A Company Called Babel

What happens when very different sorts of people join together on the same team to pursue a common goal? Conflicts arise in every group as a result of prejudices and opposing values, and they can wind up destroying a corporate project that just might be critical for the survival of the company.

 

These days, managing diversity is a challenge for companies everywhere around the world. To address these questions, Juan Carlos Cubeiro, who founded the Eurotalent coaching firm, and Marta Romo, who manages Eurotalent, have written a book called, The Garden of Babel. Cubeiro is also a professor at the University of Deusto, the CEU San Pablo University, and the ESADE business school. For their book, the two leadership experts created a fictitious team of nine people of widely different characteristics who have to work together to create a plan about the Spanish educational system. Cubeiro tells Universia-Knowledge@Wharton his solution for enabling any diverse group of people to function effectively together.

 

Universia-Knowledge@Wharton: What do we mean by “diversity” and what types of diversify can be found in any company? Which types of diversity usually attract less attention and where do companies need to work harder?

 

Juan-Carlos Cubeiro: When we talk about managing diversity, in reality we should be dealing with three levels of diversity: The first level is visible diversity, which people can understand simply by looking (different genders, ethnicities, height; and physical, psychological or sensory disabilities). The second type is tangible diversity, which you can see on people’s CVs: (differences in age, education, experience, knowledge of languages, hobbies, etc.) The paradoxical thing is that it is common to discriminate not only on the basis of the visible but also on the tangible (providing fewer opportunities as a result of gender, ethnicity, age, etc.) when you should really be focusing on making diversity a source of strength for the team by managing diversity in an integral way.

 

When it comes to doing away with discrimination, managing diversity by imposing quotas should not be a goal in itself. The most advanced organizations promote tolerance by using their profound knowledge of the three levels of diversity. They use appropriate tools to learn about each team-member’s style of learning and the ways he or she is different (his or her strong points and those areas that need improvement). Managers create a “diversity map” that enables them to react to what is happening and make appropriate decisions.

 

A team cannot achieve a high rate of performance unless it has a balance of those who are skilled at conceptualizing and those who are skilled at taking action; a balance of uniqueness and multiplicity; of the more visceral, the more emotional and the more intellectual.

 

UK@W: When it was time to select your team, you chose nine members, an odd number. Why was the group ultimately composed of five men and four women?

 

J.C.C.: The members of the team were not chosen according to their gender but because of their personalities. Each of them brings a different combination of attributes: Three team members are more visceral; three are more emotional, and three are more intellectual. Also, there are three extroverts; three introverts; and three that are somewhere in between.

 

As I noted earlier, complementarity is not something visible (gender, ethnicity, skills and incapacities) or tangible (age, education, experiences). Instead, it involves intangibles; ways of thinking, feeling and acting, which require using such tools as the learning style test of David Kolb and the diversigram, which applies the Enneagram concept to business. The Enneagram establishes nine basic types of personalities. These tools not only enable the team members to know themselves (the classic goal of the Oracle of Delphi) but also to understand the contributions of each member to the overall team. The diverse categories involve “packages of skills” through which we can determine a professional’s strengths and opportunities for improvement; his or her roads toward progress; and how he or she communicates, leads and must be led.

 

UK@W: Can you provide us with a description of the personality profiles of each person you selected, and explain why they were chosen?

 

J.C.C.: This team has been conceived and designed to analyze the state of education in Spain, and to propose specific improvements. The team members are:

 

·         Elena Moral, 29. A teacher at a public high school, she was chosen for her contributions to the educational community. She is a person who has self-control, is disciplined, and consistently pursues excellence.  It is hard for her to confide in other people, and she tends toward rigidity and individualism. She needs to have everyone comply with their promises.

·         Nuria Amor, 54. A professor of differential psychology in the department of education, she was chosen because she is an expert in gender differences. She stands out for her generosity, empathy, optimism, and her ability to establish relationships with others. It is hard for her to learn about herself, and at moments of stress she tends to be manipulative and doesn’t always keep her word. She needs other people to care about her and be grateful for her efforts.

·         Elisa Máscara, 39. A senior manager of a multinational company, she is competitive, combative and charming. Oriented toward success, she communicates clearly. Because she measures herself by external achievements, she is more concerned about her image than about being authentic. She needs to be active and at the same time to relax and assume her own identity.

·         Alicia Marchito, 41. A sociologist and film director, she was chosen for her expertise in social matters. A very sensitive and emotional person who is very creative and pays attention to other people’s feelings, she also has a very strong temperament that is sometimes egocentric and envious. She needs to share what is within her with the rest of the world.

·         Gerardo Cabezón, 57. An entrepreneur in the high technology sector, he is very rational and intelligent; classifies concepts; quiet, amiable, and a smooth speaker. His isolation causes him problems. He needs freedom and independence.

