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Four Ways To Help Diverse Teams Solve Problems

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Working with people from diverse worlds is almost always more challenging than working with people from similar backgrounds. Here's how to bridge the divides.

Listen to many futurists and you would think that robotic engineers and therapists will be the only people with jobs in ten years. There’s plenty of reason to pay attention to the massive disruption from the automation of work. But if you’ve ever attempted to do a virtual chat session with a customer service robot or been frustrated talking to a voice-activated receptionist, you know there’s plenty of work left for humans.

CNN medical correspondent and neurosurgeon Sanjay Gupta says, “No matter how sophisticated artificial intelligence becomes, there will always be some things the human brain can do that no computer can.” But having a brain isn’t enough. It’s using the power of this small, mighty organ to do what technology can’t do nearly as well—adapt and create. Joseph Aoun, president of Northeastern University, says students need to be prepared to work alongside smart machines. Rather than taking a dystopian view of a world overrun by robots, Aoun argues that humans should focus on what we alone can do: exercise our cognitive abilities to invest, discover, and create something valuable to society. And in his view this comes down to developing human literacy—flexible thinking, creativity, and cultural agility. In other words, cultural intelligence.

Our jobs, more than anywhere else, are where we’re most likely to interact with people who have vastly different beliefs and values. I don’t have the option of ignoring colleagues who disagree with me about sexuality, climate change or racial injustice. I’m expected to join meetings, exchange emails and send messages to people who come from vastly different figured worlds. Although robots beat humans in cognitive competitions like chess and complicated math problems, they lack the human agility, compassion and understanding to address the polarizing issues that impede workplace effectiveness. But if we aren’t careful, we as humans can also behave robotically. Cultural intelligence leverages our human skills to work with colleagues from vastly different backgrounds to come up with innovative solutions that have a direct impact on organizational effectiveness.

Culturally Intelligent Problem-Solving

Working with people from diverse worlds is almost always more challenging than working with people from similar backgrounds. Here are a few ways cultural intelligence (CQ) helps us bridge divides in ways that robots can’t.

1. Identify a common problem.

The first step for bridging polarization at work begins with using motivation, or what we call CQ Drive, to find a problem we’re inspired to solve together. Problem identification is essential. We can’t skip it. Whether it’s a macro problem like Covid-19, climate change, or economic growth, or a more personalized issue like how to talk with a colleague about whether their comment was a racial microaggression, it’s impossible to bridge our different worlds until we agree on a problem we care about.

Robots can help us with problem-solving. Algorithms and sophisticated technology have become very good at developing solutions more efficiently and accurately than humans. But where culturally intelligent humans are needed is in identifying the problem in the first place, particularly if it’s a problem that hasn’t happened before and can’t be identified by running an automated diagnostic. Zooming out to a problem shared by a diverse group motivates the team to work together and help clarify the objective.

Problem finding isn’t as simple as robotically stating the problem at the beginning of a project and moving on. Nor can you just go around the room and ask everyone if they understand the problem. Power dynamics, personality differences, and social norms cloud getting clarity. A culturally intelligent approach uses a more creative way to identify problems and ensure alignment. Ask individuals to independently write down a one-sentence description of the problem as they see it. What would successfully solving this problem look like to them? What would failure look like? Then curate the responses. Pay as much attention to the differences as to the recurring themes that emerge. See if you can reach consensus on what the problem is. Don’t rush through this. This simple but deliberate practice of zooming out to a problem we agree on can make a world of difference.

2. Understand perceived causes and solutions for the problem.

Once you agree on the problem, use cognition, or what we call CQ Knowledge, to zoom back in to understand different explanations for the problem. Compare the different perceptions of the root causes and try explaining your perspective in the third-person. This gives you some emotional distance from your point of view. Then try explaining your counterparts’ views in the first-person as a way of internalizing their values and assumptions. Anytime you catch the slightest bit of overlap, write it down. Give equal attention to the power of your differences to address the problem. For example, a group that is more oriented toward the long-term impact of everyone working remotely needs the input of more short-term oriented teammates who may highlight the immediate repercussions of empty offices and isolated team members.

Diversity by itself does not lead to innovation. We’ve studied dozens of multicultural teams around the world, and more often than not, homogeneous teams come up with more innovative solutions than diverse teams do. Homogeneous teams easily agree on the problem and use similar approaches for solving it. But when diverse teams have high CQ, they far outpace homogenous teams in coming up with more innovative solutions. Cultural intelligence allows them to use their differences as a source of human analysis and creativity.

A Pakistani woman living in Liverpool, England, repeatedly told her doctor that her heart hurt. The physician ran a battery of tests including x-rays, an EKG, blood work, and stress tests. Everything came back showing her heart was healthy, but she insisted it hurt. The physician talked with a cardiologist who robotically ran additional tests, and together the doctors concluded it was all in her head. They told the woman she had nothing to worry about. When she committed suicide a few months later, it dawned on the doctors that the she had been trying to tell them that she was riddled with anxiety and depression. Not only were there no words in her native language to describe depression, she was embarrassed to talk about it given the shame her world associated with mental illness. Failure to understand the root cause of the problem cost the woman her life.

