Cultural anthropology, a discipline centered on understanding how groups of individuals create unique values and principles, is increasingly valued by companies trying to understand systems thinking. Above all else, its focus on identifying patterns of difference and similarity within culture groups is an acceptance of diversity that is too often absent in corporate America.
As managing and retaining talent is recognized as a central tenet of business success, HR and L&D leaders are tasked with building teams for creativity, engagement and profit. To do so successfully and sustainably, they must think strategically and deeply about company – and team – culture.
At the core of a successful team is a group of employees whose knowledge, skills and interests are complementary. Think of the creative potential of a team whose members have different opinions, backgrounds and disciplinary aptitudes. True disruption requires a diversity of thought and a willingness to think differently. Teams composed of like-minded people runs counter to the creative tension required to think differently about increasingly complex global networks. This type of team won’t challenge the status quo, because its members subscribe to a set of shared norms. They can’t problem-solve creatively, because they all think the same way.
In the end, teams that think alike develop by consensus. And while consensus isn’t in and of itself a bad thing, it can be detrimental, depending on where in the development cycle it presents itself. For example, if a team scopes projects and prioritizes requirements based on a single mindset, it’s likely to design the system, product or service for the needs of a limited audience. It is not uncommon to hear people on the outskirts of the development process say, “You are not our users.” And even if a team member is an anticipated user, their background and domain knowledge impact how they use the product and the outcomes they expect from it. For a broad audience, you’ll want to broaden your point of view.
The adage “two heads are better than one” is worth bearing in mind when planning to build or grow your team. Nevertheless, a cultural anthropologist would probably say, “Two varied thinkers are better than one.” Embrace diversity of people and opinions and encourage open, respectful and honest dialogue. Use the creative friction of multiple perspectives to build stronger workplace communities and products that are more representative of the multicultural world we live in.
Here are three crucial principles that diversity encourages:
The ability to take stock of your own hopes and expectations and to realize that users, regardless of their expertise, are people is an awareness born of diversity. If you are surrounded with people from similar backgrounds – economic, ethnic, educational, gendered, geographic – you likely won’t think to question your worldview. However, if you’re in the company of colleagues from different upbringings and cultural vantage points, you are much more likely to take the time to reflect on your own perspective. Diversity is one of the best ways to help test our assumptions and open ourselves up to new ways of thinking about old problems.
At its core, empathy is the ability to share the feelings and viewpoints of another person. Collaboration among people from diverse backgrounds has the ability to highlight and celebrate our common humanity. Because it tends to encourage a broadening of perspective and a deepening of sentiment, empathy is a quality that managers should cultivate and encourage as one that is likely to help inform more human-centered development practices and decisions.
Human beings don’t ask questions about things with which they are already familiar. The human mind isn’t built that way. It isn’t inquisitive about information already processed, compiled, archived and normalized. But curiosity is the drive behind human creativity. We want to understand the “how,” “what” and “why” of the world around us. We become curious and, in our curiosity, we reactivate our imagination.