Skip to main content
Smith Business Insight Podcast | Series 2 . Episode 2 Teams Work

Aligning Diverse Voices

Smith Business Insight Podcast

How do team leaders align diverse voices? And how can a diverse mindset be cultivated, whether or not you’re in charge?


Most people support greater diversity in the workplace. But making that a reality is no simple matter. How do team leaders align diverse voices? And how can a diverse mindset be cultivated, whether or not you’re in charge?

Our guests for this episode are Eddy Ng and Matthias Spitzmuller. Dr. Ng is an associate professor and Smith Professor of Equity and Inclusion. His research focuses on managing diversity for organizational competitiveness, the future of work and managing across generations. Dr. Spitzmuller is an associate professor of organizational behaviour, whose research looks at team motivation and leadership as well as helping and cooperative work behaviours. Your host is Meredith Dault.



When it comes to diversity in the workplace, the research seems clear. According to the Pew Research Center in the United States, 75 per cent of Americans believe that it's important to promote racial and ethnic diversity at work. But when it comes to making that happen, things get a little fuzzier.

It turns out that a lot of people are skeptical about the ways in which some businesses are pursuing that diversity. And many say that they don't want race or ethnicity considered as part of the promotion or hiring process.

So what's an HR director to do? Well, today on TEAMS Work or Teams Work we'll be digging into the issue of aligning diverse voices on teams, from understanding the strengths of diverse teams to learning how to cultivate a diverse mindset no matter whether you're in charge.

I'm Meredith Dault. And I'm your host for this series of podcasts brought to you by the Smith School of Business at Queen's University. Stay tuned.


01:09: Meredith Dault: "We may have all come on different ships, but we're in the same boat now." That line is attributed to Martin Luther King Jr. But what do you do when the fact that you have all come on different ships makes it hard to agree on what direction to steer the boat in?

For more, I'm joined by two of Smith's finest Eddy Ng and Matthias Spitzmuller. Dr. Ng is an associate professor and Smith Professor of Equity and Inclusion. His research focuses on managing diversity for organizational competitiveness on the future of work and on managing across generations.

And Dr. Matthias Spitzmuller is an associate professor of organizational behaviour, where his research focuses on team motivation and leadership and on helping and cooperative work behaviours. Ed, Matthias, it's a pleasure to have you here.

Matthias Spitzmuller: It's great to be here. Excited to do this together with both of you.

Eddy Ng: Thank you for having us.

02:04: MD: So I want to just get us all on the same page to start. So can we start with a definition. When we talk about team diversity, what are we talking about? Eddy, do you want to take this?

EN: Sure. So when you talk about team diversity, oftentimes we think about diversity from a physical attributes perspective, what we call surface-level diversity, things we can see-- gender, race, ethnicity, religion especially when we're visible markers. But it actually goes deeper than that.
So you can always look at diversity from a deep-level perspective as well, things like attitudes, behaviors that manifest out of our belief systems, as well as our experiences. So all those things make us different. So when you put together a team, even though we may all look fairly similar but deep down there's actually more diversity than we actually do recognize from a surface-level perspective.

MD: Oh my gosh, that's a lot. So where do we start and where do we stop? I mean, if all humans are different when it comes to assembling a team like that seems like an impossible task.

MS: One additional dimension that I would add is functional diversity sort of the functional backgrounds that team members have, because there's also a lot of research that has investigated the effects of say, demographic diversity as opposed to functional diversity and sometimes with interesting differences in the results that they have.

MD: But still that's a lot of factors when you're putting together a team. I mean, where do you start? Honestly, how does that team diversity affect team outcomes?

EN: That is a really good question. So for the longest time, social scientists have been trying to figure out how do we design an effective and efficient team. So we look at a lot of factors. The biggest experiment that we know of is the one conducted by Google. So they look and see people who have different sleep habits. Some people are nocturnal they sleep late. Some people are early risers. Some people like classical music. Some people like jazz. So they try to figure out how do we get a very diverse group of people to work together. Now before then, I should take a step back. So that is trying to achieve a group outcome based on the host of factors that we now recognize contribute to that diversity that we have. But at the very basic level, the most common ones that we see right now are sort of gender, race, or ethnicity. Because of the fact that we are a nation of immigrants, we also have a lot of immigrants who don't speak English as their first language. So there are cultural differences, linguistic diversity. So all those things matter on top of some of the deeper-level diversity that I spoke of earlier-- sleep habits, musical preferences.

