Diverse teams often underperform because people of dissimilar backgrounds clash. Singapore employers need to attract, retain and groom talent from all backgrounds fairly and equitably.

As a long-term Singapore resident, I was uplifted by the recent National Day Rally speech. I myself have benefited from Singapore’s economic growth, having relocated to Singapore in the mid-1990s when its financial markets were booming. I have stayed in Singapore because of the career opportunities my firm offered me and the friendships I built.

Being a small city-state with low population growth, economically, we need to be able to attract the best and brightest talent, particularly in areas of higher growth.

Studies have shown that diverse talent can improve organisational, team and individual outcomes, as well as profits, performance, creativity, engagement and wellbeing. In addition, it can increase innovation and service.

Global talent, however, is highly mobile and has the choice of markets where they can work.

The tensions between talent management and diversity

A challenge that I foresee employers will face is finding, grooming and retaining the talent they need to support their business growth while supporting workplace diversity.

This is because talent management concentrates on identifying and developing a small number of workers. Diversity management, on the other hand, promotes the inclusion of all.

Unfortunately, diverse teams often underperform because people of dissimilar backgrounds often clash.

I suspect some employees may feel apprehensive about the recent announcement made during PM Lee’s National Day Rally speech about the global competition for talent, as they worry that they don’t or won’t get the career opportunities they deserve.

Sadly, if left unresolved and undiscussed, tensions in teams can lead to an increased “us vs them” silo mentality in the workplace, leading to more counterproductive workplace dynamics and behaviours.

Therefore, Singapore employers need to attract, retain and groom talent from all backgrounds fairly and equitably.

To do this, companies need to concentrate on having inclusive workplaces, as having a diverse workforce will only work with inclusion. In addition, improved performance will occur if everyone works well, knows each other, and is comfortable speaking up.

Promoting psychological safety in the workplace

Since the pandemic’s start, many people have experienced workplace stress, such as a fear of losing their job or health concerns. As such, it is even more critical today that employers ensure that all their people feel that it is safe to speak up about their problems and fears in teams. This includes their future career opportunities and development.

Psychologically safe work environments are ones where people are not embarrassed, feel rejected or are punished for speaking up. Researchers Amy Edmondson and Henrik Bresman have found that psychological safety improves the performance of diverse teams.

When people are uncomfortable speaking up, their thoughts may become repressed or unspoken. Yet, they may still behave in ways that show resentment and resistance and are not inclusive.

Further, corporate cultures or the unspoken “way we do things here” can stifle change and positive work dynamics. When these behaviours inhibit positive dynamics, it may be due to more profound anxieties amongst employees who resist change, which is worth further understanding.

Welcoming cultural humility into the workplace

One way to promote this is through cultural humility. In other words, welcoming emotions into group discussions is a way to break down the barriers between teams at work.

Allowing people to share personal stories and incidents that shaped who they are will show a more human side of each other. This will support people of different backgrounds in building emotional ties and working more collaboratively.

Find ways to build emotional ties with your people from all backgrounds in a non-threatening way, in small groups in safe spaces away from the office, such as leadership development programmes beyond team-building activities.

I always found that having coffee with my most junior team members one-on-one was one of the best ways to build ties and show that I was genuinely interested in them.

Further, revisit your sponsorship and mentoring opportunities for all staff and ensure that stretch assignments and equal openings are available to all.

This is difficult for leaders, given we are all swamped and time-constrained. However, we leaders can quickly go into a command-and-control mode under stress.

For most people today, working is not just about the money. Work supports our self-esteem and wellbeing. Therefore, as leaders, we must find ways to engage the hearts and minds of all our people to foster the benefits of all our talent.

The writer is a Singapore Permanent Resident, non-executive director and author of Fostering Culturally Diverse Leadership in Organisations: Lessons from Those Who Smashed the Bamboo Ceiling, published by Routledge. She was formerly PwC’s Singapore and Asia-Pacific Diversity Leader.

First published by The Business Times on 26 September 2022.