FEATURES: Team differences go more than skin deep
By Alison Maitland
Financial Times, Jul 29, 2004, p10.
FT.com site, Jul 28, 2004
On the surface, the senior team appointed to set up a new engine plant at a large motor company fulfilled one obvious measure of diversity. The team consisted of an Asian man, a black man and two white men from three different countries, reflecting the workforce they were to manage.
Over the next few months, however, it became apparent that their ethnic and national diversity did not make it a simple job to introduce the new working practices that the company wanted. While the team concentrated on designing the site and getting the right machinery, labour relations were deteriorating.
Concerned by the situation, the chief executive appointed John to the team. He had both technical ability and experience in making the desired labour changes. His relationship with the other four members, however, rapidly became strained.
John called in Rosalind Searle, an organisational psychologist at the Open University, and the team agreed to undergo Myers Briggs personality tests. These revealed that the four had very similar personalities and working styles: they shared a practical, fact-based, rational approach and a desire to know and plan things well in advance.
John's personality type was the complete opposite: an extrovert, his tendency was to work with others to understand the "big picture", to ensure that everyone felt involved, and to leave planning to the last minute to take account of changes.
"While on the face of it, this appeared to be a demographically diverse top team, the Myers Briggs Type Indicator revealed a different picture," says Ms Searle. "A strong clash of personality types was developing."
Concern about white, male domination of Britain's top boardrooms has led to a flurry of initiatives to redress the balance, including news this week of a government investigation into ethnic minority representation. However, the motor company case provides a cautionary note: diversity can be only skin deep.
In a paper to be published shortly in the international journal Long Range Planning, Ms Searle and Paula Jarzabkowski of Birmingham's Aston Business School say that understanding personlity differences provides a more complete profile than more obvious variations in gender, ethnicity, social background or experience. This, in turn, is important in helping teams to be more effective.
Teams with a balance of personality types tend to be better at solving problems but may be prone to conflict, as at the motor company. Facilitated workshops enabled this team to understand their lack of progress on work practices and
their opposition to John. They began to appreciate his approach, as he did theirs.
John suggested a staff competition to name the new engine. The team leader at first resisted, feeling it was his prerogative to name it. "But after he saw the impact this simple act had on workers' involvement and read some of the suggestions, he conceded that they were a lot better than his original name," says Ms Searle.
The authors do not suggest that top teams can simply be selected for "behavioural diversity". But they argue that personality assessments, for example when new members join, can help teams identify tendencies to excess, or areas of strategy-making that they may be prone to ignore.
The executive team in another case study - a UK not-for-profit organisation - was good at generating new ideas but poor at implementing them. The chief executive decided to make changes, instinctively selecting similar, extrovert personality types.
"This is a common trap because similarity breeds familiarity and understanding of each other," the authors say. Chief executives should evaluate their own personality, since this is critical in influencing the team's effectiveness.
The new team at the non-profit body did not recognise the valuable role that their sole, departed "introvert" had played in controlling expenditure. Significant overspending in one area, and a failure to drive change across the organisation, left them struggling to attract new funds.
Top teams containing very different personality types can be highly effective, provided they are aware of their differences and use them productively. The five-strong team at a property development company successfully managed innovative building projects for clients. An important part of their job was to reduce conflict between investors, architects and building contractors. It was a highly pressured business in which the price and delivery date were agreed in advance. Delays or mistakes could be costly.
To check they were working as effectively as possible, the team used another psychometric measure, the Innovation Potential Indicator. This showed big differences between them on all four dimensions of work-style: consistency, adherence to established practices, propensity to challenge others, and desire to change things.
Ms Searle, who followed the team for 30 months, says the five clearly respected and valued each other's styles and worked hard to involve one another. They were able to change direction if necessary, were not afraid to question each other, and took a consistent approach to costing and implementing new ideas. On a sensitive project to construct an award-winning design by architects who had never had anything built before, the team completed the work not only on time but also under budget.