Innovative solutions to problems stem from many different ways to analyze the problem. Some perspectives will focus more on causes and others more on the solutions but together the diverse perspectives lead to a richer analysis than anything you get from an automated or homogeneous analysis. Zoom up-close on the different views of a problem and work hard to understand the different perspectives. Robots work faster and more efficiently. But the problems that polarize us require a more complex understanding of the differences.

3. Develop third-way solutions that require resources and commitment from diverse worlds.

The next step is to use metacognition, or CQ Strategy, to design a solution to the shared problem. This step requires mid-range focus. We need to zoom wide enough to transcend our differences but close enough to provide an incentive for everyone to be invested in solving the problem together. The strategic problem-solving capabilities we gain from CQ Strategy are critical for doing something about the problem we have in common. Problem-solving with people who disagree usually defaults to winners versus losers or to a vanilla “agree to disagree” approach. But that won’t resolve most of the challenges facing us, nor will it do anything to reduce polarization. We have to keep pushing through the differences to find third-way solutions that only work if we’re all in on them. This might mean employing something like the “five whys” approach originated by Toyota as a way of analyzing a problem beneath the surface.

Here’s an example: People refuse to get vaccinated.

Why—Because they don’t trust the vaccine.

Why—Because they think Covid-19 is a political ploy.

Why—Because they believe the government keeps taking away their rights.

Why—Because the government thinks they can do a better job of protecting us.

Why—Because so many people are dying from Covid.

“So many people are dying from Covid.” That’s a problem many can agree on. So the solution needs to stay focused on how to address the problem of so many people dying from Covid. This links back to ensuring we identified the right problem in the first place. Then we can begin to figure out a solution that requires something from all of us.

At the Cultural Intelligence Center we, like many organizations, had to decide if and how to bring people back to the office following the extended work-from-home period during the Covid pandemic. Our team represents a wide spectrum of opinions about vaccines, remote working and risk tolerance. We agreed on the common problem—keeping people safe while ensuring productivity and effectiveness. We were pretty clear about the vastly different perspectives among us—trust people to do what’s best versus mandate vaccines to ensure the greater good—but we kept getting stalled there.

We had to set aside our debates and become very explicit about what decisions needed to be made, the process we would use for making the decision, and how we would communicate the decision as a united front. We eventually ended up with a solution that we believe was inclusive, equitable and unifying where vaccination was required for in-person work. But it took time to get there. Part of using CQ Strategy on a work team comes from creating more explicit processes for things like communication, roles and decision-making. When everyone shares the same background, there’s less need to be explicit about who does what, how to communicate and the process for making decisions. By default, we know what to do.

But these are practices that are deeply shaped by our figured worlds. The strategies for effectively solving problems with diverse groups aren’t rocket science. They include pretty basic things like creating explicit guidelines for email communication, how to address conflict, how to classify decisions and outlining the purpose for a meeting. But it’s remarkable how often we overlook taking the time to consciously use these relatively simple practices. An explicit process and solution is a more effective way of including and empowering everyone to adapt as needed in the midst of changing circumstances rather than robotically enforcing an inflexible process.

5. Implement solutions with the support of leadership and resources.

It’s show time! Implementation of a collaborative solution requires actively adjusting our focus and behavior in the moment, which is where CQ Action comes in. This takes all of us. Schools need principals and deans who forge relationships with faculty, students and staff from different disciplines, ideologies and backgrounds. Churches, temples and mosques need religious leaders who inspire police officers, diverse families, Republicans and Democrats to use their vastly different views to improve the way they pursue their faith and mission. Companies needs CEOs, vice presidents and mid-level managers who actively solicit and support the contributions of trans individuals, millennials, old white guys, Black, brown, disabled and every other kind of employee—not to meet diversity quotas, but to be workplaces that bring out the best of our humanity while improving the bottom line.

Stress, exhaustion and roadblocks can quickly diminish the resolve to adapt to one another in the name of solving common problems. Any of us may need to step away from the work periodically to replenish our physical and emotional reserves. The most important resource to ensure continued collaboration and adaptation to overcome our polarized divides is leadership that provides the vision and resources to help us actively implement solutions.

Consciously apply your diversity to develop innovative solutions. This is one of the great values of diversity. Had the medical team caring for the Pakistani woman included individuals from South Asia, they may have more quickly determined that her problem wasn’t cardio-related.

Amazon repeatedly promotes the importance of an empty chair at key leadership meetings to represent the customer. The more diversity you have sitting around the table, the better your understanding will be of the diversity of customers, students, or patients represented by that empty chair, as long as you consciously hear, consider and use the diverse perspectives represented.


Excerpted from DIGITAL, DIVERSE & DIVIDED: How to Talk to Racists, Compete with Robots, and Overcome Polarization. It is reprinted and adapted with permission from Berrett-Koehler Publishers.


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