Empowerment of Diverse and Female Team Members

Why empowering female and diverse team members leads to more agile, innovative and transparent organizational structures?

A guest post by Felicitas Heger .

When I first started working, I kept ending up in the same patterns: small teams, a required rapid project implementation, rapid transfer of responsibility, often male executives and a female intermediate manager. No trace of various structures. Each time, this constellation failed in dealing with the change processes that occurred. The known system was mixed up, transparent communication structures were missing and due to the homogeneous and very hierarchically ordered organizational structure, new ideas for overcoming the “system leak” were not heard. The system failed. It either fell back into the same old patterns or moved in place, like a sailboat in a lull! Every newly emerging innovation was stifled at its core by the inertia of the system and its very homogeneous team members swimming with it. The overarching belief was “We’ve always done it this way and it’s going to stay that way!”

Challenges that stifle agility and innovation at their core

So I’m talking here primarily about teams and organizational structures that have grown (together) over many years. In the case of organizations that are more recently founded, countermeasures can be taken right at the beginning when defining the appropriate structures. What were these teams above missing from their system? Above all, they lacked the openness for a holistic, transparent and agile cooperation. The willingness to exchange knowledge between all hierarchical levels and to adapt quickly to new challenges. It is not about acting immediately and always correctly, but solely about the ability to perceive change as an opportunity for further development and as the opposite of stagnation, and to be able to develop a common vision for the team.

The problem

We experience this problem in many teams. It’s not about getting rid of the old, the tried and tested, but about finding a way to link successful structures with the needs and changes of today and in the future. There is often such a pressure to act that almost tears the inner system apart because the appropriate transparent communication structures are missing. Then, in a panic, a “brainstorming session” is called in order to be able to master the further challenges. The word “brainstorming” as a method was first developed by an advertising executive in 1939 and, interestingly enough, as early as the 1950s “was scientifically examined and criticized for the novelty of the ideas generated (…)” (excerpt from Kaduk / Osmetz / Wüthrich / Hammer: Pattern Breaker. The art of turning the game, MURMANN, 2016, p. 41).

This is mainly due to human nature and our need to adapt to a swarm intelligence. The opinions of the top dogs and the subordinate hierarchical thinking limit our innovative strength as a group within a brainstorming process in such a way that we always remain in the same “always-done-that-way” thought patterns, prejudices and unspoken, inhibiting role models. All of this suppresses innovation right at the core and prevents new ideas, especially from quieter and more diverse team members, from being discussed. This is very unfortunate, because female team members in particular are often very intimidated by this working atmosphere and pushed into role models and outdated thought patterns within a team in which they actually do not want to find themselves.

Which role models do we let the dynamics of a team push us into without ever belonging?

First of all, we have to clarify what is meant by role models in this context. There are the traditionally female and male requirements, expectations and pigeonholes that “pop up” again and again when tasks are distributed, for example for a project within a team, and we have to actively counteract the imprints and beliefs, mostly from our childhood, in order to be appreciative and to face other team members impartially. This confrontation with one’s own prejudices and, for example, gender-specific thought patterns requires time and transparent handling as well as open communication structures within the organization so that these “thinking barriers” cannot have a permanent effect on the degree of innovation of the organization. In the future, organizations will no longer be able to afford this “lack of innovation” in their processes.


But now again very slowly and concretely. We assume that we are in an idea discussion for a new project. There are five team members: two females, one of whom has just become a mother, and three males. One of the men holds the leading position as a project manager within the team and another is also a father with a migration background. He only speaks very broken German, but has already carried out many such projects in his home country.

The agile, transparent and innovative team

In an agile, transparent and innovative team, the project manager takes on the role of a so-called “servant leader”. He does not impose himself, encourages and strengthens his team members to express their ideas, is empathetic, authentic and appreciative. With his leadership style, he manages to create an atmosphere of trust and acceptance. Through his guidance, even the quieter team members are encouraged to share their ideas with the group and get their share of the floor. When distributing the tasks, he pays attention to how much time everyone can do and does not give this weighting any evaluation. Everyone is allowed to contribute their resources and skills to the success of the project and is valued for it. He also organizes and directs the communication structure in a transparent manner, so that everyone in the team can get to work with the same information. He also keeps reminding the team of the shared values and organizational vision.

The sluggish and hierarchically organized team

In a sluggish, very hierarchically organized team, the project manager acts as a “real” manager. He leads with a sense of power, intimidation, and an asymmetry of knowledge advantage over his employees. In the first idea discussion for the project, he specifies the direction of brainstorming. Makes fun of the “mistakes” of others and puts himself in a good light. When it comes to the distribution of tasks, he discriminates against the young mother right from the start and asks them “whether she can actually afford it and shouldn’t take care of her child like other mothers do.” He tells his colleague that “because of his insufficient knowledge of German he should stay in the background, otherwise the “message” of the project cannot be properly “transferred” and the success of the project depends on it.” All communication channels should – of course! – run across the project manager’s desk and he then shares the useful information with the employees.

What’s the better choice?

Reading these two approaches, it is perfectly clear to us which of the two scenarios will deliver the better project outcome. Which in the end can paint a more diverse picture in the implementation of ideas and thus better assess and implement the interests of the target group.

But even in an already very agile and transparent team, small prejudiced “thinking barriers” can always creep in. We must take active action against these role models and stereotypes. Constantly aligning our own mindset with our jointly set team rules and not letting the established communication channels and paths “bogdle”. That means, if we no longer automatically think of “not enough time” or “too little to understand” when we hear “mother” or “migrant”, but instead accept every team member with their input on an equal footing and appreciatively, then we have made it and can really “ think new” and be innovative.

