The Leadership Challenge of Diversity

Because of its impact on the workplace and workers, diversity is a topic of discussion in boardrooms and breakrooms all over the world. When we think about historical work environments (for example the one represented on the television show Mad Men), there was a presumption that people shared a common culture and set of values – and if they didn’t, they weren’t public about their differences if they could help it.  In today’s work environment, many leaders must now effectively manage employees from a variety of social identity groups, time zones, generations, and faiths.

These differences are not just in the way people look or dress, but also in how they think and respond to issues and other people in their place of work. The atmosphere in diverse workplaces can mirror tension over ethnic, racial, religious, gender and cultural differences prevalent in society at large. The most urgent question is not how to define and categorize diversity, but how to come up with leadership strategies that prevent or manage identity-based conflict.  The goal is to create a benefit from diversity that makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts and not to get mired in difference conflict.

Many leaders still rely strictly on charisma to gloss over differences.  Purely charismatic leaders run the risk of being ineffective in their ability to diffuse the conflicts that are brought into today’s workplace, and those conflicts will erupt eventually with detrimental effects. Ignoring them makes them worse.

There are some studies that suggest three basic characteristics of effective leaders: setting direction; aligning people, processes, and performance; and gaining commitment. A strong leader might be able to set direction by establishing and communicating a compelling vision, but getting everyone on board and going in the same direction is important too.  This may prove elusive if social identity-based conflict simmers and fosters mistrust.

There are often triggering events that bring tensions between social groups to the forefront.  It is imperative that a leader respond when these events occur.  Six examples of triggering events are:

Assimilation is a trigger when a majority group expects the non-dominant group to be more like them. Dealing with music, language, food, and personal hygiene where members of the dominant group criticized the habits of a non-dominant group.

Insults include comments such as “you people” or public embarrassment of someone in light of group membership.

Simple contact can be a trigger when groups have highly charged conflicts in society at large are brought together in the work place.

Different values – tensions often surface between members of different groups when there are discussions of right and wrong. In some organizations, employees have been assigned a task that violates a deeply-held religious belief.

Exclusion has to do with using a particular language or celebrating a particular holiday or experience that excludes others. An example would be holding an after-hours networking session in a “gentlemen’s club” with scantily clad dancers. Female or gay male staff members might be invited but wouldn’t feel comfortable going along.

Differential treatment serves to maintain one group’s privilege and power relative to another one. Examples include performance appraisals and promotions that favor one group over another and an unequal application of punishments.

One universal element seems to be that employees everywhere want to be treated with respect on an everyday basis. Awareness and apologies can also go a long way to diffusing these situations.  Leaders can be more effective if they ensure an environment in which everyone feels respected. How they do that may vary from country to country or even department to department.  Organizational policies and procedures can help alleviate conflicts, but authentic daily behavior is even more important.

The challenges today’s leaders face require more than one person can handle.  To face these challenges and succeed takes interdependent work across all kinds of boundaries.  When you work across boundaries you are working in and with diversity.  What we know is that in every country, everywhere in the world, ignoring a social identity conflict is seen as harmful and will negatively impact a leader’s ability to succeed.  So, don’t ignore these conflicts.  Seek to understand the triggers, respect those with whom you work, and find common goals.

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Yes! You may use this article by High-profile Talent Consultant and Executive Coach, Lily Kelly-Radford, in your blog, newsletter or website as long as you include the following bio box:

Lily Kelly-Radford’s firm LEAP Leadership, Inc. assists clients in overcoming complex leadership challenges. A clinical psychologist, Kelly-Radford holds licensures in multiple states: North Carolina, Massachusetts, West Virginia and the District of Columbia. She received her undergraduate degree from the University of Pittsburgh and both a Master’s and Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from the University of Georgia. She served as Executive Vice President- Global Leadership Development (GLD) for the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL), one of world’s top leadership development organizations. Equally at ease in Chicago or Singapore, Kelly-Radford has networked with and actively engaged in collaboration with thought-leaders at the highest levels of business and government both in the United States and abroad. Her coaching profile can be found at

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