Leading diversity

This article is part of a series from Good Practice, offered to ICAS members as part of the ICAS mentoring programme.

The contemporary world presents a compelling business case for the management of diversity. Globalisation, the increased diversity of potential workforces and markets, and the expansion of international teamworking all play their part. In this environment, new capabilities for diversity management must be developed. The responsibility of senior management is two-fold: to increase the diversity of the workforce in a purposeful way, and to lead this diversity with a new range of leadership competencies.

Managing the creation of a diverse workforce

To create an organisational approach to diversity that avoids tokenism and the mere appearance of diversity in favour of real differences to competitive advantage, change is required on several levels. The following model outlines the necessary areas of emphasis, and places the responsibility for creating change upon all those who lead others, regardless of job title, role or function.

Individual level

  • Offer employees an opportunity to reflect on their own attitudes and behaviours, and unearth their underlying beliefs and prejudices. This exercise is vital, as the organisational culture will be constituted from this patchwork of individual, and often unconscious, prejudice.
  • Offer skills training to all leaders for both the breaking down of inter-cultural barriers, and effectively communicating with a diverse workforce.
  • Train leaders in the practice of seeking and encouraging differences, and leveraging benefits from these. For example, a new perspective from an employee from an ethnic minority could offer insight regarding the provision of carefully tailored services for clients with that same ethnic background.
  • Encourage leaders to use high-quality levels of advocacy and inquiry, enabling the whole organisation to envisage the benefits of increased diversity.

Interpersonal level

  • Train and encourage the entire workforce to understand differences and their value in interpersonal and cross-team relations.
  • Design and develop working relationships and groups such as functional teams for maximum productivity and quality of service via a greater understanding of so-called 'invisible' diversity factors, such as skills potential, work styles and preferences, and team dynamics.
  • Tap the global expertise potential of the internal workforce at all times, by encouraging diverse task groups and networks.
  • Reward and publicise contributions and successes attributable to diversity, so that the message of mutual benefits of diversity are internally communicated.
  • Make employees comfortable in being themselves, in leveraging the benefits of their individual differences, and in being creative according to their own personal style.

Organisational level

  • Integrate diversity strategies with business, client service and people strategies as seamlessly as possible.
  • Establish goals, not as enforced and meaningless policies, but as inspirational targets for the entire organisation.
  • Create measures and accountability procedures that emphasise the benefits to client service and efficiency, rather than the necessities of managing diversity efficiently.
  • Allow each unit within the organisation to, where appropriate, place their own emphasis on the various elements of diversity, depending on their other strategic aims.
  • Review not only practices, but also processes and systems in areas such as recruitment, selection and development, to remove barriers of difference and to identify enablers for diversity management in future years.

To ensure that the management of diversity is a real value proposition for the organisation, buy-in must be created at the highest levels of leadership. In addition, such leaders should themselves be fully involved in the process of advocating and managing diversity. Once a diverse workforce has been encouraged, further particular skills are required for leading such a group of people.

With leadership competencies currently the subject of great debate, and the demands upon leaders seemingly growing by the day, diversity offers yet another area where specific skills and intentions must be sought in leadership. The following provides a rough template for the skills demanded of leaders who are dealing with a diverse workforce:

Leading a diverse workforce to organisational success

  • Valuing differences means seeing them as assets, and leading accordingly. A leader of a diverse workforce must break down the common assumption that difference provides obstacles and problems, and instead present difference as a provider of options and valuable perspectives.
  • Leading culture is among the key skills of any leader, although its role is particularly vital in the management of diversity, for it is often at the cultural level that prejudices are reinforced and homogenised. Educating and encouraging the entire workforce to value difference is a massive task, but it is also an imperative for organisations hoping to create a long-term change towards diversity.
  • Tolerating ambiguity is essential in a diverse and dynamic organisation. Employees must be allowed to leverage the benefits of their various perspectives through a freedom to innovate. The management of employees with varying values and needs can present more questions than it provides answers to. The leader of a diverse organisation must be able to tolerate ambiguity and maintain a sense of enthusiasm and celebration of difference while solutions are created between such different ways of working.
  • Avoiding tokenism requires a leader to take a positive and high-profile stance that advocates the importance of diversity, but deplores the 'shallow' diversity that is created to fulfil quotas and company policies. If diversity is to become a true asset, it must be understood as a product of correct and beneficial organisational practices rather than correct and documented procedures, which may only serve to highlight difference and devalue its potential.
  • Capitalising on change involves overcoming fear, and channelling energy into excitement and enthusiasm. Leaders with a proactive approach to diversity management will remain ahead of the game by anticipating problems and planning solutions.
  • Believing in teams requires leaders to communicate their trust in diverse teams, and their belief that they will find superior performance resulting from the very fact of their diversity. Empowerment results when a leader's trust is placed in the capacities of a diverse workforce.
  • Maintaining a balance between product and process means that a leader should have one eye on the organisational culture, policies and practices of diversity, and one on the benefits to patient care and increased efficiency. This dual perspective allows insight into the various benefits of diversity management, and enables a leader to become a genuine advocate of such a practice.
  • Building responsibility and accountability again involves the trust factor. Leaders should refrain from wading in to help a group or team in crisis, and, instead, should allow them to learn from their mistakes, and to create stronger and more communicative teams as a result.
  • Managing feedback effectively requires a constant monitoring of diverse staff, including an understanding of their needs, values and decisions. A leader must therefore create clear and open channels of internal communication. This allows expectations to be communicated to the workforce, as well as allowing an opportunity for their responses. So-called 'double-loop learning' can be a factor here, where the leader is required to go beneath the feedback itself to uncover the causes of problems, and encourage further thinking and reflection. This process not only allows leaders to see the obstacles and barriers still in place in their organisations, but also creates a culture of mutual respect and understanding.

This combination of leadership skills ensures that the diverse organisation outlined above will continue to evolve, to respond to change, and to maximise its efficiency in years to come. The role of leader is vital to the proper management of diversity not merely on an advocacy level, but as a guardian role ensuring that policies really do become meaningful practice.


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