·         Rodrigo Leal, 36. A partner in a law firm, he was chosen for his legal knowledge. A loyal and committed person who is friendly and promotes collaboration, he is troubled by people who are anxious and uncertain when it comes to making decisions. He needs for things to be very clear, and to know what people expect of him.

·         Alex Bromist, 35. A strategic consultant, he was chosen for his experience at planning. He is positive, vital, happy and skilled at public relations. It is hard for him to persevere with projects, and he can lose control at times of crisis. He needs a good working environment, and he needs to have enthusiasm for the future.

·         Manuel Duro, 50. The government delegate for this project, he was chosen the leader of the team. He stands out for his energy, his action-oriented personality, and the influence he exerts because of the clarity of his ideas and his drive. It is hard for him to keep his emotions under control. He needs to be very active to burn off his energy.

·         Álvaro Paz, 67. Formerly minister of education, he has outstanding political experience. As a negotiator, he contributes peace and harmony to the group. He minimizes his presence and is more reactive than pro-active, even to the point of appearing lazy. He doesn’t have great expectations. The most important thing for him is to avoid conflict.

 

UK@W: What problems can occur within a team that has such different kinds of members? And how can they solve every problem?

 

J.C.C.: We tend to call any group of people a team.   But a team only exists when there are synergies, when the combined results are greater than what each member can contribute by themselves. If a group is not a team, what you produce is anti-synergy, since it would be better to be alone than be with someone who is harmful. That kind of group is not a team; it is a clan. (There is one person who gives the orders, and the rest obey. Communication is hierarchical; relationships are very rigid and cold.) Or you have a gang (where there is a defined leader, sporadic or non-existent communication; and fragile trust and commitment.) Vito Corleone, the Godfather, didn’t create a team. The “tuna” groups (who keep alive student traditions from the thirteenth century) are not teams.

 

For a group of people to become a real team, diversity is one of the indispensable conditions. A team without heterogeneous members is not really a team. You absolutely need to have different kinds of personalities that complement one another. Fortunately, we have tools for analyzing and measuring the unique character of each member of the team.

 

UK@W: If you decide to divide up the work and create smaller groups, what should these mini-teams be like? Homogeneous, in order to reinforce common skills and knowledge, or sufficiently heterogeneous to make up for the shortcomings of each professional [who belongs to the group]?

 

J.C.C.: The job of the team is fractured to some extent. The mini-teams should reproduce the conditions of the larger teams. Homogeneity (in terms of similar gender, ethnicity, education, age and experience; and, especially, personality traits) does not help the team. Strengthening the skills and knowledge of the team doesn’t contribute too much value. Complementarity is what is really valuable, even though it is more difficult because it requires discussion, debate, decision-making, and making sure that you carry out what you agreed to do.

 

When it comes to size, obviously a team of five people is more agile than one of 10. (In fact, when you go beyond a nine-person team, things become more complicated in terms of interaction.) Nevertheless, so long as each team member contributes not only his or her knowledge and skills but also their attitudes; their way of being, it is useful to bring those people onto the team.

 

UK@W: What are the risks and benefits of creating a homogenous team or a heterogeneous team?

 

J.C.C.: Strictly speaking, it is not about the pros and cons of each option. A real team requires diversity because it requires leadership. (There is no team without a leader, and no leader without a team.) It also requires shared vision (about realities, its mission, vision and shared values.) It also requires a professional focus on problem solving and decision making (with open processes for clarifying the situation and generating ideas, as well as closed processes for deciding, communicating and executing.) You also need an appropriate level of trust and commitment, of continuous learning and analysis of the environment.

 

For example, five out of every six managerial committees are really committees of senior managers. Each executive sees the company from the viewpoint of his or her own function – whether it is finance, marketing or human resources – and does not contribute to the functioning of the overall company. A true managerial committee is composed of professionals who review what’s happening and draw up the strategy of the company as a whole.

 

UK@W: What are the most common errors when it is time to choose a team? What kinds of things should never be done?

 

J.C.C.: Usually, the most common mistakes result from a lack of criteria, such as bringing people onto the team almost exclusively because of their technical knowledge and not because of their skills at collaborating or cooperating with others. These kinds of skills (at collaboration) are essential for playing a role in the team. [Another mistake is that] they create quotas (of gender, or corporate department of origin). Or, even worse, rather than select people on their merits (by considering their aptitudes, attitudes and behavior), they do so on the basis of seniority (because it’s their turn); or nepotism, or on the basis of what [candidates] like and hate.

 

One of the barriers to creating an authentic team is that people don’t know about the practical tools for managing diversity. Or they think that such tools do not exist, or that these tools have no scientific validity. However, distinctive personality types and learning styles have been proven by science to exist, and they have predictive power. Improvisation [at team-building] is the worst thing for a work environment and for a company’s bottom line.

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