MD: I never thought of that as being a component of diversity in a team context, though.

EN: All those things matter in terms of how we gel, the chemistry we have. So it all depends on the kind of work we want to perform. So some teams would tend to prefer a lot more similarity or homogeneity especially when a single task that they're trying to accomplish.

So if you look at the military, for instance, there's a mission, mission specific. So it requires a certain level of skill set. So that requires a homogeneous set of skills. So regardless of some of the diversity that you have, you have to have certain skill sets that are common in order to accomplish those goals. But if you work for a creative enterprise say, Apple we are launching the next iPhone or iWatch, then you want more creativity from a different perspective, not so much in terms of having the same skill sets, but rather you want to have as Matthias mentioned earlier, functional diversity-- people who think from different perspectives.

One thing we did learn from biology is that diversity is the essence of survival. So in that sense, if you really want to evolve over time, then you definitely want to have diversity. But all boils down to the kind of task or the outcome that you're trying to get the group to accomplish.

06:03: MD: This just seems so challenging to me because I basically hear you saying everything is different, everyone is different, everyone has different skill sets, that affects teams differently. What do we do? How do we move forward?

MS: It also depends on what is really salient in a given context. So in a given context, in some settings religion might be on top of people's minds. In other contexts, it might be people's racial backgrounds or functional backgrounds. So I remember as a PhD students, there was a clear faultline between the early rise of PhD students who were in the office at 8:00 and the not so early risers including myself, who came to the office somewhere between 10:00 AM and 11:00 AM. And that was the salient characteristic that created two groups of PhD students.

MD: And it shows how the context and the perceived reality also shapes what is salient in a given context. But so how does any of that resonate in terms of teams optimum functionality? Or do teams work better when they're more similar or do they work better when they're more different? Or does that 100 per cent depend on what you're trying to do? 

MS: That is a question that would require a lot more time to answer. But let's try in with a short take. So there is indeed a lot of research that has investigated, does diversity have good effects or bad effects. And if you're looking at the meta analysis summarizing a lot of this research, it will tell you that the effects are mixed. But I think it's also the wrong question to ask because if we find that diversity has got positive or negative effects it says more about the people working in a specific setting than it does about the value of diversity. So imagine you're in a team where individuals do not value diversity. And you inject diversity, and not surprisingly, the team might have conflict and might perform poorly. Does this tell us that diversity cannot have positive effects? No, it doesn't. 

So the question is more, I think, how open are people or researchers would also say, what are the diversity mindsets that people have? To what extent do you appreciate the value of diversity? And then you can also really see that the benefits that come with it. As another example to illustrate that point, many orchestras moved to blind auditions some years ago. The reason why they did this is to promote gender diversity.

MD: Because orchestras were mostly predominantly--

MS: Exactly.

MD: --white men.

MS: And after they did that, indeed the level of female representation increased.

MD: And so this is blind auditions where you'd have somebody performing behind a curtain in a sense, so we're not seeing what the person looks like. We're only listening to the music.

MS: That is exactly the ideas. And since you only pay attention to the music, female representation of musicians in orchestras increased. But also interestingly in the early stages, the morale in some of the orchestras went down. 

So does this mean that we should not work towards diversity? No, it doesn't mean that because what happened over time is once you reached a critical level of female representation, morale did not only reach the previous levels but even exceeded it. And it shows that you cannot just ask this one question, so if we put in, if we inject a little bit of diversity, is it good or bad? It requires a much more nuanced perspective to tell us what other levels of representation, how open are people in a given context towards diversity and appreciating its values. And by adopting a more nuanced perspective, I think, we can also provide much more informed answers that do more justice to the real world.

