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Leadership and the 'I' Word

A new survey finds that, even though 85 percent of respondents believe their organization supports inclusive leadership, half also acknowledge their organization lacks leaders who can manage and motivate diverse teams. So how can HR bridge the gap between diversity and inclusion?

Tuesday, December 17, 2013
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When it comes to building a quality workplace, employers have focused on the "D" word, but what about the "I" word?

Maybe not as much as needed, according to a new survey.

Diversity in the workplace and its effect on an organization's bottom line has been studied for years. According to a recent EY (formerly Ernst & Young) study of 821 business executives in 14 countries across Asia-Pacific, Europe and the Americas, those who rated their companies as excellent at building diverse teams "are much more likely to have achieved earnings before interest, taxes and depreciation and amortization growth of greater than 10 percent over the past year."

While not surprising, here's the mystery. Even though 85 percent believe their organization supports inclusive leadership, half admit their organization lacks leaders who can manage and motivate diverse teams.

"More than 50 percent of the [respondents] said, 'We get it, but to be honest, we're questioning the capabilities of our current batch of leaders to lead the business into this environment of more inclusive diversity, ' " says Mike Cullen, global managing partner of talent at EY in London.

The survey's results suggest that HR needs to pay more attention to inclusiveness by developing leaders who can encourage members of cross-disciplinary teams to express diverse opinions, explore arguments, or share unconventional ideas. As the global economy shifts and the nature of the workforce changes, some leaders may not be as successful applying the same set of skills that worked in the past. That creates a new challenge for HR - to shift focus from building a diverse workforce to developing inclusive leaders that can draw out the best from their global employees.

When researching the power of engagement and what factors drive a more engaged workforce, Cullen says EY discovered the magic dust - that the highest contributors to engagement levels were high-performing teams, those working in collaborative environments and being stretched to the edge of their abilities.

"The backdrop of different aspects of the global economy makes this a huge issue for the business and HR functions going forward," he says.

HR needs to develop processes that drive "I" behaviors and, just as important, identify inhibitors like traditional management goals that may interfere with those processes, he adds. Overall, the key challenge is turning individual behaviors into a collective habit that become the cultural norm of the business.

"Unless you've built out the 'I' to go with the 'D', you won't have leaders with the right backgrounds, skills and mindset," Cullen says. "Inclusiveness is how you make the 'D' work in your favor."

Also consider surveying employees, adds Tricia Dupilka, director of talent solutions at BPI Group, a global HR management-consulting firm based in Chicago.

She says HR can determine if leaders are inclusive by posing the following questions to team members: Do you feel you're able to be your best in this team? Are your ideas taken seriously? Are you being heard? Engagement surveys and 360 assessments can also include similar questions.

Armed with employee feedback, HR can then begin coaching team leaders. Ask questions such as: What would it feel like if your team was more innovative? If that happened more often, how would that benefit you? Face-to-face sessions are best, Dupilka says, because individual issues and concerns can be addressed.

Then develop a 12- or 18-month action plan. Most importantly, follow up with leaders, but not too soon.

"People have long memories," Dupilka says. "If you do a 360 too soon, in the back of their mind they may be thinking about well, in the last six months it's gotten a little better, but they're not thinking about the difference in the last month," she says. "We recommend that a full 360 be done 12 to 18 months down the road."

Otherwise, she says, HR could set the leader up for failure. However, HR can conduct pulse surveys that focus on the previous month to ensure leaders are headed in the right direction.

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She says leaders need to role model inclusive behavior. If they are reluctant to change or become defensive of their leadership style, focus on the payoff - how it can benefit them and the company.

"This is an opportunity for HR to expand its role, be more strategic, champion and create ways for the culture to become stronger and more embedded and consistent within the organization," says Dupilka.

HR professionals in other corners of the world aren't worrying about "D" or "I". It appears to be more of a concern throughout North America than other world regions, experts say. One reason might be that some countries in Asia, for example, are far less ethnically diverse than the United States, says Rob Williams, senior fellow at the Atlanta-based Center for Ethics and Corporate Responsibility at Georgia State University's Robinson College of Business.

However, research regarding "D" and "I" is still in its infancy. There's no absolute proof, he says, diversity impacts an organization's bottom line. It offers no benefit for teams addressing technical problems or other black and white issues. But, he says, studies in group dynamics have consistently shown that diversity produces immediate benefits when trying to solve adaptive or complex problems, such as those involving changes to an organization's processes or structure.

"What we're learning over and over again is that light leadership works better in highly diverse teams, not strong leadership," says Williams. "Inclusionary (leaders) would say, 'I'm not going to be a strong leader of this team. I'm going to practice a little bit more relational leadership or light leadership.'"

Light leaders distribute their power throughout their team, rather than centralizing it under one person, he says, adding that more "courageous" HR professionals are pushing against the dominant culture of organizations, the belief that strong or centralized leadership is the most effective.

"The reason we're not seeing much of an impact in this area is the dominant paradigm of leadership," Williams says. "We are a culture that has, in some ways, enhanced the role of leadership. We've made it more than it should be."

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