Inclusive companies open to diversity are better equipped to handle the demands that the leadership paradigm of the 21st-century places upon them; so goes the conventional wisdom. Handling diversity is not a simple proposition, however. Those who can make it work will reap its benefits. Those who cannot figure it out will suffer.

Focusing on learning is essential to allowing diversity to “work its magic”

How does the emotionally intelligent leader handle and build upon diversity in 2021?

In light of emerging scientific evidence, I have identified several leadership traits that can help intelligent leaders make the most of diversity in their teams and organizations. Unsurprisingly, most of these traits have their roots in emotional intelligence, the centerpiece of the post-industrial paradigm of intelligent leadership.

Several studies have established that close intercultural relationships on the level of friendships or romantic partnerships enhance creativity and the willingness to embrace innovation. People engaged in such relationships are more capable of “thinking outside the box.”

How do these findings translate to workplace performance?

According to an Erasmus University study by Anne Nederveen Pieterse, the role diversity plays in goal-oriented teams is not as straightforward as one might think.

The study concluded that the benefits of cultural diversity are more pronounced in teams focusing on learning. Such benefits fade away to the point of non-existence in teams that focus on avoiding failure and outperforming their peers.

The conclusion is that emotional intelligence on the part of the leader as well as the members of a diverse team is essential for allowing diversity to deliver its benefits.

Being a member of a diverse team should allow the individual to gain exposure to culturally diverse perspectives in addition to broadening his/her skills through diverse experiences, as I have pointed out in my leadership development books.

It is the role of the intelligent leader to promote an atmosphere conducive to mutual understanding and harmony through emotional intelligence. What concrete steps can you take in this direction as the leader of an ethnically diverse team/organization?

  • Get to know your team. Be aware of what makes every member tick. By taking the time to understand every one of your reports regardless of age, ethnicity, geographical location, and experience, you will gain a clear picture of how everyone can best contribute.
  • Provide regular, relevant feedback. Within a culturally diverse team, cultural shortcuts disappear. To bridge this gap, leaders should resort to providing feedback more often.

Feedback is the centerpiece of effective communication. 

  • Emotionally intelligent leaders are in tune with the concerns of their reports, regardless of how they choose to voice them. Emotional intelligence implies the ability to listen and to pick up emotional clues in many different ways. The members of a diverse team prefer different ways of communicating with their leader, with some likely choosing to avoid open forums.
  • Recognize the importance and power of team guidelines. Such guidelines do not refer to the company’s values and mission. They cover much more mundane aspects of operation such as meetings, conversations, etc. By instituting such guidelines, and communicating them clearly to all members, you can head off misunderstandings stemming from the cultural diversity of your team.
  • Make sure that your communication is effective. If you need to double-check that every member of your team has indeed understood what you said, do it. Know that if you fail to go out of your way in this regard like many managers do, you may cause a breakdown in communication.

In this age of increasing globalization, the optimal leadership of ethnically diverse teams is no longer a matter of optional benefits; it’s a necessity.


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