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The Challenges of Leading Diverse Teams: Tips for Inclusive Leadership

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There’s no denying that improving diversity, equity and inclusion in your organisation is a hard task, despite how many articles you’ve read that make it appear like it's as easy as snapping your fingers.

 It calls for huge amounts of patience, exceptional listening skills and a true commitment to making the world a better place. After all, improving DEI in your organisation is an essential and critical task. Things worth having aren’t easy, after all!

So, it’s fair to say that inclusive leadership is not without its challenges. In this blog we’ll explore some of them and some measures that you can take to improve your own leadership practice and make it more inclusive.

The key challenges of leading diverse teams

1.   Cultural differences

One of the key challenges that come with leading a particularly diverse team is the fact that you’re bound to run into cultural differences at some point. These can be relatively small issues in the grand scheme of things, like debates over vocabulary, through to much larger issues, like religious practices.

Whilst smaller cultural differences might not present much of a problem when it comes to managing a team, more serious cultural differences can present larger issues.

Managing cultural differences effectively ultimately comes down to fostering an atmosphere of mutual respect between colleagues with diverging ideas, particularly ones that might touch on sensitive issues related to religion, gender or sexuality, for instance. The only way you’ll really be able to navigate serious cultural differences between team members is to encourage each employee to respect the rights of the other when it comes to holding different opinions on issues.

That said, here are some practical methods that you can use to navigate cultural differences at work:

  • Invest time, energy and money in team building and encourage your team members to get to know one another. This will help you all to learn recognise similarities and differences in the ways that you communicate and approach tasks
  • Improve communication practices: different cultures can communicate in different ways. Make sure that everyone is aware of the fact that different cultures communicate in different ways to head off potential confusion and issues
  • Invest in dedicated employee training to help you better understand the mix of cultures in your workplace and build an inclusive, happy and equitable workplace.

2.   Pre-existing inequality

Leading a team of people from a diverse range of backgrounds means that you’re inevitably going to be confronted with the fact that not all of your employees will be starting in the same place when it comes to opportunities. This can cause problems when it comes to trying to build a team where everyone feels they are valued, treated the same as others, and can contribute to the best of their ability. In social justice, the idea that we are all starting from different positions is referred to as privilege theory.

The concept of social ‘privilege’ is much maligned when it comes to talking about DEI in a work context (stirred up by people who haven’t taken the time to understand the concept) but it carries a very simple idea at its heart: we are all affected by systematic equalities issues in different, complicated ways.

Essentially, this theory argues that all of us are caught in a web of overlapping categories and situations that affect our equality in the world and how we interact with others. In some ways, an individual will be privileged, having an advantage over others in some way. In other ways they will be at a disadvantage: no one will be purely one or the other. For example, a white woman who grew up in a rich family and went to a great school will probably not face the same systemic discrimination that people of colour do because of the sole fact that she is white and rich, and they are not. This is potentially an advantage. At the same time, she will probably be subject to misogyny and be treated differently to a man because of the fact that she is a woman. That’s a disadvantage.

Whilst privilege as a concept is by no means perfect, examining those areas where we feel we have advantages over people and those areas where we feel we’re at a disadvantage can help us to make our working practices more inclusive overall. After all, when we’re aware of the playing field, we can take practical steps to level it.

3.   Slower decision-making

One of the key benefits of a diverse team is the fact that you’ll benefit from different viewpoints when making key decisions. These can give you a healthy range of experience to draw on that can make your overall decisions better informed, more resilient, and more effective as a result.

That said, a key disadvantage to this is the fact that it will probably take you longer to come to defined decisions about things.

Research cited in the Harvard Business Review suggests that diverse teams process information in different ways to non-diverse teams. Diverse teams are more likely to refer to solid facts and to examine evidence carefully, keeping their critical faculties sharp and making their overall decisions more objective. This obviously slows down the process though.

Essentially, you have two options: you can accept that good decisions made by a diverse team will inevitably take longer to be made; or you can try to speed up decision-making at the cost of quality. You can try and forcibly combine the two, but you’ll usually find that one of them suffers as a result.

4.   Naysayers

Even though you’re doing the right thing and acting with the best of intentions, it’s likely that you’ll probably come across some type of naysaying about inclusive leadership being a complete waste of time. This can come from a wide array of sources, ranging from employees and management through to suppliers and even customers or clients.

It usually comes from a place of ignorance and perspectives that are more informed by angry newspapers or TV shows than the actual reality of diversity and inclusion in the workplace. Sometimes, this type of criticism can make you doubt your own skills and whether trying to make your leadership practice more inclusive is the right thing to do. It might even make you doubt the reasons that you’re trying to do it at all.