09:50: MD: And to go back to your example, do we have a sense of why morale went down initially?

MS: Whenever you introduce change in teams or in organizations, what you see is that change initially makes people uncomfortable. So if your data collection takes place at this disruptive episode in which people feel, oh, something's changing. We don't know what it is. Are we comfortable with it? Does this break up existing patterns of interaction? Then you would see maybe there's this negative effect. And once people become more comfortable with it, once people accept this sort of as the new equilibrium, then you might see very different results.

MD: That makes sense. Eddy, did you want to add anything? You're nodding.

EN: No, I'm just in agreement with Matthias's response. But I think that's an excellent question. So maybe it can amplify the message that Matthias had shared with us. So I think it's important to recognize that diversity in itself does have dividends that can pay off, but just having diversity itself is insufficient. So we have all these assets. We know that diversity contributes to creativity, innovation, and a host of other benefits as well. You need to somehow be able to leverage those, and that's what we need inclusion. So I want to circle back to a point earlier that I had shared with all of you with Google. How did they actually end up with trying to figure out people's diversity and preferences? How did they end up moving forward with the experiment? What they had found was that when you have diversity of different sorts, one way to actually leverage all that is to create a climate whereby people feel safe. So you might have heard of the term psychological safety rate. So one of it is so all of us are different, and we are unique.

I've got a friend at the UVA, Martin Davidson who does research on weirdness, weird people. So all of us are weird in a different way. So in that sense, if I'm weird, do you respect me for my weirdness or uniqueness? So that's where inclusion comes in whereby if I feel like I'm accepted and respected, I don't fear that my ideas are being ridiculed. So in that way, then I feel like I'm able to share. And that's how you actually harness that benefit of diversity that we talked about.

So I want to come back to Matthias point, which is a really good one. So mindset is really important. When you put a group of people together, there's a tendency for all of us to like people who are similar to us, share the same food, the same music. So when you put a group of people together, they tend to feel uncomfortable with people who are different from themselves. So what's going to happen, of course, is there's a tendency to gravitate to it's others who are like themselves. And this creates fault lines, which Matthias has mentioned. But the mindset is really important. Telling people that diversity is actually good, which is a belief in what we call pro-diversity beliefs that actually helps people to harness that diversity that we bring to a team. But if you were to hold a pro-similarity belief, then guess what, those diversity benefits are less likely to be leveraged or to be realized. So as a result, you find that sometimes diversity works really well in teams and sometimes they don't.

So here lies the intervention that we're hoping for, telling people that diversity is good. So that's the messaging. And that's something that leaders could do. If I can stretch this a little bit. So if you look at the US and Canada, both of us are pretty diverse nations. And of course, we are both lines of immigrants. Now what differentiates the US and Canada is the messaging that political leaders have actually enacted, the discourse that we hear. So in Canada, we have always been told we need more immigrants because we are unable to survive. So as a result of positive messaging from our politicians, we are much more accepting of people who are different migrants, for instance. In the US, the opposite is true depending on who is in office. So when you start painting immigrants as foreigners who are here to steal jobs and contribute to crime rates guess what, that messaging is a very negative one. It creates the pro-similarity belief generally held or espoused by Americans, whereas in Canada we tend to have more pro-diversity beliefs. So that messaging itself is critical to actually enhance team performance or diverse team performance.

MD: And I want to appreciate that we're generalizing quite a bit when we're talking about Canadians and Americans. But we have always heard about the US being a melting pot and Canada being the mosaic. So that seems like almost a cultural issue. But that must apply to companies as well. So companies are needing to set a culture that asks people to play into the mosaic way of thinking and not the melting-pot way of thinking.

EN: You raised now a good point. So the distinction between the mosaic as well as the melting pot is one of plurality integration versus assimilation rate. So to a certain extent, you'll find that with-- so there was an experiment that was done between France as well as Quebec, where they look at immigrants coming from North Africa. So what they have found is that in Quebec, we tend to emphasize the pluralism, the integration where migrants and refugees are encouraged to sort of learn French as well as keep the native language. Whereas in France, it's a highly assimilationist society where you actually have to be very French.

