality Leadership training until September 1993. (De La Pena is now a senior HR representative at Amoco Production Co. in Tulsa, Oklahoma.) "Texas is somewhat of a racially delineated society," he says. "The good-ole-boy system is in place." Because of this, differences in others aren't readily acknowledged or accepted; in fact, differences make many employees uncomfortable.

For this reason, instead of blithely accepting their new team assignments, Rohm & Haas' employees started migrating to teams composed of members with whom they felt they had more in common. An African-American employee, for instance, would apply for an open position on a team with more African-American members. An employee with many years of service would search for a team with other long-service employees.

The migration was slow and subtle because employees had to wait until team positions became available through the open-bidding process. But within three years, the carefully designed mix of heterogeneous teams had been replaced by teams of like-minded members. The diversity of experience and perspective the company was hoping to achieve was lost as the teams became increasingly all black or all white.

Managers realized the clever and deliberate reorganization of teams was a sign of deeper diversity problems; problems that, if left unchecked, would affect the entire quality effort. To remedy the situation, Rohm & Haas introduced diversity-awareness training to sensitize employees to differences in others. "The focus of training was to move employees from fearing differences in others to valuing them," De La Pena explains. "We wanted employees to feel OK not only having different viewpoints, but challenging them in others."

Working with an external diversity trainer, the company launched five-hour awareness seminars funded by the HR department. Though it was predominantly racial and ethnic tension that revealed the need for such training, the initiative actually focused on tension that any kind of difference creates, including age, gender, religion-even differences in communication styles. Training also emphasized that while homogeneous team members will come up with quick, easy solutions because members think alike, innovative solutions that are acceptable to the entire work force can only come from teams in which members view things differently. Hence, for the good of the company and individual employees, it would behoove workers to learn how to interact with one another more effectively. "We made clear there was not only a social and moral reason to accept diversity, but a business reason as well," De La Pena says.

Rohm & Haas couldn't require unionized factory employees to attend the courses, but by gaining the union's support and encouragement, 95% of employees participated. Was the training successful? Did employees begin to see the reasons for understanding differences instead of avoiding them? "We polled every employee right after the workshop," he says, "and then we polled them three to six weeks later. The data were consistent that employees viewed the initiative as positive. They began to realize two people can view the same situation and come to different conclusions, and that neither conclusion is wrong."

Today, because there's less resistance to new ideas, and employees are more willing to work across their differences, the company's quality initiative is back on track. The awareness seminars helped people realize that some of their stereotypes were wrong, De La Pena adds, and that process improvements can only be realized if employees are comfortable challenging each other.

With all the talk about Workforce 2000 and our melting-pot society, you'd think companies would realize diversity awareness is a crucial preliminary step to team building, but-unlike Rohm & Haas-not all of them do. This is because for years in corporate America, an employee's primary workplace goal was to assimilate and conform. Differences existed, of course, but they were either superficially ignored-in the case of gender and race, for example-or they were segregated neatly into separate functions. There were the marketing people, for example, those in accounting and the suits upstairs. To a large extent, these groups thought, talked and acted differently from one another, which was OK, because they rarely were given the opportunity to interact.

Today, however, companies realize the benefits of bringing employees from diverse backgrounds, perspectives and functions together. But it takes work. It isn't enough to put people together in a team and assume that positive synergy will be the natural result.

"I don't want you to come in here with any Pollyanna thoughts about the benefits of diversity," explains R. Roosevelt Thomas, president of the American Institute for Managing Diversity at Atlanta-based Morehouse College. "I want you to understand the realities of diversity-the opportunity for gain and the opportunity for loss. Sure, teams can be very effective. But teams also can be very dysfunctional."

The diversity issues that teams confront are myriad, and they begin with the obvious physical differences related to race, ethnic background and gender. According to Elsie Cross, a diversity consultant with Elsie Y. Cross Associates, Inc. in Philadelphia, it takes a lot of skill to listen to people in the team environment who are obviously different from oneself.

"The work of the team is to seek inclusion of everybody's ideas and everybody's point of view," she explains. "The wider the point of view or the wider the diversity, the more effective the team can be. But for this to happen, people have to learn to see each other as equals, and that's not easy." Men talk over women, she says. Whites expect that people of color communicate the same way they do. People with accents are assumed to be less qualified; older employees, less creative; workers with disabilities, less capable.

