Managing cross-cultural diversity in teams means finding a common goal. In this article, I discuss my personal experience with dance and what it can teach us about diversity in the workplace.

In preparation for my son Adam’s wedding, my wife Rose and I are taking dance lessons. Actually, we have signed up for 50 lessons – since I believe that is what it will take for me to find the beat. I have been told by several people in the wedding party, “no Paso Doble.” Which is followed quickly by, “No, no cape either.”

Learning to dance is rich with metaphors for leadership. Here are a quick three: 

  • Stepping on toes is the result of poor communication. 
  • Coordination between the follower and leader requires that they respect and trust each other. 
  • Leaders need to enable their teams to adjust quickly as the song (strategy) changes and you may have to go from the Cha-Cha to the Waltz. Trust me, it is quite the adjustment.

This blog is not about those metaphors. It is about something far more important–diversity in the workplace.


What My Dance Lessons Taught Me about Diversity in the Workplace

During the summer on Fridays from 6:00 pm to 7:30 pm, the dance instructor invites his students – past and present – to a group lesson followed by open dancing. This is a chance to work on a particular dance, as well as to navigate the space while others are on the floor. 

A wonderful, marvelous thing unfolded for me when I went to the first “social.”

It turns out his students were of all ages, shapes, and sizes. This visible diversity was both surprising and intriguing to me. Here we all were, from different walks and different talks, together.

From 24 to 91, beginners to experts, and all shades of beautiful. All there for the love of dance. Specifically, on this night, the love of Rumba (slow, quick, quick). We all danced with each other, laughed, made mistakes, and missed the beat. But we were also perfect. Perfect in that moment because we found something in common and, in doing so, we were our best selves.

We were challenged to take and receive feedback with an open mind and open heart. We learned the importance of being versatile in our approach, not only for the other person’s success but for our own as well.  

We were our best selves in part due to the fact that we were experiencing the “contact theory hypothesis.” According to this theory, intergroup contact, under certain conditions such as equal status (everyone is a learner), cooperation toward a larger goal (everyone helps each other get better), institutional support (everyone has the same instructor), will create a positive intergroup encounter, which in turn leads to better intergroup relationships. This is what managing cross-cultural diversity in teams looks like when it is successful.

There is much to debate about this theory and whether the impact of the contact is limited in scope (does it cross to other situations?) and depth (how long does it last?).  That said, being in a group with diversity is a powerful experience.

This experience brought me joy, but far more importantly – a little hope. Hope that while we cherish and respect differences, we also pursue finding what we have in common. While the dancers were different, and the dancing skills were different, it was, in the end, finding and sharing with each other the three steps in the four beats that made all the difference.