Diversity – A Blessing or a Curse?

Diversity at the workplace is a widely discussed topic. It is a well-known fact that diversity is a good thing and brings the best out of teams. At the same time, we also recognize that this same diversity causes misunderstandings and conflicts. So is diversity a valuable asset, or is it a huge risk after all?

Studies show that there can be big challenges in teams with only similar personalities. For example, if members of such a team are mainly inspired about experimenting new ideas and developing processes, the team never reaches its goals. But if we are encouraged to include “diverse” behavior and personalities within a team, how do we get along with those “annoying” team members?

I’m sure that each and every one of us have been in a situation where he or she feels annoyed by a colleague. Like for example when, in the middle of an ongoing conversation, you suddenly realize that the person you’re talking to doesn’t actually understand a word you’re saying. And repeated attempts to clarify don’t seem to help at all. What started as a slight irritation easily turns into sheer desperation.

Misunderstandings or conflicts arise because we have different ways of communicating, but they get even worse because of divergent personalities. People with different communication styles also tend to see things from a different point of view and are interested in a different kind of information. So we act and communicate differently than some of our team members.

This actually is the key point in diversity. Everyone agrees that we need diversity in teams and that, yes, diversity is an asset and we value different types of personalities and that diversity makes teams and workplaces successful. In real life however, most of us prefer working with similar people – people who act, talk and think alike. This clearly shows when people search the company of those that are ”on the same wavelength”. Or when we recruit people that are like us or that we feel are easy to get along with.

A while ago I coached a management team where four of the five members represented the same behavior and communication style. The fifth person was not very far from others, either. They were very effective as a team and the collaboration was easy because they had similar communication styles. The company was very successful, too.

Similarity is not necessarily a problem, but it is extremely important to realize which impact it has on the team and on the results. It brings along certain strengths, but also the risks can be higher. The perspective is much more narrow than it would be if we have diversity.

From Conflict To Mutual Understanding

Personality tests measure our behaviour or personality traits in several ways. They give information about us: how we act and how we communicate with others. Some of the tests may also describe how we should communicate with others in order to become understood and to motivate others.

Tests provide valuable information, but my opinion is that too often this information is not used to its full potential. I very often hear that test results are great for “discovering what I’m like and what my strengths and weaknesses are”. What would be much more beneficial for teams is to discuss and find out for themselves how type “X” and type “Y” could best work together and how they could benefit from each other’s differences.

The best discussions are those where teams have effectively found new ways to cooperate and to take advantage of their distinctive behaviour styles. It really adds up to the benefit they already share from having different professional skills. The cooperation gets more effective and the quality of work increases.

Personality tests are an established part of Finnish work life and serve as a great source of information about our personalities. The shared awareness that workmates behave very differently from my own behavior style already makes the team function better.

In addition, the better we know our colleagues and what they are like, the better we get along and work together. Several studies about workplace wellbeing have shown that knowing the people you work with – at a deeper level than just professionally – improves the relationships and the spirit in the team.

Turning Diversity Into A Real Strength

Discussing together how we can enhance the collaboration in the team by taking advantage of our different behaviors takes us forward to approving the diverse personalities. When we get tools to change our attitudes and we can accept others as they are, we are very close to making diversity a real strength.

When we start using the different behavior of fellow workers and colleagues to improve the quality of our own work, we really can talk about diversity being a strength. So how can I make it work?

For example, I as a direct, goal-oriented and pragmatic person, may be too strong and straightforward in some situations. When communicating and implementing an important change in the team, I could pair up with a person who is more sensible with people’s feelings and keen to discuss the concerns with team members. Operating in a more considerate way could make the change a lot smoother for the whole team.

So it actually means actively searching collaboration with differently behaving team members because it makes the work more versatile, rich and it brings out different point of views and thus makes the results better and the team more successful.

Whose different behavior could help you get better results in your work today?


The writer of this blogpost, Ulla Vilkman, is a people and leadership professional enhancing the recruitment skills, leadership skills as well as collaboration in organizations using psychological tests and a platform for effective HR data-analysis.