In a workforce that increasingly reflects the demographic differences within the population, getting people from dissimilar age, gender and ethnic backgrounds to work together collaboratively can be a real challenge. When you add differences in core values, moral codes and political leanings, it can prove to be almost impossible. While most people intellectually “get” that diversity of ideas and opinions should lead to more creative approaches and solutions, pervasive stereotypes and the lack of familiarity and trust can create emotional roadblocks that inhibit true synergistic thinking. Until team members make the effort to work through their differences and discover their similarities, the required element of trust will remain elusive.

What’s a manager to do?

Fortunately, the fields of psychology and organizational development can provide insight. Specifically, the principal of contact hypothesis holds that people who are fundamentally different from each other in significant ways (race, age, social values, etc.) can work through prejudices and be coaxed into working together collaboratively under the right conditions. This can even be accomplished if the differences have led to a state of conflict.

The most important factors for this principle to work are:

  • All substantial sources of conflict be dealt with or removed;
  • All individuals have equal power, stature and privileges;
  • The members of the overall group be given a task which can’t be accomplished successfully unless all members work together (structured interdependence); and
  • The environment in which the “contact” takes place is neutral and conducive to positive, friendly interactions.

Ideally, contact hypothesis leads to higher levels of group productivity and the dilution of negative stereotypes that different members may have of each others’ groups.

Editor’s note: The previous article is an excerpt from The Respect Effect: Leveraging Culture, Emotions and Neuroscience to Build a Better Business by Paul Meshanko