Leading a Diverse Workforce

Monday, June 3 2019


In her 1987 book, That’s Not What I Meant Deborah Tannen highlights how where we’re from, our life experiences, culture, generational and other factors contribute to the way we communicate. Rather than creating a culture in our organizations where everyone is the same, Tannen reinforces the need to recognize the differences in the way we are wired. While the author comes at it from the perspective of linguistic style, she introduces just one of the very many ways that diversity plays a role in workplaces. After all, if we do not clearly understand each other, or if the differences in our communication styles create discord, they can have an impact on organizational performance. As a leader you can defuse potentially unproductive situations by taking the time to, as Stephen Covey says, “seek first to understand.”

As leaders, we are responsible for how the organization performs. The ways in which we communicate are one example of the interplay of diversity; but there are many others. Consider the reality of managing four distinct generations in the workplace. I heard a very successful 70 year-old business owner lamenting about younger employees who won’t work the hours he always has. From his perspective, he gets less productivity per labour dollar than with previous generations. From the employees’ perspectives, they have a less ‘live to work’ ethos and they are more engaged in co-parenting, running their households with their partners, keeping fit, and so on. It is very different than the owner experienced.

Today’s business leaders are challenged to find, motivate, and retain great employees and we may have to recognize that hanging onto old biases about what constitutes ‘good work ethic’ will not suffice. Successful companies are proactively supporting flexible work schedules and adjusting staffing needs based on the expected workloads that younger generations are prepared to carry. Understanding that your managers or direct reports might come with a different perspective than you is important to helping you find balance for yourself and the organization.

Gender is another important consideration in workplace diversity. Much well-deserved attention is placed on striving to ensure equality between genders, and there is significant research showing women outperform men in many important areas of business. A study by Pepperdine University found that women are:

  • Opportunity experts
  • Networking professionals
  • Relationship specialists
  • Natural givers

In an interesting observation, the report compares women to immigrants regarding their ability to “think, act and innovate.” Finding ways to encourage women to strive for leadership positions through development, mentoring, and career guidance opens up a statistically under-leveraged resource for most businesses.

Leaders have so much diversity upon which to draw. Those with the courage to manage the potential growing pains generated by differences in communication, approach to work, and perspective will help ensure a stronger organization for the future.