Diversity and Unity in Teams
As a young veterinary manager at the San Diego Zoo, I had an opportunity to rebuild a department from the ground up. In my youthful exuberance, I thought I knew what I needed to do. So, I hired the best and the brightest professionals I could find. I wanted people with diverse talents. But I also knew many who were the best technically did not have the skills to build trusting relationships with people.
That created a problem for me. I had to decide which I wanted more, highly talented professionals or a unified team. How could I have both? Years later, I discovered the solution to that dilemma. The answer had been right in front of me every time I examined an animal or saw one in action.
Unity and Diversity — Animal Life
The light turned on when I realized each animal has an assortment of structures and functions — from the anatomic to the molecular — that work together in a unified manner. I became exquisitely aware of this the first time I saw a California condor flying in its habitat.
Condors are unmistakable in the sky. They not only loom large, but fly with the stability and assurance of a small airplane. Watching with binoculars, I could see the intricate and subtle wing movements that allowed them to soar effortlessly on the thermals. Flight is an example of a function that demands complex actions from all parts of a bird. Every animal functions in this way, as a unified body with separate components all vital to the whole.
Unity Through Diversity — Teams
It’s the same with people working in teams. I learned as a department head that my teams thrived when they had the right work environment. Such a workplace was one in which people could develop and use their diverse talents and apply them to a unified purpose. Unity, not uniformity, makes a team strong.
I have seen many top-performing individuals whose gifts were impressive, much like the extraordinary wings of a condor. They can perform amazing feats! Yet, successful teams require that each team member’s talents, like the condor’s wings and brain, work together in synergy. A high-performing team member not working toward the team’s purpose is like the left wing of a condor working alone. It is beautiful in its own way, but is useless to the bird. No matter how significant we think we are individually, our value to the team only comes from our collective efforts.
Using Diversity as the Source of Team Strength and Unity
The following are ways to achieve diverse and united teams.
1. Provide direction and share the “why.”
Great leaders spend extraordinary time and effort developing a vision. Then they communicate it well and frame all activities in that context. Clarity of purpose is inspiring and essential for team unity. It is the leader’s number one job.
2. Support a diversity of strengths in team members.
Diverse talents are the raw materials for getting the job done. Effective leaders know people well enough to understand, recognize and help develop their talents into strengths — those that benefit the team.
3. Value people as people; honor them.
Team members want their leaders to value who they are — and not just the function they serve.
4. Select new hires carefully.
Bringing new people on board should be a well-considered process. Look for leadership characteristics. Take your time. Depending on the person selected, your culture can be strengthened, weakened or otherwise altered.
Teams fall into dysfunction if the workplace lacks unity and does not support diversity. We can, however, set a different course — an upside down one if you will — where people and relationships matter. In a setting where team members trust, value and serve one another, teams can stand firm and accomplish their missions.
How can you use the diverse skills and talents in your team to increase team unity?
For a further discussion on building teams through attention to unity through diversity, read Upside Down Leadership: A Zoo Veterinarian’s Journey to Becoming a Servant Leader.” It’s available at Shopzoo.com.
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