Birds of a Feather May Be Turkeys

By: Gene Griessman

Birds of a feather do flock together. It's true. Given a choice, most of us will seek out people who think like we do, people with whom we feel comfortable, those we won't quarrel with. Visit any company cafeteria and you will notice that the people at the tables will be in groupings from the same discipline, department or ethnic group.

As a general rule, relationships do not usually thrive when there are profound differences in values, abilities, temperaments or lifestyle. Differences attract, but – more often – they repel. Individuals sometimes get involved in relationships with unlike individuals, occasionally even conflict-ridden ones. These may be exciting for a while – but unless the principals agree on core values, such relationships become artificially polite or unravel over time.

Ways to work together. This general rule, however, needs fine tuning when it comes to science, engineering and business. Skillful managers often deliberately create teams comprised of very different kinds of people.

They are willing to forego the comfortable, easy feelings associated with clone-like groups in order to bring diverse skills to bear upon a problem. Such a team might include designers, engineers, physicists, marketing people, social scientists and lawyers.

Managing diversity is not easy. Accountants, engineers, computer specialists, lawyers, psychologists and marketing people do not speak the same occupational language. Each field has its argot, its own version of alphabet soup. Specialization always produces groups with proprietary feelings about concepts and terminology. Even if two members of a team are engineers, there will still not be one-to-one correspondence. They will have some problems with vocabulary if one is an electrical engineer and the other is a mechanical engineer. But those vocabulary problems are minuscule compared with the ones that occur when accountants talk to engineers or designers. A skillful manager will be needed.

Cultural chasms need bridging. The differences go beyond vocabulary: values, goals and objectives many be different too. As more businesses globalize, team members are more likely to come from different cultures. They will differ not just in the way they approach a technical or marketing problem, but in the way they view the world. We will have more of this, not less. Unfortunately, what we know about managing diversity is more an art than a science.

If managing diversity is so difficult and so potentially stressful -- even disrupting -- is it worth doing? Absolutely. Warm, comfortable, birds-of-a-feather groupings may actually be dysfunctional in business, science and engineering.

If you want to do the job right, consider choosing people with different languages, experiences and perspectives. The group may be hard to manage and the outcomes difficult to predict, but such a strategy offers the potential for unexpected brilliant solutions. When everybody behaves as a clone, someone is probably unnecessary and the group may come to resemble a flock of turkeys.

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