So you find that over a span of three generations, the migrants to Quebec actually fared better socioeconomically compared to those who went to France, because when you're asked to actually give up your personal identity and assimilate, that creates a fair amount of stress. And if you're unwilling to actually assimilate or to divorce from your native identity, then you're less likely to succeed socioeconomically compared to those who are in Quebec, whereby when you're being actively encouraged to keep your identity as well as learn French, then you find that they tend to flourish better that way.

15:50: MD: Interesting. I'm going to just pull it back to the team, some of the team's research for a moment. Matthias, I wanted to ask you specifically about the issue of self managing versus hierarchical teams in the context of diversity. I know you've done some research in that area. How important is it for teams to identify collectively in these various circumstances?

MS: What we found in our research is that self-managing teams can sometimes struggle because they lack the mechanisms that pull the team together. When I say that pull the team together what I mean with that is they need forces that align people with each other. They need an individual or a mechanism that is in charge of integrating people's voices, opinions, contributions, sometimes also to resolve conflict. So they need something that can accomplish that in the absence of a strong leader. Now, that should not be misinterpreted as saying that we do need strong leaders when we are dealing with diverse teams or diverse societies. The important takeaway is this mechanism that can bring people together, this can be leadership, but it can also be alternative mechanisms. So alternatively, we could also think of an emphasis on common goals, a shared identity as group members and high task interdependence that connects individuals to each other. So all of these are elements of team functioning that can substitute for centralized leadership that brings diverse team members together ultimately.

17:37: MD: So does a self-manage team have to do different work if they're very diverse to keep on track?

MS: A self-managing team does indeed have to manage internal processes more carefully than a team that has a strong leader. To give you one example, at the Smith School, we have got teams working in our professional master programs. And most of the time, this is a wonderful experience for all students. But you've sometimes also got the random team where individuals personalities can collide. And you do not have a leader that is resolving that tension immediately. So that's why we have got team coaches. That's why we have got interventions in place to get these teams together again so that they can move forward productively when conflict emerges. But in the absence of such interventions, it's also easy to see how self-managing teams can also self destruct when these elements that bring individual team members together is absent.

MD: And are they more apt to self-destruct if they're very different within? I guess that's the question.

MS: What I would say is that the more diverse the team members are, the more dynamic team functioning is. And dynamic means it has got more upward potential for creativity, for breakthroughs, for mutual learning, and people really stepping outside of their comfort zone and learning from each other. But it also brings with it the potential, especially in the early stages of team functioning of misunderstandings, of sometimes feeling hurt depending on how direct people communicate with each other and how high context or low context individuals are. But research also finds that these difficulties actually become less problematic over time. We're pretty good at learning each other's differences and expectations over time. But in the early stages of team functioning, that can indeed introduce some challenges.

MD: So similar to the orchestra with its low morale. So--

MS: Exactly.

19:37: MD: -over time it just gets easier. Eddy, I wanted to ask you, we often hear about people from underrepresented groups having to do a lot of heavy lifting when it comes to educating maybe the more normal or uniform bunch. And if there's one or two people who stand out as being more diverse, they've got to do the heavy lifting of getting everyone up to understand, oh, this is what diversity is. I mean, that's a heavy load to bear. Do you have any advice on how we can support inclusivity on teams without putting that burden on a few people within a group to carry the load?

EN: That's a really good question. So what you're referring to is what we refer to as cultural tax.

MD: Cultural tax?

EN: Yeah. So that is the additional burden that oftentimes underrepresented groups have to pick up in terms of servicing others or supporting others who share the same lost status or stigmatized identities. So in the case of teams, oftentimes you do find that, especially as Matthias had mentioned earlier, numerical representation matters a lot. So if you had one or two people who are different, then you do end up having to take on that responsibility of educating others. And that could be additional stress and additional performance that you have to be able to act over and above your job itself. 

