I was born on my mother’s birthday, yet we approach problems and decisions very differently. We joke that instead of me being “the apple that didn’t fall far from the tree,” I somehow dropped down as a cantaloupe. I’m a hyper-analytical “head” person, and she is all “heart,” led by feelings and intuition. When we are fixed in these ways of thinking, conflict can ensue, but when we are able to flexibly think beyond our go-to modes and assume the other person’s way of thinking, we develop a better understanding of each other and the problem at hand.
It is always a goal to bring together educators who identify differently by race, gender, age, region, and so on. (This typically starts with hiring.) But assembling a group of “diverse-looking” people does not guarantee that people hold widely divergent perspectives (Cort, 2020), or if they do, that they will voice divergent perspectives, or that others will listen to divergent perspectives. Diversity of thought, as it is known, is important in group problem solving and decision making (Adams, 2021) and the good news is: it can be cultivated.
In my new book, Intentional Moves: How Skillful Team Leaders Impact Learning, I present 10 primary intentions with a variety of effective leadership strategies to reach them. Here are three moves, explored more in the book, to help you cultivate diverse perspectives on a team:
Exercise flexible thinking.
Like a muscle that needs to be worked in different ways, thinking needs to be stretched (Cort, 2020). Skillful team leaders intentionally create safe and structured opportunities for people to practice voicing diverse ideas respectfully and encourage individuals to go beyond their own mental modes by engaging in flexible thinking.
I created a fun exercise called, “For vs. Against” in which people do more than listen to a viewpoint different than their own; they try it on. Partners must choose to argue “for” a position or “against” it, before they see the actual statement. Once the facilitator reveals the secret statement, each person must debate from the viewpoint selected (for or against), even if it’s different from what they actually believe. (I once warmed-up teacher team leaders in New England to this exercise with a statement that would require some die-hard Patriots football fans to argue “for” the statement: Quarterback Tom Brady is guilty of deflating the football in “deflate-gate”. Talk about requiring flexible thinking.)
Spotlight the minority view.
You can almost feel the energy when ideas take flight, and every member of your team is on board. Momentum works in favor of majority-supported ideas but isn’t so great for giving airtime to hear minority viewpoints, and yet, “there is wisdom in the minority.” (Lewis, 2016; Lewis & Woodhull, 2018). The “minority view” references that which isn’t the widespread view of the majority. Skillful team leaders intentionally spotlight the minority view so that people hear the less popular view and give it the attention it deserves.
Skillful team leaders intentionally create safe and structured opportunities for people to practice voicing diverse ideas respectfully.
Listen for tiny moments where someone voices a perspective that might not be held by the majority of people in the room. The voice might come from someone who is part of or speaking on behalf of an underrepresented group. Give your support to the person who said it. Make time and invite your colleagues to understand the minority viewpoint.
This might sound like: “Let’s not gloss over that point. It might not affect everyone, but it’s important to explore.”
The 1978 packaging for Pepperidge Farm® Goldfish® crackers showed a school of tiny fish all swimming in the same direction, except for one. I don’t know why they changed it to have them all swimming together. I think the little guy who boldly took a different path represented an important aspect of teams (even if he was just a cracker)—specifically the concept of diversity of thought. Skillful team leaders intentionally invite dissent. They create a space where people are expected to push back on ideas, challenge positions, share opposing viewpoints, and disagree.
Notice when colleagues self-censor. This could look like people prefacing their views with a disclaimer, such as “This is probably a dumb idea, but . . . ,” or dismissing their own idea before they finish speaking. Ask them directly to continue voicing their idea.
This might sound like: “Please continue. You bring a distinct perspective that we want to hear.”
Whether your team is made up of all apples or you have a few cantaloupes in the mix, you can and need to cultivate a culture where diversity of thought is welcome and intentionally practiced.