Leading in Diverse Contexts

This is the third part of a series exploring leadership, diversity, and followership. In this blog, practical tips help take the empirical research and bring it to a real-world level.

Different contexts can impact how a leader guides those aiming for a specific target. Some options depend on the leader themselves and how cognizant that leader is of the group make-up. It is also possible to work within the organization’s structure to aid in leading a diverse team.

Working Within an Organization’s Structure

Many variables can affect the way the leader leads. One possible variable is working within the organization’s structure. Begeç (2013) suggests one approach of leaders working closely with the human resources department to incorporate diversity. With the support of the human resources department, the leader can include diversity into the strategic plan, mission statement, and code of ethics (Begeç, 2013; Gilbert et al., 1999). Human resource departments are one source of education about the culture of the organization and the workforce (DiStefano & Maznevski, 2000).

Some human resource departments measure how a leader responds to cultures unlike his or her own. Education programs, such as the Global Alliance for Transnational Education, requires a certification in a program such as the Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI) to help educators balance diversity (Greenholtz, 2000). The IDI is a 50-question self-assessment in which people understand more of their unconscious bias toward other cultures (DiStefano & Maznevski, 2000; Greenholtz, 2000). This instrument can help diverse people recognize bias they might hold. As an example, DiStefano and Maznevski (2000) recall a young Chinese C.P.A. who came to the United States. He seemed to agree with the recommendations of his superior during meetings, but not act accordingly afterward. The supervisor had taken the IDI instrument. Rather than immediately confronting the Chinese man as most Americans might, she realized openness to feedback is not inherent in the Chinese culture. Instead, during an off-site meeting, she apologized for her inappropriate understanding of his culture. His culture valued respect of his elders to the point of ignoring issues, saying yes to superiors no matter the cost, and smoothing over possible conflict quickly (DiStefano & Maznevski, 2000). Her leadership changed because the understanding her own cultural background and bias, which came from the IDI tool any human resources department can suggest.

Other ways the human resources department can help a leader lead through diverse contexts is for the department and the leader to be conscious of diversity during the hiring process. Morrison (1992) says leaders are mostly responsible for carrying out ways to make the workforce more diverse during hiring procedures and is “the single most important factor in the effectiveness of these organizations’ efforts” (p. 18). Leaders and the human resource departments working closely together during recruitment can avoid minority groups being accidently ignored (Wilson, 2014). Corporations can meet minorities half way by ensuring there is respect for cultural differences. Encouraging acceptance of diversity starts with the leader (Gilbert et al., 1999) with the support of the organization.

Adelman (1997) notes diversity training in higher education cannot be a separate event or class. It must be integrated into all courses and outside the classroom as a normal function of the college or university (Adelman, 1997). Often, admission departments carry the responsibility, rather than entire institutions (Adelman, 1997; Levine, 1991) to create a diverse environment. The leader must incorporate diversity as a measure in the mission statement, strategic documents, and ongoing training to have a variety of staff who will accept a variety of students (Begeç, 2013; Gilbert et al., 1999). The younger generation should see diversity as part of their daily lives, rather than a separate class or event (Adelman, 1997); The leader should model the behavior of understanding and learning (Begeç, 2013; Gilbert et al., 1999; Morrison, 1992).

Leading Teams

Without understanding how a specific group struggles with the group’s diversity, the leader can damage respect required to lead a diverse team (Bueno et al., 2004). Ospina and Foldy (2009) found those of a different race were treated as a “special case, rather than as the potential source for theorizing from within a particularly important social context” (p. 877). Some people with diverse characteristics is treated unequally and not valued for what the people of that population might contribute to the discussion. Hearing others without bias can expand the breadth of the conversation. Just as with other areas of diversity, the difference should not prohibit growth and possible solutions, but instead be leveraged to making a better team. Diversity can affect how teams interact with each other and the leader.

Followers and their diversity should be recognized as an enhancer to teams. Although diversity can exclude others, leaders can use diversity as an opportunity to include everyone.


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© 2020, Mollie Bond

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