The important thing is to not let this derail your efforts. You are carrying out a hard task that is absolutely necessary and is a very courageous thing to do. If inclusive leadership were easy, every company would be doing it well. The very fact that you’re ruffling a few feathers is a good indication of the fact that you’re doing vital work when it comes to making the world, and your organisation, a better place. 

How to build an inclusive leadership practice

We’ve dealt with the challenges and offered a few potential solutions to them. But what about building an inclusive leadership practice in general? What strategies should we be using and what should our priorities be when it comes to creating an inclusive leadership practice at work? Here are some ideas to get you started and inform your development:

1.   Truly listen

Listening is one of the most underrated but potentially transformative techniques that you can use to build your inclusive leadership practice. Listening skills are an intrinsic part of good communication and they will be absolutely essential when it comes to shaping diversity and inclusion at your organisation.

Fundamentally, listening is about receiving, interpreting and understanding information. When used well, active listening can allow you to discover new perspectives, receive and process essential feedback. It isn’t hard to see how useful this technique is when it comes to trying to improving diversity, equity and inclusivity at your organisation.

In particular numerous studies, like this one, by Avraham N. Kluger and Guy Itzchakov in the Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior,  suggest that listening can improve job relationships, knowledge and quality of work, helping an organisation meet its strategic goals more efficiently.

So, how do you do it? Practicing listening that is actually effective in helping you understand another person’s view is more than just staying quiet and letting another person talk. It involves taking steps to facilitate conversation, remaining present in the exchange and asking relevant questions. It involves adopting active listening techniques: a strategy to enhance communication. It’s harder than it might appear.

Typical active listening rules insist that when you’re having a conversation with someone, you should generally try to follow the 80/20 rule. That means that you should ideally be listening and not saying anything for 80% of the conversation and you should be directly speaking for 20% of the conversation. This blog by the Harvard Business Review has some great techniques for how to improve your listening skills.

When you can communicate clearly and effectively with others, understanding hopes, fears and ideas, you’ll stand a much greater chance of building a truly inclusive leadership practice.

2.   Practice what you preach

Principles are incredibly important when it comes to successful leadership. In terms of building inclusive leadership, employees expect you to lead by example and to practice what you are preaching.

If you aren’t being as inclusive as possible in the way that you personally behave at work and treat others then don’t expect other people to think that your leadership practice is inclusive.

Showing others that you’re personally putting into practice the things that you’re telling others to do will help you to establish authenticity, integrity and trust with employees. Employees will have practical evidence of the fact that you’re a person who follows their word and that you can be trusted

As this article by MindTools suggests, when you lead by example you help to add confidence to the possibility of acting differently. By acting in the same way that you are asking others to, you help to create an image of how something can actually be implemented, building confidence and authenticity as a result.  


3.   Build a collaborative environment

A foundational element of the principle of inclusion is the feeling that your voice is valued at work. Building a collaborative, equitable and inclusive working culture will help employees to feel that their contribution to your organisation is appreciated and that they play an essential role at work.

In addition to feeling valued, feeling like you have the capacity to make changes in the workplace is also a trait that rates consistently high on employee surveys when it comes to engagement and inclusivity in the workplace. Building a collaborative workplace, where employees are encouraged to share knowledge and decision-making can help to foster a feeling of being included

Some ways that you can build a collaborative environment in your workplace include:

  • Allow your team autonomy to work and make decisions
  • Set clear expectations of what you expect from your employees and what they should expect from you
  • Ask for feedback from your team regularly
  • Promote employee forums and working groups to allow underrepresented groups to come to the front

4.   Develop your knowledge, cultural awareness and skills

Ultimately, the only way you’ll be able to develop a truly inclusive leadership practice is by learning. That means learning practically at work, on the job, and learning through study and focused thought.

When it comes to diversity, equity and inclusion, listening (and focusing on the lived experience of specific types of employees) is a powerful tool to help you evolve your practice and grow.

Taking your professional skills to the next level by studying a dedicated professional qualification can really help to equip you with the right set of skills and specialist knowledge that you’ll need to build an inclusive leadership practice.

There are lots of qualifications to choose from. The exact one you choose will depend on your own unique specialisms and your overall career direction.

If you’re working in a senior human resources role, a CIPD Level 7 Advanced Diploma in Strategic People Management is well suited to you. Likewise, if you’re in a senior learning & development role, the CIPD Level 7 Advanced Diploma in Strategic Learning & Development is the qualification to choose.

Lead your team with confidence!

Challenges aren’t uncommon when it comes to building an inclusive leadership practice. They aren’t insurmountable though, as we hope we’ve shown you. Have confidence in your ability to lead and consider some of the tips that we’ve mentioned above. Good luck.

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