But diversity issues go way beyond obvious physical differences to include differences in communication styles, problem solving, professional experience, functional expertise, management level, training and education, and work ethics. When team members don't recognize these differences for what they are, unfair stereotypical judgments occur.

"I may not understand how someone thinks or why it takes them so long to make a decision," says Martha Stoodley, an organizational consultant in San Jose, California. "Therefore, I may say 'Chinese people always act like this,' or 'Women act like that.'" Given this ignorance, the entire team runs the risk of degenerating into a group of typecasting, name-calling, finger-pointing, untrusting employees.

For all these reasons, "I think you can make a serious case about taking a team that's coming together for the first time through an introduction to diversity," Thomas says. "This way, you're legitimizing the fact that people are going to see the world differently and that's OK. Unless you're prepared to accept, understand and deal with diversity, it can lead to some very serious disruptions on the team."

At CoreStates Financial Corp., for example, a bank holding company in Philadelphia, a diversity-awareness initiative was launched a full year before the company embarked on a quality effort that eventually will reorganize employees into self-managed teams. The awareness initiative is similar to the one undertaken by Rohm & Haas, but as a three-day course, it's much more in-depth. Participants are taught not only to be aware of diversity issues, but they're given the skills to deal effectively with differences. "We did diversity first be-cause to pursue quality effectively, we have to learn to value each other's differences," explains Tim O'Malley, assistant director of diversity.

To date, more than 1,200 of the company's 14,000 employees have attended three-day diversity-awareness sessions, and a group of 12 employees has completed an eight-month training program to prepare them to serve as internal diversity consultants. These consultants will work with the company's primary business units to make sure diversity objectives are considered at every stage of the company's reorganization. "We're still not at the team stage," O'Malley says. "But the diversity foundation is being laid so that when we begin to pursue quality, we'll be able to work across our differences."

As important as diversity awareness is to teaming, however, it may be important for some companies to take a step back even further and assess the organizational culture to learn what specific diversity issues exist.

A 1,000-employee operating unit within IBM's marketing and services division did this as a preliminary step in the company's move to cross-functional teams. "You can't just create an environment that allows everyone to achieve without doing some work to understand what your environment is today," explains Jan Dillon, culture-change manager.

"The wider the point of view, the more effective the team can be. But for this to happen, people have to learn to see each other as equals, and that's not easy. —Elsie Cross, Elsie Y. Cross Associates, Inc.

IBM's cultural assessment revealed two things. One, that the IBM culture supported individualism. "We tended to recruit, motivate and reward independent, individual performers," explains Dillon. Two, that employees were expected to conform and adapt to the company's unwritten code of conduct; in other words, to be an IBMer. "To make sure this happened, we looked for employees who had a certain style, experience and background," she says. Obviously-and much to the chagrin of management-both of these cultural expectations would prevent effective teaming unless they were ad-dressed and changed through a targeted diversity initiative. Today, all of the company's quality efforts are structured around collaborative group efforts.

At IBM, as in many quality-driven companies, the teaming process is almost indistinguishable from the company's diversity efforts. "Our definition of managing diversity also could be the definition of our desired culture," Dillon says. "And inherent in that is the fact that we need to come together very effectively as teams to satisfy client requirements."

What this means is that diversity awareness is embedded in all of the company's cultural change efforts-so much so, that you might not even hear the word diversity mentioned. This is because the company defines diversity management as a way to create an environment that allows everyone to excel so that IBM can achieve its corporate objectives. Diversity, in other words, is not a standalone effort.

For example, the company is currently sponsoring a leadership-development program in which existing cross-functional teams attend a three-day training session that helps them focus on real-life business issues. Team members, who attend the course together, learn about culture and organizational change and acquire teaming and leadership skills. By working on concrete business problems, team members are forced to focus and work together on potential solutions.

Through these workshops, IBM has found that having a clear objective goes a long way toward overcoming the potentially negative aspects of diversity and capitalizing on the benefits of diverse viewpoints. In fact, says Stoodley, this kind of focus is what makes "teams the ultimate diversity program." When team members have a clear purpose, it's easier for them to stay on track and not let petty differences get in the way.

