How to lead a diverse team, part two: Context, understanding, and authenticity

Written by: Peter Topping
Published on: May 17, 2017

Topping2In part one of this series, I discussed the advantages of managing your team from a systems perspective, whereby small actions, thoughtfully planned and executed can affect big improvements. Here, I tackle the leadership skills that can align and inspire the diverse members of your team.

Teaching by leading, leading by context

How did you learn leadership? Through your experience leading, but also through your experience being led. That means you are teaching leadership every day. But what is it you are trying to teach?

Everybody can have a bad day. As a leader, are the ramifications of your bad days different from those of your staff? Absolutely. It reminds me of an executive we were asked to coach: 90 percent of the time he was great, but 10 percent of the time he acted like a child, complete with tantrums. What do you think people remembered about him?

If you want to develop more leadership in your organization, it starts with you, and your fellow leaders, being purposeful about your example – but you can't lead everybody, in every condition, the same way. Leadership is contextual, with at least three variables that must be balanced at all times:

  • The situation. Situations change, so one of the things I work on with my MBA students is their diagnostic ability: assessing what is going on in the organization from the outside, the inside, at the big-picture level, and at the human level. 

  • Your followers: Because everybody is different, you can't treat everybody the same way. However, you can’t act as a different person to each different constituencies. It’s a matter of balancing being yourself and modifying your style to best fit the people you are leading.

  • Your authentic self. Authenticity is when other people see you as genuine. What's most vital is to be you, but not to assume others know what's important to you: You must be open in telling people your values as a leader. The importance of authenticity is trust: If you don’t have my trust, you can manage me—but don’t expect to lead me.

Diverse values, and valuing diversity

This gets us back to the diversity issue: How do you lead both a 22-year-old and a 60-year-old? If you use the exact same tactics for both, you're unlikely to be successful – but if you try to be something completely different, you will be perceived as inauthentic. You can adjust your leadership approach to the differences in your workforce, but the common factor is values: Making sure I'm understanding your values, while still enacting mine. And when we have a values clash, then we can have a conversation about them.

Take generational differences. When we’re talking about multi-generational workforces, we’re not just talking about how to deal with one group: there are many groups, and ways to look at them. Along with Traditionalists, Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Millennials, there are also “cuspers,” born along generational fault-lines. I have a child born in 1982, and she would not call herself a Millennial – that’s her little brother. If we want to try to understand differences among the generations, typically you want to look at what was going on in their childhood, which is from where their values originate.

But generational difference is just one dimension. In a single workforce, you've got lots of differences: where people come from and their current location, types of education, family cultures, political stripes, economic backgrounds. This variety of perspectives makes the system stronger, but also makes it harder to manage. How does one person lead through all the different contexts that may arise? The answer is emotional intelligence: knowing what you're doing when you're doing it, and how to use your emotional self to motivate and inspire your team. EQ will always trump IQ when it comes to leading others, and it requires the following components:

  • Self-awareness, which is knowing your genuine self and being that person. It’s also knowing what’s important to you, including the things that bring out your stress behaviors.

  • Self-management, which is knowing when to get excited and when to be cool. It’s understanding the times when you need to show passion, frustration, or even anger—under control—and the times when you need to be zen.

  • Empathy, which is understanding others from their perspective, and social skills, which allow us to be as inclusive as possible, and give us the ability to build aligned relationships.

These cross-cultural disciplines can be even more powerful when your team teaches each other: Maybe you have days where one culture is highlighted in what you eat and what you talk about. These are important in teams that work side-by-side, but are also vital in virtual teams, where distance can easily lead to misunderstanding.

Stay adaptable

There is no one right leadership style. If you think there is, then good luck to you: You’d better hope that the stars are always aligned in the way that makes that style work. The art is in knowing how to adapt your leadership practices to the needs of the situation and the people you're leading, while still being yourself. That may be difficult, but it is possible – and it does pay off.

Dr. Peter Topping is an associate professor in the Practice of Organization and Management at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School, and a former visiting professor at ITAM, Mexico’s leading business school.