Avoid the Common Pitfalls of Diverse Teams’ Work


In my last corporate role, I was the International HR Leader for a large global organization. I worked with 6 regional HR managers and 1 support team member, and together we provided HR support to 10,000 employees based in 53 countries around the world.

Our team was represented by 3 men and 5 women between the ages of 31 and 62, and most of us were tenured employees with between 11 and 34 years of experience at our respective companies.

As a team, we had little work-life balance, with everyone putting in a minimum of 9 to 14 hours daily. There was no time to develop soft skills, as we were continuously focused on putting out “fires.” Sound familiar?

It took us a long time to become a high-performing team. The first year was terrible, with two major challenges we faced as a team: the changing power dynamics on the team and the diversity of our opinions.

Team members in Mexico City, Toronto, Santiago and Tokyo had a very strong hierarchical preference, and the others in London, Frankfurt and Atlanta had a preference for equality.

Our team member in Frankfurt was originally the leader of the group. She was responsible for the team for more than 5 years when she decided to step down for personal reasons, and I joined the team as the leader of the group. My predecessor had a very strong preference for control, and the rest of the team had a constraint preference.

Without a tool such as the Cultural Navigator, we learned through trial and error, power struggle, conflict and confrontations to finally find a way to work together.
Over time we learned to trust each other and were glued together as a high-performing team, but it took almost 2 years before that happened.

These same results were found in a study published by McKinsey in 2012, which showed that companies with diverse top teams were also top financial performers.

Looking back, here is what I should have done:

  • Ask each team member to use the Cultural Navigator to review the country profiles for the UK, Germany, Japan, Mexico, Canada and the US to learn how individuals in these cultures preferred to work.
  • Assign each member to complete the Cultural Orientations Indicator assessment.
  • Contract with a certified Cultural Orientations Approach facilitator to moderate our first face-to-face meeting, which would have allowed for an understanding of our individual work preferences. Only then could we begin to develop strategies to overcome the gaps identified in our team aggregate report. This foundation may have ensured we each walked out of that meeting with clear strategies and guiding principles on how we planned to be effective as a working team.
  • Assign my team member in Germany to play the role of mentor to each of my team members.
  • Create a Global HR Team on the Cultural Navigator so that it provided another venue to learn more about each other on a learning platform to augment and inform our daily interactions.

By following these steps, we may have reduced the team formation time and become a high-performing team sooner.

Barta, T., Kleiner, M., Neumann, T. (2012). Is there a payoff from top-team diversity? www.mckinsey.com

Ila Gandhi