Diversity in Project Teams

The final step of the project manager before assigning specific people to the identified project roles is to consider the diversity of the planned team members. Group think must be avoided within the team to allow healthy project discussions. Sociocultural and individual diversity are some of the factors that will have an influence on group behavior. Building relationships are crucial to the newly-formed team, and the more diverse a team is, the more challenging this task will be. If diversity is managed strategically, it can increase the effectiveness of the team significantly.

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The following factors must be considered by the project manager:

Culture. As companies increasingly include virtual teams in their organizational makeup, they also increase the levels of diversity. This will have an impact on whether information is communicated implicitly or explicitly; whether conflict is addressed directly or indirectly; whether decision-making is expected to be collaborative or by those in power only.

Gender. Gender stereotyping has its foundation in a cultural approach: it is suggested that men and women have different communication styles, which impact interactions in a team. Even though these perceptions have changed over years and it is now believed that there are more similarities than differences between the two genders’ communication styles, it may pose a challenge in some teams. Teams should, therefore, be aware of the potential for people to be stereotyped into a particular role based on their gender.

Age. It is very likely that project teams will be formed with individuals representing members from three or four generations (Seniors, Baby Boomers, Gen -Xers, and Gen-Yers), and flexibility will be of great value in the intergenerational trust-building process. Building an understanding of the diverse values and personal needs of the team members representing the generational span will be a challenge in most project teams. Teams that contain marked age differences must work harder to find social conversations that will serve as a common denominator by which team members can share their experiences.

Education. It is generally assumed that there is a connection between academic achievement and the ability to perform the necessary skills in day-to-day discussions. If members of a team have a more homogeneous education, the socialization process is more easily facilitated.

Professional Diversity. Professional background, organizational standing, and expertise can have an impact on the productivity of teams. People in the highly-skilled professions may be perceived to hold stereotyped views of less-qualified workers’ intellectual abilities. The tension usually is reduced by finding some basis of equality outside team members’ occupations.

Interpersonal Needs. The Fundamental Interpersonal Relations Orientation (FIRO) theory assumes that individuals in a small group pursue the satisfaction of interpersonal needs. Individual personalities and cultural backgrounds are determinants in the level of need, and as the group becomes more comfortable with each other, shifts on the continuum occur.

Managing the different characteristics of teams and the factors that contribute to team effectiveness, poses challenges in organizations. Even though there may be less conflict in homogeneous teams, task performance may not be as effective as that of a heterogeneous team. Therefore, investment in management awareness of and sensitivity-training in diversity will reap significant organizational benefits.

Dawie Steenkamp, PhD, PMP.

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