Running a diverse team is harder work – but the rewards are immense

John Womersley managed more than 50 nationalities on a €3 billion science project. Here, he reflects on the experience and gives tips on getting the most out of a diverse team

John Womersley's avatar
University of Oxford
28 Jun 2022
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Running a diverse team is harder work but the rewards are immense

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It’s widely understood that along with a moral imperative to promote diversity and inclusion, there’s a very practical benefit from doing so: a diverse team performs better, it avoids groupthink and it comes up with more creative and imaginative solutions. But how can we help this happen in practice? What takes a group from being a mismatched set of individuals without much in common to functioning cohesively in a way that exploits diverse viewpoints and experience and delivers better decisions?

From 2016 to 2021, I was director general of the European Spallation Source, a 3 billion (£2.6 billion) science facility under construction in Sweden. To build and operate this cutting-edge research infrastructure we recruited a very diverse workforce indeed: more than 50 nationalities were represented, with backgrounds in science, engineering, government, business and industry – ranging from defence and aerospace to power generation and even packaging. It was a young staff with a better than typical gender balance and minority representation for a scientific project.

A key challenge for me in leading my top team was to involve everyone in a way that built on this diversity – I wanted decisions to be based as much as possible on consensus where everyone had input, because decisions made this way are much more likely to benefit from diverse viewpoints and are also more likely to be implemented and followed through. The first thing for me to do was ensure we all shared some basic boundary conditions – what the organisation was for and what success would look like. The next thing was to step back, be quiet and let everyone speak – there’s no benefit in having a diverse team if the boss is going to impose his or her will regardless.

At the same time, we have to remember that not everyone around the table has the same domain knowledge. Each brings particular expertise and background and has to be allowed some kind of special standing in those areas – otherwise there would have been no point in recruiting them. So I needed to develop a culture in which domain experts could be challenged, but respectfully and positively. This wasn’t always simple, because there are natural asymmetries in experience. I sometimes felt very sorry for our communications team, for example, because in an age of social media absolutely everyone believes they’re an expert in communications, whereas very few of us felt able to challenge experts on, say, accelerator physics or Swedish trade union law.  

So far, so obvious. But I quickly learned other lessons to do with cultural or personality differences. It’s easy to believe that consensus has been reached when an issue has been discussed thoroughly and everyone nods their head at the end of the meeting. But it’s always worth following up one-on-one to be sure. Some people are reluctant to go along with a decision that they believe has been made in haste – they won’t say no, but there’s no real yes. Many times this comes down to a different attitude to risk.

My role as leader of the organisation often involved “absorbing” the risks that couldn’t be dealt with any other way, by taking personal responsibility: we need to move forward, so here’s what we’ll do, and the responsibility is clearly mine. This doesn’t always work – it may be a fine strategy for financial risk, but if a scientist or engineer believes something simply won’t work, no amount of “buck stops here” posturing from their boss will convince them that it’s a good way forward.

There was also a strong sense among some of the staff that arguing, disagreeing or challenging colleagues too strongly in front of others was unseemly or rude. I had one (very intelligent) team member who was always a bit reluctant to speak his mind fully in meetings, because he didn’t believe he had the status or authority to challenge the experts, yet he was much more comfortable, and completely candid, in one-on-one discussions.

I can’t claim that what we did at ESS was perfect: it’s always going to be an ongoing learning process. But let me share a couple of examples of things that really benefited from a diverse range of inputs. ESS receives much of its technical equipment in the form of in-kind contributions from its member states. When, as is typical for one-of-a-kind R&D, there are problems in technical performance or assembly, of schedule delays or cost increases, we needed to agree a way forward. These kinds of issues are not simply technical or financial problems, or to be solved by imposing penalties for late delivery – but neither can they be ignored in the name of maintaining friendly relationships. An approach balancing all these concerns needs to be developed and only a team reflecting all these different viewpoints can do so.

The second example is our approach to Covid. As most readers will be aware, Sweden did not impose a nationwide lockdown. ESS needed to develop its own policies for work during the pandemic; we aimed to maintain a safe working environment while moving the project forward. Hands-on technical work in construction and commissioning therefore continued, with protective measures and greater distancing, while primarily office-based staff worked from home.

To develop a sound plan that everyone could support, we needed a task force drawing expertise from the technical managers, safety team, experts in the Swedish and Danish legal requirements, communications and HR experts, as well as input from what was happening in other big laboratories across Europe. Treating this simply as a safety issue, or an HR issue, or a technical issue, would never have worked. In the end, I think we arguably did a better job of balancing all these concerns than was achieved by many national governments.

Managing a diverse team is rewarding and stimulating. But let’s be honest – it’s probably more work than managing a very homogeneous one. I do wonder if that’s one unacknowledged reason behind biases in recruitment. In my experience, a diverse team also takes more time to gel, perhaps because of the initial relative lack of common experiences and backgrounds compared with a more homogeneous team. They need to get to know each other and develop a set of shared experiences – a shared “library” of real-world challenges successfully addressed by the team.

Retreats and awaydays are great to sharpen focus as long as they address real, hard-to-resolve problems. The team needs to learn how to work together on the real issues in front of them. Team-building exercises based around bungee jumping or Bear Grylls-style survival in the wilderness would be great if that’s what we actually needed to do on a daily basis, but it’s not.  

Moreover, in an era of remote and hybrid working, this kind of team familiarisation really needs to be done face to face. The rich and subtle vocabulary of body language and social gestures needed to communicate fully and not take things for granted, especially for people coming from a very wide range of backgrounds, can only be navigated in person. If you come from different places, you won’t feel like a team unless you’ve been in the same room, doing the same things, for a good while. Once the team is functioning smoothly and everyone knows everyone else thoroughly well, then it can work effectively remotely – but not before.

There are plenty of challenges in guiding and developing a diverse team, but it’s surely worth it. The experience is amazing, and both the organisation and everyone involved learns new skills along the way. It’s truly rewarding, so try it – you won’t be disappointed.

John Womersley is visiting professor of physics at the University of Oxford. He was previously chief executive of the Science and Technology Facilities Council.

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