Trap: Role thinking in the use of team roles according to Meredith Belbin

Another approach and example for the evaluation of different role models within a team can also be found in the team role model according to the British economist Raymond Meredith Belbin . A team with nine different team roles is characterized here. This does not mean that a well-functioning team always needs exactly nine people, but rather describes the way in which the various roles in the team complement each other and with which characteristics in order to carry out a project successfully. Belbin distinguishes between action-oriented, knowledge-oriented and communication-oriented roles. The danger that exists here is again to be guided by your own thought patterns and not to interpret such a team role result openly and agilely.

The trap of the “drawer of thought patterns”

For example, our team member Julia could be assigned the more communication-oriented roles and another team member silently thinks “That was clear! She’s always chattering anyway and interferes everywhere!”. And the trap of the “thinking pattern drawer” has snapped shut and has been stamped, which will limit agile and free thinking in future collaboration. This process and this evaluation must not remain in the room without comment, but must be communicated and guided. Because it is precisely the processing of these inner “brakes” that can help to create an agile, innovative and transparent team environment.

So if we succeed in addressing these weaknesses and thought patterns and breaking them up, meeting each other at eye level and also listening to the quiet voices, we will also create a more transparent atmosphere inside the organization, which will affect the degree of innovation and the achievement of goals. Nevertheless, I believe that with the correct use of this team role method, one can recognize and better utilize the strengths and resources of team members. The finding out of hidden abilities, such as in quieter colleagues, can be determined and “ticked out” in this way.

Organizational development = teamwork + personality development + structure

Thus, organizational development and teamwork always has something to do with the personality development of its actors. Female and more diverse team members in particular need special attention and inner strength here in order to be able to develop their full potential. This can arise, for example, at the beginning of this structural development due to smaller, more protected thought and discussion spaces.

Here, too, I am of the opinion that this process can only be initiated and carried out by the management level or in agile, self-organized teams through the conscious communication process. We therefore hold the key to an equal, agile, transparent and innovative organizational structure in our own hands and this leads to just one question:

How do we actually want to treat each other?

If we manage to live our own imposed vision and value work in a role-independent manner and actively break up gender-specific thought patterns, then this work will inevitably help us to achieve more agile team dynamics and a more innovative mindset. The reason for this is that we are freeing ourselves from what the so-called norm is, has to be, and with that we really get into an area of rethinking. With strengthened personalities, whether male or female, who have rid themselves of their own “thinking barriers” and have created an environment together in which all team members dare to say what they think and feel, leading to more heterogeneous ideas and approaches. Because “if we don’t want to lose the power of the reserved, that’s why we have to create spaces in which the ideas that individuals quietly develop can be made fruitful – even if they don’t correspond to the logic of clever self-marketing.”

So the practical solution is to create spaces where everyone can have their say and a “you’re ok, I’m ok” environment prevails.

How do we create this atmosphere?

  1. Name your own team rules and stick to the common values and vision of the organization: eg We allow ourselves to be spoken to. There are no wrong ideas. We treat each other with respect and not in an exclusive manner.
  2. Strengthening the resources of female and quieter team members through individual coaching and a transparent communication structure in a secure team room.
  3. Live agility where it really makes sense and not just write it on the door sign as a buzzword. That means there, for example Breaking down hierarchies and simplifying cooperation where requirements have to change quickly and not in the legally prescribed accounting process, for example.
  4. For larger teams : create spaces and opportunities for quieter (smaller forms of exchange) and even anonymous participation (e.g. liquid feedback)

My conclusion

Allowing differences and consciously breaking up prejudices, thought patterns and role models in the team requires strong internal transparency, trust and a firm anchoring of one’s own values and cooperation within the organization. This can only work with intact communication structures and open, protected spaces to allow other, more diverse ideas. In the end, this organizational development is always trying out new ways to act more agile and faster and to be able to adapt more quickly to the needs of your own target group and team members. A study by the consulting firm BCG also describes the great opportunities of more women, especially at board level, and diversity in companies, like Marcel Fratzscher , head of the DIW (German Institute for Economic Research), in his column for “Die Zeit” on January 21. 2021 writes:

“Women bring new perspectives and greater diversity allows for better use of a company’s resources. Therefore, company owners should also get much more involved in the future and urge their management to place greater emphasis on diversity.”

So my conclusion is : If you actually live diversity in the team , allow femininity and create open but protected spaces for your own communication, you have a lot of work ahead of you. It’s a challenge because each of us has been shaped throughout our lives. But if we manage to create internal transparency together as a team, break up role models and actively counteract prejudiced thought patterns, especially in so-called “brainstorming sessions” to find ideas, then we seriously live an agile mindset and can actively develop our own vision in the team with a strong framework of values implement successfully and be truly free and innovative.

My reading recommendations for you

Joana Breidenbach & Bettina Rollow, New Work needs Inner Work: A manual for companies on the way to self-organization, Vahlen, 2019
Franziska Fink / Michael Moeller: Purpose Driven Organizations: Meaning – Self-Organization – Agility, SCHÄFFER POESCHEL VERLAG STUTTGART, 2018
Kaduk / Osmetz / Wüthrich / Hammer: Pattern Breaker. The art of turning the game, MURMANN, 2016

About Felicitas Heger

Systemic organizational developer, sustainability manager and coach. Founder of thefemalevoice.de . Felicitas Heger deals with the strengthening of women in teams and management positions by combining coaching and voice to actively name one’s own resources. She has also worked for many years in the non-profit and cultural sector as a project manager and organizational developer. She is still concerned with the question of possible solutions for more social cohesion and greater structural development in small to medium-sized cities.

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