The Critical Skill Needed to Make Diversity Work

Dec 11, 2020



Over years of working with companies across industries and sectors on leadership and grit, I have seen that change— whether it came from an acquisition, a merger, technology, or a reorganization—has always been challenging. Growth and contraction are equally difficult. With the confluence of COVID-19 and its associated economic implications, as well as social unrest, every industry is facing unprecedented change—some acceleration, others attrition, and for everyone, shifts or redirection. The Grit Institute and my book, The Grit Factor, recognize that change, especially cataclysmic change, is constant and requires grit.

Given these challenges, your company needs all hands on deck with the opportunity to contribute their full potential. You need teams that are thoughtful and creative. If there was one critical consideration about building a team that emerged from my interviews with senior military leaders for The Grit Factor, it was this: The most successful teams are diverse teams. But diversity alone is not enough. Leaders must know how to employ diverse teams effectively.

The importance of diversity in teams was recognized by John Stuart Mill in the 19th century, when he wrote: “It is hardly possible to overrate the value of placing human beings in contact with persons dissimilar to themselves, and with modes of thought and action unlike those with which they are familiar. Such communication has always been, and is peculiarly in the present age, one of the primary sources of progress.”

In my interview for The Grit Factor with General Ann Dunwoody, the first woman to earn four stars in the Army, she put it plainly: “If you’re sitting around the table with people who all look like you, and sound like you, you’re going to have a narrow view of things.”

Building a diverse team takes work and focused application. You know that your organization will be more innovative and creative—critical traits in a time of change—with more diverse representation. This doesn’t apply only with respect to gender and race, though those are excellent starting places, but also to age, personality, and background.


Much has been written on how to go about the important work of building diverse teams. But less is discussed about how to make that team, once assembled, function optimally. Perhaps the most important and most strategic skill is the one that is least discussed. It isn’t enough to have your team assembled at the table—the hard work is ensuring that those voices are heard and considered. The hardest work is putting a premium on listening first.

The importance of listening for leaders not only came up in nearly every interview I conducted with general officers, but it is supported by numerous outside studies as well. Whether it is listening up (to your boss, board, or member of your C-suite) so that you understand and can meet requirements, or listening laterally and down (to your colleagues, direct reports, and support staff) to understand the environment and how best to take care of your people, being a strong leader requires listening until it hurts. Of course, by itself, listening does not solve anything. Listening, and the information that comes from it, informs action—and supports the efforts you put into developing a diverse team. Without listening, you are setting yourself up for failure and perhaps embarrassment, and you will not be able to capitalize on the significant benefits that come from diversity.

So why is listening hard? In a time of crisis, leaders feel the weight of vision setting, as they should. Most leaders are also afraid, both for personal reasons and concerning the future of their organizations. Fear and a bias for action are a part of many, if not most, leaders, and both interfere with good listening. To listen first, a leader has to consciously put aside both action and fear. A leader has to ask questions and make space for the answers. This active listening is both art and science.


What does listening have to do with grit? A lot, it turns out. So much, in fact, that listening is a part of the U.S. Army Master Resilience training. For leaders navigating challenging environments, actively listening helps you understand the environment and provides critical clues about how to proceed. Whether you need to learn what is expected of you or understand how you can best take care of and develop your people, listening is a key component in giving you the information needed to make it through even the most difficult times. It gives you a tool you can use again and again, helping you to begin effectively, stay on track, and course-correct after a misstep.

Knowing how to listen will help you gather vital information and establish a trusting relationship with both co-workers and superiors, especially as the corporate world continues to shift away from top-down directive leadership. Today, leaders are expected to develop and employ the strengths of each team member, so it is more important than ever to truly understand the people who are working for you—especially with a diverse team, where perspectives and ideas may prove challenging to more established leadership. Gaining that understanding requires listening. The Army’s maxim “mission first, people always” reflects the reasoning behind this work. In addition to stressing the right priorities, it is also the way the work gets done: You take care of your people, and they take care of the mission. That’s not to say that there isn’t tough love along the way—there always is. But it’s very hard to support people personally and professionally if you don’t know them, and hard to know them if you don’t listen.

Listening is a vital component of something every leader needs: understanding. I grew up with a calligraphic rendering of the “Peace Prayer” of Saint Francis on the wall outside our kitchen. One line of the prayer reads, “Lord, grant that I may not so much seek to be understood as to understand.” Saint Francis knew that listening is an essential precursor to understanding. It means you care enough about others that you’re willing to suspend your own desire to jump to judgment and consider that there may be other important perspectives. It does not necessarily mean that what you hear should inform direction or decision. The act of listening itself is important in the process of determining the best way to go forward, and it is a requirement of leveraging the maximum impact of your diverse team.

Looking toward the months and even years ahead, much is uncertain. Long-term goals are impossible given what is unknown. Still, your organization has to be prepared for whatever comes, and this requires creativity and adaptability. The best starting point is diversity. Then, to give your diverse team every chance to bring their unique skills to any given solution, you and your leadership team must prioritize listening first.

About the Author: Shannon Huffman Polson is founder and CEO of The Grit Institute, a leadership development organization dedicated to ethical, people-centered leadership. She is one of the first women to fly the Apache helicopter in the U.S. Army, and a veteran of the corporate world as well. She is the author of The Grit Factor: Courage, Resilience, and Leadership in the Most Male-Dominated Organization in the World (Harvard Business Review Press, 2020).