Focus is the primary reason teams have been so successful at overcoming diversity barriers at Ortho Biotech, Inc. in Raritan, New Jersey. Here, cross-functional teams have been in place since the company was formed in 1990 and today, virtually all of the company's 500 employees work in teams in one way or another. But even though teams have been part of the corporate structure since the beginning, it doesn't mean there weren't potential diversity issues to contend with. How did the company avoid them?

First, it drafted a mission statement designed to integrate business and diversity goals. "We knew if we didn't build into the company vision a core value of respect for diversity, then our team endeavors wouldn't stand a chance," explains Andrea Zintz, vice president of HR. To gain buy-in, every employee in the new company participated in the development of the one-page mission statement, which includes a section that reads: "We recognize we can only attain (our) vision by maximizing the contributions of every member of our diverse work force and by continuing to develop an organization that values employees of all races, genders, levels, cultures and lifestyles."

The second activity undertaken to provide focus for employees was the development of a list of norms and behaviors that were expected of employees in support of the diversity goal. For example, one of the diversity norms reads: "We value the input of employees of all races, genders and levels." A behavior in support of this norm is: "We listen fully to a different point of view before making a judgment and strive for a win-win situation." These norms and behaviors are posted in every conference and team meeting room to constantly reinforce their importance. So that employees have the skills to put these values into play, Ortho Biotech also sponsors a mandatory three-day managing-diversity workshop for all new employees.

Zintz firmly believes that the company's inclusive environment and the effectiveness of teams is the result of the shared vision, norms and behaviors. "Everyone points to the same set of values to guide what they're doing," she says. "These guidelines fuel everything we do."

Colgate-Palmolive Co. is another organization that's learned the importance of having clear business objectives in handling diversity issues. Three years ago, as the company's Kansas City, Kansas-based plant was reorganizing into teams, managers realized there were some problems related to racial and gender bias. If ignored, these biases could hurt the new teams. Working with outside diversity consultants, Colgate managers recognized the importance of mission statements.

According to Ronald Grover, who was the company's first-line supervisor for training and development during the reorganization, each team had a mission statement that defined not only what the team was going to do, but also how members would treat each other. "Basically, each team had a statement to the effect that they would not do anything 'at the expense of others.' "

Each new team at Colgate also conducts an exercise in which members list their expectations for each other—i.e. respect for each other's ideas, thoughts and diversity. "Through this process, there's a lot of discussion about differences," Grover says, and this helps members understand the various differences they bring to the table. "If you don't sit down and talk about your expectations with team members, not just behaviorally, but also in terms of job performance, that's when labels and generalizations emerge," he adds.

Taking clues from the companies we talked to, organizations wishing to avoid the strife that differences create should:

  • Assess organizational culture for hidden diversity issues
  • Embark on diversity-awareness programs before making the move to teams
  • Clearly define the company's goals as well as the goals for each team.

What other activities can help people look beyond their differences and work together effectively? Linda Moran, executive consultant with San Jose, California-based Zenger-MillerAchieve suggests these additional activities:

  1. Establish ground rules for the team-similar to mission statements, but more specific. For example, a ground rule might be that if someone on the team has an issue with another member, that person must confront his or her colleague directly.
  2. There should be a forced rotation of team responsibilities. For instance, the task of attendance taking might rotate at each meeting. Or, on production teams, each member might be required at some point to complete a technical task, such as welding. "This helps get people outside their own biases," Moran says. "Instead of assuming that a person can't do something, you have a forced rotation of the task so the person has a chance to demonstrate his or her competencies." In some situations, teams can benefit from rotating the leadership position among members.

Of course, even with all these precautions, the opportunity exists for issues of diversity to impede a team's progress. And sometimes, the only way to avoid or minimize that is by giving the team members time to adjust to one another. Like any solid relationship, team relationships are built on mutual trust and respect, both of which take time to develop.

As Zintz explains, "Even though employees have the skills to work across differences, it doesn't mean they're going to be totally trusting or comfortable with those differences. The team must have time to get used to itself."

Personnel Journal, September 1994, Vol. 73, No. 9, pp. 54-63.