Diverse Teams: a Reflection on Survival and Plasticity

Humans have long adapted to their environments as a matter of survival. Our entire evolutionary path has largely been a matter of successful adaptation: tribes that attuned their behaviours to changing environments survived, while those that did not modify their approach typically perished. Apply this principle to contemporary existence, where life is anything but stagnant. Our working lives are in a constant state of flux: people come and go, policies change and systems are updated. Many workplace practices are undergoing rapid change and resistance often follows. The question of adaptation and survival surely must be asked at some point along our organisational trajectory. When it comes to increasing diversity in our workplaces, are we brave enough to accept and understand deeply those who are immensely dissimilar? Can we prove that we can adapt and thrive?

Most leaders hire for “culture fit.” When an interviewee is hired because they “fit” the culture, we know that the health of the team will become a little less strong. Alternatively, when we hire for “culture value,” we are improving the health of the team. Metaphorically, we can describe this process as akin to receiving a vaccine. The team may feel that it has been injected with a virus, something foreign; yet this leads the team, over time, to become immune to attack. Essentially, the team has proved itself able to adapt to the change, becoming increasingly resistant to anything that can harm it. We all know what happens to those who do not adapt to their environments. It is either adapt, or perish. The two do not co-exist.

Unfortunately, the likely result for most people who are hired and, later, recognised as not fitting the current culture is that they are “managed out.” What has occurred, perhaps inadvertently, is that the team has proved that it cannot adapt to the change that was presented to it; the challenge was too uncomfortable and the change too confronting. As with a foreign body, the easiest, perhaps the only, solution is to expel the foreigner. No adjustments need be made, no behavioural ills transcended. Consequently, what the team has lost is a growth experience. This cannot continue to be a reflection of the person’s “ill fit” to the culture; rather, it should become an introspective journey for those doing the “expelling,” because it was they who perhaps failed, not the incomer.

Most of us have heard of in-groups and out-groups. The strength of any team is perhaps its ability to adapt to those who enter, regardless of differences, and to approach the perceived differences with an open mind, in essence, less binary thinking concerning the incomer.

When hiring, be aware that "culture fit” won’t necessarily make your team healthier. It may make your team a little less resistant, a little less aware and a lot less plastic. It may pose a threat to the future survival of the team by reducing its ability to adapt.

About the author

T.A. Kiaos Ph.D (c) is an Organisational Anthropologist specialising in critical ethnographic research methods. T.A. Kiaos' research spans several interconnected topics: the underlying systems of cultural and sub-cultural meaning, managerial ideology and normative control, with a particularly strong focus on how these interconnected phenomena affect marginal cohorts in the workplace.

Contact: connect@diversityfirst.com.au

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