Managing People with Different Professional Backgrounds
by Ulf Eriksson
Managing teams is a complex and challenging process that is often made more difficult when managers have to confront teams consisting of people with different professional backgrounds and employees who have recently transitioned from one job role to another.
Gone are the homogeneous teams of old times, where one stuck a certain career trajectory until the time came, many years later, for them to be handed a golden watch. In the IT industry, especially, the workplace is a dynamic environment that calls upon managers to develop specialised skills to be able to handle diversity at the workplace.
The Changing Faces of the Workplace
In a hectic, fast-paced world, one of the first things to suffer at the workplace is the sense of connection with one's job, colleagues, and company.
As the bonds between employees and employers become more tenuous underneath the strain of a commodity mindset that puts a premium on maximising efficiency and profitability, professionals in the IT industry find themselves in an increasingly fluid position where the winds of change buffet them from one job role to the next.
On the plus side, this also means that, most likely, a typical team consists of people who have already had some sort of work experience or other, thus bringing with them a more matured sense of professionalism as well as myriad past experiences that stimulate the team to take a more creative and multidisciplinary approach to common problems.
In these situations, the manager's role to help smoothen the difficulty of job transitions and leverage the benefits of workplace diversity is crucial.
Common Challenges of a Diverse Workforce
One of the main challenges facing a diverse workforce is the tendency for communication breakdowns to occur between people with wildly different professional backgrounds.
Managers have to promote optimal communication methods between employees by modeling these methods themselves. In other words, managers have to be open to an employee's particular way of expressing themselves in terms of their past experiences and tactfully integrate it into a new context.
A second concern in teams consists of members from a different professional backgrounds arises when there are boundary issues. This happens when people who have left one role to take on another, find themselves re-enacting their previous roles and actively involving themselves in matters outside their present remit. This naturally can cause friction within and among teams, so managers have to be wary to detect and defuse these situations before they cause damage.
In a world where people change their job roles every so often, most of the time against their will, they are more likely to be struck by a sense of purposelessness in their professional lives as they conclude that they are expendable elements within an organisation: a situation which saps motivation and impacts productivity negatively. Moreover, there may be issues of mixed loyalties, as people find it hard to shake off their previous role and adapt to their new one.
Managing a Diverse Workplace
To manage well a diverse workplace and help teams perform at high levels of productivity, managers need to address the challenges mentioned in the previous section and find strategies to mitigate or annul their effects on the employees.
Reinforcing boundaries between teams by emphasising the different objectives they are trying to reach helps to impress upon people the real reason for their being on the team and focus their energies on achieving the task at hand. Highlighting the relative importance of each team's task also shows that every professional should consider their own tasks as being worthy of their efforts and reduce the temptation of butting in on a colleague's task.
Rather than negating their past experiences, a good manager would try to draw connections between their previous and current roles, thus not only smoothen the transition but also helping the employees to leverage similarities between their backgrounds and present job and be more efficient.
Making It All Work
At the end of the day, the fundamental imperative for managers overseeing teams consisting of members from a diversity of professional backgrounds is to respect people's backgrounds and have the courtesy of recognising the unique contribution that these displaced professionals bring to the table.
The most desirable outcome in these situations is for managers to be able to empower employees to leverage their previous experiences to creatively find effective, and unusual, solutions for the challenges they encounter in their new positions. The onus on the manager, in this case, is to foster an interdisciplinary approach to problem solving by tapping into the diverse pool of experiences at the team's disposal.
By encouraging open and effective communication channels between team members, the cross-pollination of ideas that should result from such a motley team could yield innovative and fascinating results.
In summary, managing workplace diversity shouldn't be significantly more difficult for managers who keep in mind that the basic human needs drive every one of their employees, no matter their personal or professional backgrounds.
No matter their career trajectory, these people are all motivated by the same quest for mastery and respect in their chosen fields.
Cultivating an environment where they are allowed to do so without being shackled by their past experiences—on the contrary, they are encouraged to leverage them—will lead to a more pleasant, productive, and profitable work environment.
About the Author
Ulf Eriksson is one of the founders of ReQtest, an online bug tracking software hand-built and developed in Sweden. ReQtest is the culmination of Ulf's decades of work in development and testing. Ulf is a huge fan of Agile and counts himself as an early adopter of the philosophy that he has abided to for a number of years in his professional life as well as in private.
Ulf's goal is to life easier for everyone involved in testing and requirements management, and he works towards this goal in his role of Product Owner at ReQtest, where he strives to make ReQtest easy and logical for anyone to use, regardless of their technical knowledge or lack thereof.
The author of a number of white papers and articles, mostly on the world of software testing, Ulf is also slaving over a book, which will be compendium of his experiences in the industry. Ulf lives in Stockholm, Sweden.