Let's embrace our collective intelligence

Written by
Simon Fanshawe, Co-founder, Diversity by Design

01 Mar 2020

01 Mar 2020 • by Simon Fanshawe, Co-founder, Diversity by Design

Difference is an asset – and we must recruit, promote and manage for it, argues Simon Fanshawe, co-founder of Diversity by Design.

Despite our individual brilliance, the truth is that we achieve very little on our own. People accomplish the most with other people. But we are prey to the cult of the superhero: the great CEO who turned the company around; the charismatic boss who transformed the culture of the department; the new captain who won the prestigious sporting trophy.

We flatter ourselves that we got where we are and did what we did all by ourselves. But we didn’t. Teams lie at the heart of our successes. We know this really, but we don’t design our leadership, recruitment or promotion around it. 

What makes a high-performing team?

There is a lot of insightful research around what makes a high-performing team, one of the most interesting examples being a Google study called Project Aristotle. Between 2012 and 2013, researchers scrutinised 180 teams within the company, looking for any common characteristics between those that performed best. 

What they began to note was that team norms — how teams agree to behave and function — represent the significant determinant. They ultimately concluded that what distinguished the ‘good’ teams from the dysfunctional groups was how teammates treated one another. The right norms, in other words, could raise a group’s collective intelligence, whereas the wrong norms could hobble a team, even if, individually, all its members were exceptionally bright. 

These findings chime with a number of other studies showing that the key norms for high-performing teams involve members making an equal contribution to the work and discussions around it (no one dominates), their sensitivity towards one another (members get to know and understand each other), and the presence of women within the group (and by extension, of others who bring difference). 

The combination of difference

This is ‘the combination of difference’ writ large. Seeing difference, valuing it and then combining it creatively is the way of working and managing that produces the best results. It requires managers, through hiring and promotion processes, to use a format that values that difference. It’s not about adhering to the old job description or person specifications, or simply replacing the previous incumbent, but tracing the ‘virtuous circle of recruitment’. 

What are the team’s goals and what does the job really require the candidate to do? What specific combinations of difference/diversity will help the team perform better? Who do we have already? The latter relates to team members’ characteristics (ethnicity, gender, sexuality, etc.) but also how they work (we use a psychometric distilled from a number of frameworks and client experience). Answering these questions will show you where you need to bring in the difference. 

Ask candidates not only to describe their formal skills but also to explain what they can bring to the role through their personal experience. Difference is an asset. For example, when women return from maternity leave, instead of asking “what have you forgotten?”, instead ask “what have you learned... about time management, priorities, pain, lack of sleep?”. Recruit, promote and manage for difference. 

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