Keeping a Diverse Team United in Polarized Times


There’s no question that working with a diverse group can be more challenging than contributing to a more homogenous one. There are more opportunities for misunderstanding and conflict, especially in times when personal, professional, and societal tensions are running high. However, these hurdles are easily overcome with intentional leadership and teamwork. Start by establishing team norms that set the stage for psychological safety before stressful events occur. Work to find deeper connections through which you share and learn. Talk through challenges rather than ignoring them. And, finally, work to spread the culture through your organization.

What did it take for a diverse team to work well together through 2020 into 2021?

We six are all officers on the team of a senior executive responsible for the daily operations and strategies of the U.S. Army.  But apart from our military training and functional roles, we are decidedly different.

  • Rich, initiatives group deputy director, is a Black man hailing from central Florida with a background in business management, data analytics, and artillery operations. He has lived in Uijeongbu, South Korea.
  • Kelly, legislative assistant, is a white woman from central Pennsylvania trained in journalism and political science, as well as medical service. She has spent time in Izmir, Turkey.
  • Sean, acquisition planner, is an Asian man who grew up in a military family and studied engineering and consumer banking. He has lived in Fussa, Japan.
  • Will, executive planner, is a Black man and a native of southeast Michigan with a background in urban geography, maneuver operations, organizational communications. He has lived in Grafenwoehr, Germany.
  • Erick, executive speechwriter, is a white man from central Oklahoma who has a background in business management, advanced military studies and strategic messaging. He has lived in Poznan, Poland.
  • Isaac, public relations officer, is a Black man also from a military family who serves as our resident psychology and communications expert. He ministers in countries around the world, and has lived in Kaiserslautern, Germany.

We’re a mix of extraverts and introverts, we range in age from 34 to 47, and our political and religious affiliations and family situations vary.

And yet our group came though the past 18 months — a period defined by global pandemic, a bitterly divisive national election, and civil unrest in the United States — more connected than ever. No question: Working with a diverse group can be more challenging than contributing to a more homogenous one. There are more opportunities for misunderstanding and conflict, especially in times when personal, professional, and societal tensions are running high. However, as our experience shows, these hurdles are easily overcome with intentional leadership and teamwork. Here are a few lessons we learned during last year and this one.

Set the stage before stressful events.

The moment any new member joins our team, they learn the ground rules. Our shared goal is to work together to find solutions for complex problems, so all voices are welcome. Everyone is encouraged to confidently, yet respectfully, give their opinions, regardless of background, seniority, subject matter expertise, or political leanings – or how well they converged with others’ views.  The idea is to create a psychologically safe, judgement-free zone in which to experiment with ideas.

More specifically, we focus on certain internal norms — a form of social contract — all with the goal of establishing trust. The team agrees to protect the privacy of every member: Views or any personal information shared won’t be spread outside our circle.

Finally, we explicitly acknowledge that we might offend each other from time to time but agree that we’ll deal with such situations by quickly and efficiently addressing and discussing the issue. For example, when one of the team members first encountered an email with pronouns listed in the signature block, he felt perfectly comfortable asking a team member about it without any fear of negative repercussions. Our boss has taught us to frame questions in a non-judgmental way i.e. “Remember when we were talking about X situation, and you said Y? I interpreted it as Z. Was that right?”

We make a pact to not just “do things right ” (efficiency) but also “do the right things” (effective). This seems like a small distinction, but it gives each member license to use their individual experience, talents, and skills to push us in a better direction.

Find deeper connections. 

Over the past several years of working together, we have all made a conscious effort to really get to know one another. These conversations are sometimes driven by current events but also include sharing prior experiences growing up, within the workforce, and extracurricular activities.

We also share our sources of information – within and outside the organization. We ask questions to better understand perspectives beyond our own. For example, when the economy was being impacted by Covid-19 last year, the topic of income disparities between different races and genders came up. This led to ongoing conversation about the stock market, investment properties, gentrification, how to build generational wealth, and more. These were moments of sharing and learning.

Talk through challenges.

In our office, we sometimes turn on the TV news, and throughout 2020 and into 2021, the broadcasts have often been disturbing. But instead of watching and silently returning to our assigned cubicles, filled with questions, comments, and emotions, we took the time to discuss what was happening in the world. Our leader often asked us to join him in his office so he could hear about our opinions and experiences on some of the disparities and challenges we’ve each experienced in our different social groups.

One hot-button issue we discussed was policing in America.  Rich, whose father served as a police officer, shared his thoughts, which helped to broaden the rest of our perspectives. We talked through the complexities of events like the killing of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and worked to recognize some of our own biases.

Spread the culture.

Establishing these conditions had a profound impact not just on our team but throughout the organization because we bring respect for diversity and the benefits it brings to the entirety of our jobs. When we review policies, write speeches, plan meetings or execute social media strategies for our senior executive, we work to ensure that we’re spreading an inclusive message and supporting all individuals within the U.S. Army, especially those who have been inadvertently marginalized. We want to normalize positive behaviors and trust throughout the organization. When our tenures on this team are complete, we expect to starburst out into the operational force and share our experiences, insights, and enhanced perspectives even more widely.

We have seen firsthand the value of not just being on a diverse team but capitalizing on that diversity by setting the right norms, really connecting with one another, engaging in tough conversations, and committing to create a more inclusive organization.  When colleagues can put their differences aside and come together in genuine ways to overcome challenges, they set an example for everyone else.

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