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Top 5: Getting Along with Coworkers from Different Backgrounds

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Eden King

The workplace is more diverse than ever before: men and women from different age, ethnic, educational, religious, and cultural backgrounds work together every day. Although these differences can sometimes make it challenging to communicate and coordinate efforts cohesively, diversity can also yield important benefits for organizations. Mason industrial/organizational psychology professor Eden King has developed the following workplace tips to maximize these benefits based on her years of research examining workplace dynamics, discrimination, and diversity.

  1. Share a goal. When co-workers share a common goal, they see themselves as a whole rather than disconnected parts—as “we” rather than “us” and “them.” The goal might be to reach a particular work target, build a certain number of contacts or clients, or communicate a particular number of times a day. Putting a shared goal of any kind on the front burner puts all the differences between people on the back burner.
  1. Share information. One of the challenges that can emerge when people from different backgrounds interact is that they worry about what other people think or how they look to others. This sometimes means people are hesitant to speak up or share information about themselves or their ideas and knowledge. Sharing information about your ideas and knowledge is crucial to teamwork, and sharing information about yourself can also be helpful for relationship building. If you disclose information about yourself (e.g., that you have kids, that you grew up in Texas, or that you play flag football on the weekends) can lead to reciprocal sharing and a stronger interpersonal connection that overcomes superficial differences.
  1. Look beneath the surface. Think about an iceberg. If all you see is the part that is above the water, you’ll miss the huge foundation that is underneath the surface. You and your co-workers are much more than can be observed on first glance. So keep in mind that each of your co-workers is an individual, rather than a stereotype.
  1. [2]Don’t be afraid to discuss differences. Give yourself and your co-workers a chance to discuss different points of view. Listening to each other may help co-workers understand how their perceptions (and fears about how they are being perceived) are inaccurate.
  1. Take your time. Surface differences seem like a really big deal when we first meet each other. When all we know about someone is their gender, approximate age, and ethnicity, we tend to judge them on that basis. But when we get to know each other over time through information sharing and looking beneath the surface, or when we simply take a few moments to think about our actions, we are more likely to realize the benefits of diversity.