How To Successfully Lead Today’s Diverse Workforce

 -  5/29/12

As a leader, be aware of your own biases and sensitive to differing values and preferences. Discuss differences openly and ensure that everyone is comfortable with — or at least clearly understands — agreed-upon norms.

Perhaps we need a new word. Roget’s Thesaurus provides the following synonyms for leadership: authority, command, control, direction, domination, foresight, guidance, power, pre-eminence and primacy. This presumes a leader is someone out in front, with all the answers in hand and perhaps trailed by a cadre of willing followers.

But being a leader today is more complex. Not only are the business challenges daunting, but the increasing diversity of the workforce makes building a cohesive organization difficult.

There are four things you need to do to lead today’s diverse workforce successfully:

Appreciate: Withhold judgment — don’t jump to conclusions.

Acknowledge: Legitimize diverse perspectives.

Arbitrate: Surface differences and establish clear and effective group norms.

Adapt: Frame and deliver messages in ways that are meaningful to each individual.

To appreciate requires a willingness to withhold judgment. What seems to be an illogical interpretation or odd behavior to you may seem normal to another. Everyone’s initial reaction reflects a particular bias or lens, shaped by each individual’s background and experience.

Acknowledging there is no reason any individual’s perspective should automatically be given primary significance gives you the ability to fairly hear and evaluate multiple points of view.
Second, leaders must publicly acknowledge the legitimacy and benefits of alternate views. This often requires teaching: helping others discover that colleagues see issues differently and becoming comfortable with differences. As a leader, facilitate group discussions of how a situation looks and create a context in which it is acceptable — preferably desirable — for people to express different views.

Third, leaders must arbitrate the inevitable behavioral differences that will arise. Again, in a group, ask employees to share perspectives on how things might be done, acknowledge the validity of various views and establish ground rules or norms for use in your particular circumstance. To the extent possible, make these rules situation-specific. Rather than pronouncing one view right or wrong, conclude that in this situation, the group will follow this course of action.

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