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How do you balance a consistent culture with diversity?

by Paula Cizek

Well-meaning leaders tend to want one culture—they want everyone to share the same values and goals, hoping to avoid costly and time-consuming disagreements. At the same time, they’ve heard that teams should be diverse. And indeed, research shows that teams that are cognitively diverse outperform more homogenous teams. So how can leaders reconcile these contradictory demands?

The truth is, while it’s important to create a “big tent”—a culture that everyone is excited to be a part of—don’t be surprised if subcultures start to emerge. Humans are predisposed to creating subcultures based on the slimmest of pretenses, whether that’s eye color or musical preferences. What’s more important than having a homogenous culture is shared trust—that is, regardless of which team you’re on, you believe that other teams will look out for your interests.

Here’s how to create a culture of mutual respect:

Build from common ground. Sports rivalries are legendary—Michigan vs. Ohio State, Real Madrid vs. Barcelona, Celtics vs. Lakers— but in the end, fans from opposing teams are united in the love of the game. Your goal should be to develop an overarching culture that attracts different types of people. This could be accomplished by defining an ambitious, world-changing mission, for instance, or committing to a deep-seated value that inspires greatness. Then, develop rituals to make people feel like they’re part of a special in-group.

Make hiring more objective. When hiring, it’s all too easy to select people who think like you, or someone that the team would “want to have a beer with,” rather than the person who brings the most to the role. To avoid this inherent bias, consider developing a hiring rubric to better grade potential candidates against company needs. And when evaluating them from a cultural perspective, consider what they can add to your culture, not just how they’ll fit into the existing culture.

Get aligned. Tensions often arise when teams disagree about what trade-offs they’re willing to make—for instance, one team wants product updates to achieve 100% accuracy, while another team values shipping on time above all else. Bring teams together in advance to discuss what trade-offs they’ll make, and when. We like using the “even over” framework to express these choices—the example above could be summarized as “Speed even over accuracy.” Note that this is a choice between two good things. No one struggles to decide between “accurate vs. inaccurate” or “on-time vs. delayed.”

Put yourself in their shoes. When disagreements do arise, make an effort to truly understand what other people want. You can’t change others’ motivations, but you can try to identify where your wants overlap with theirs. And assume positive intent—believe it or not, you’re not the only one who has a good reason for doing what you’re doing.

Paula Cizek is Chief Research Officer at NOBL, a global change agency reinventing the way organizations work. We help leaders and teams develop more effective processes and systems, ultimately building a culture that responds faster and more effectively to rapidly changing markets. To learn more about our embedded change services, offsite facilitation, and executive training, visit

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