Now it's really helpful to actually have a critical mass. And what is this critical mass that we talk about? Also Alison Konrad and her team did a study on corporate boards. So when you have one woman on the board, it's token we know that. When you have two women on the board, it's actually not quite enough because they did find that they do have to get men to actually speak on their behalf. And not only that, you also often find that when there are two women or two ethnic minorities on a particular team they tend to sit together. And if they stand up to say, use the bathroom, they get up and go to the bathroom at the same time. So this also invites certain kind of comments.

MD: Great, and othering, and us and them.

EN: Exactly.

MD: Got it.

EN: So they found that regardless of the size of the team, three seems to be a pretty magical number that we try to aim for, what we call the critical mass. But of course, it can drown out if your team becomes too large. And of course, at that point, you do have too many people. One of the things that we have learned from research is the learning paradigm. So rather than have the person whose identity is being shared do all the educating, organizations and leaders actually take the leadership role or lead role in educating others. So that's why we have Black History Month. And September 30, we're actually focusing on our Indigenous communities. So it's collective learning so that not a single group or a single individual is doing all the heavy lifting.

MS: But I would also add that it's important that those groups can contribute to those events in ways that are meaningful to them. It's important that they're not appropriated by the organization to publicly illustrate their commitment to a cause when it would be an opportunity to include precisely those members of a community who are affected by a specific day.

MD: Got it.

MS: So as an example, when we are wearing orange shirts to commemorate Indigenous children taken away from their families-- the residential school system in Canada-- it should not just be a news release in which people from the organization are wearing this t-shirt. But what about the Indigenous members of a community-- to what extent are they involved in this event? To what extent does it really become a collective learning experience in which all members are invited? This is an important difference that you see in organizations where you feel a genuine commitment to collective learning or organizations that check the box one media release and then let's go back to doing normal business. 

MD: They've got their rainbow flag logo up for a couple of weeks and then it's gone again and--

MS: Exactly.

23.59: MD: --no big change. In general, can people improve the way they understand diversity and teams? Can people, even if they have little experience with diversity or that they're aware of, can they get better at dealing with diversity when they're in teams?

MS: There's a lot that we can do to get better. And at the risk of oversimplifying, exposure and experience is the best medicine. So when our students come back from student exchange, it's wonderful to talk to them because for the first time in their lives they step out of a very comfortable and privileged experience to an experience of being a minority in a different country. They have to look for team members when they are not the ones who are heavily sought after, but they are the ones who have to make the case for why they should be included. And that change in perspective that oftentimes triggers a lasting change in appreciating the value of diversity. And because of that, I think, there's no better recommendation than to immerse yourself in diversity, especially if it means that you assume the role of a minority for some time.

MD: Eddy, want to add anything?

EN: Great point that Matthias pointed out. So I'm, again, just going to build on his point. So social contact hypothesis here is at play. So the greater exposure we have to individuals who are different from us is certainly helpful. But I would also add that the interactions have to be repeated and also they must have experienced positive interactions. I can elaborate a little bit on this. So oftentimes we form stereotypes of other groups based on social identity. Now what we have found is that if you actually have a positive stereotype of a group, all it takes is a single piece of negative information to reverse that positive stereotype or perception you hope of a group. But if you hold a negative stereotype of a particular group, it takes multiple repeated positive interactions to reverse that negative stereotype. So definitely exposure, greater exposure is critical, but at the same time it has to be repeated. And the interactions have to be positive for people to actually start reaching out and dispelling those negative stereotypes that people tend to have of each other.

26:19: MD: Interesting. As we start to wrap things up, I wanted to ask-- both of you can respond to this-- what your advice would be for anyone who wants to go and foster diversity within their teams? There are some people who realize their teams are maybe too homogeneous. They want more diversity, and they don't really know how to go it and get it, especially right now where I feel there are a lot of employers looking to hire. We've got a lot of vacancies. People want to bring diversity in but they don't know how to find it, how to get it. Advice.

EN: That's a great question as well. So first of all, we have to do a better issue selling perspective in terms of why we need that diversity. So oftentimes, diversity for the sake of diversity you tend to get backlash and opposition. So--

MD: From within or from the applicants?

