Secrets To Successfully Leading A Diverse, Distributed Workforce

The workplace has become more diverse and dispersed. Managers need to adapt by listening, embracing curiosity, and finding way to encourage engagement.
10 Unique Perks At Tech Companies
10 Unique Perks At Tech Companies
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one strategy for engaging a diverse workforce, and I mean mentoring in both directions." In other words, when managers and employees come from different cultures, each should be expected to learn from the other.

"It's complicated, but it's important for managers to engage in processes that value people's differences," said Tynan. "Those processes are really important, which means that companies can't be too rigid about roles. Flexibility is one of the critical processes that people need to think about when managing a diverse workforce."

Similarly, Edmondson argues that good management is primarily adaptive because, even though there are some recognized best practices, no two human relationships are identical.

"It's good to be knowledgeable about other cultures, but it's better to be curious about them," said Edmondson. "We can know and honor cultural differences but not be bound by them."

[ Is your enterprise ready for this? Read Design Thinking Is Taking Hold At IBM.]

Organizations and leaders, said Edmondson, can create special environments that are conducive to doing great work. She points to the Toyota Production System, which -- in defiance of Japanese cultural norms -- requires that people speak up when a process can be improved. "This is so deeply embedded in that system, and this is not Japanese," she said. "This is TPS."

Creating a sense of a shared goal is often overlooked, according to Edmondson. "Don't assume that because we're all on this team that we have a shared goal," she said. Managers, she explained, have to make workers care about what they're doing "to motivate the hard work of teamwork."

Are You Familiar With Adversity?

David Loftesness has worked as director of engineering at Twitter and as search product architect at Amazon's A9. He is co-writing a book on team management, Scaling Teams: Strategies for Successful Growth. in a phone interview with InformationWeek, Loftesness stressed the importance of recruiting as a way to ensure diversity and to shape the parameters of management.

"It starts with how you recruit," said Loftesness, who said there's a lot more awareness now of the downside of cookie-cutter recruiting. It's important, he said, to move away from questions and interview processes that tend to magnify privilege. Likewise, it's key for hiring managers to recognize that job effectiveness is about more than having a narrow technical skill, like knowledge of data structures.


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Loftesness said people who have overcome significant problems in life can often overcome obstacles at work. He added that those raised with privilege can have difficulties when challenged at work, because they're unfamiliar with adversity.

At the same time, Loftesness cautioned that diversity isn't always beneficial in the context of management. "Diversity can slow you down in some cases and create complexity," he said. "For a small team, it can make it hard to get people on the same page."

Like Tynan and Edmondson, Loftesness emphasized that managers need to be flexible and adaptable. "All of management is really context dependent," he said.

Loftesness recounted the case of one co-worker who had a tendency to shoot his mouth off all the time. "This person had received performance feedback about this multiple times," he said, adding that the employee was incredibly valuable as a software engineer.

In trying to figure out how to handle the situation, Loftesness said he came to the conclusion that the engineer wasn't irredeemable. "He was someone who had no filter on his language," he said. "The accommodation was making sure everyone on the team could handle him. It was really about creating awareness of his difference, and making it clear what I thought and why I thought it was important to have this person on the team. After that, I didn't hear any more complaints. People understood."

Managing diverse teams often involves diplomacy. Loftesness said he's seen programmers from non-traditional backgrounds, such as those with university degrees in English and philosophy, struggle to keep up in meetings with peers steeped in technical vocabulary. "Sometimes, people would talk past them and use flowery language to push their way though," he said. "That's something you can coach for, leveling the discussion so that everyone can participate."

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