EN: Both actually. That's a good point. So generally, within the organization or within the team people might feel that you are just doing what we call quota filling. And anybody else that you bring in would be stigmatized as a diversity hire. 

So when, in fact, a person could perform really well, that person may already have been stigmatized. So down the road, you'll find that a person's performance actually meet the expectations of others, which is they're not a good performer for a host of various reasons. The individual that's being brought in will feel stigmatized as well. And that creates additional stress that makes it hard for them to perform at the level that they are able to perform, what we call stereotype threat rate.

So I'm aware of the stereotype you hold of me. As a result, it's kind of like stage fright. So when I get on the stage, I'm not performing as well as I am because I know what you're all thinking about me right now. So that added a level of stress. So that's issue selling.

I oftentimes want to redefine. So this is a question of meritocracy. So meritocracy is based on procedural justice. It seems fair to hire the most qualified person or the best qualified person. The other side of it is distributive justice, which is what we are talking about here, which is let's try to have some diversity by focusing our hires on a certain under-represented groups. Now, oftentimes you find that people it doesn't sit as well when you ask for distributive justice in a sense that we're asking to self sacrifice in order to make room for some other group members who are different from us. So the challenge here is how you sell that diversity position. 

So I always say, it's hard to get into law school or med school. We have 100 spots. If you tell people, well, we're going to admit 100 students this year but we're reserving five for underrepresented group members, you're going to get a lot of backlash. But what if we say we will be bringing in 100 medical students or law students, but on top of it we are creating an additional five just for underrepresented group members. So in other words, if you're part of the dominant group, you don't feel like five spots are taken away from you. So that actually is much better in terms of trying to meet your diversity goals. And when I say meeting the diversity goals, I don't mean to just meet it for the sake of having diversity but rather no employer present day is required to hire somebody that is lesser qualified or unqualified for the job just to meet goals. They completely should be able to do the job, but they are merely being asked to consider those candidates ahead of others if they're underrepresented.

MD: As long as once they're inside they don't have to do all the heavy lifting of educating everybody about the question of diversity.

EN: That too.

30:00: MD: You don't want to perpetuate that. Well, so final thoughts, Matthias.

MS: I would add two thoughts. The first one is try to develop your interventions around the lived experiences of the people you try to support. In other words, don't let the members of a majority define what an inclusive climate is. So talk to the people who have struggled in the past-- what are their lived experiences? And sometimes you will be surprised what is important for them. So as an example, let's say that you are a university, and you realize that you have had trouble recruiting students from a certain background. And you realize maybe that actually what is really difficult for students of low socioeconomic status is showing up to a team presentation with a suit that doesn't cost $1,500 and maybe not having had the experience of wearing that day by day. And you realize that maybe this is something that you haven't had on the top of your radar but that's really important to that individual. So let those groups define what you're trying to accomplish as opposed to you imposing it.

The second recommendation that I would have is show a diverse face of the organization to potential applicants. There's some recent research published in the Journal of Applied Psychology that shows that diverse search committees for positions also trigger a higher number of diverse applications. And so in that sense, you also must show your own commitment to diversity through the people that you show as the face of the organization to the outside.

MD: Walk the walk and talk the talk.

MS: Absolutely.

31:48: MD: Any final thoughts you want to share. I've kept you both very long. And I appreciate all your insights. But we want to just go out into the world and build super diverse teams that are highly productive and functional and work really well together. So, any final thoughts?

EN: I've said earlier, I think, diversity if we learn from biology, diversity is actually vital for survival. If there's too much homogeneity and we tend to reproduce ourselves, that does not bode well in terms of organizational survival and sustainability.

MD: That's really fantastic Thank you both so much for your time today.

EN:Thank you again for having us.

MS: Thank you for having us.


MD: And with that, we come to the end of this episode of TEAMS Work. I want to thank, Alan Morantz, Julia Lefebvre and Iryna Vivchar for their behind-the-scenes support in putting this episode together along with editing support from Bill Cassidy and technical support from Andrew Johnson. If you want more insights for business leaders, check out Smith Business Insight at