Diverse Workplaces: 7 Tips on Leadership and Diversity

While the benefits of diverse teams are often highlighted, it shouldn’t be ignored that more diversity in the workplace often leads to more friction, too. The following tips can help to minimize these challenges.

  1.  (R)Evolution from the Top: How Leaders Can Foster Diversity

    Like all (potential) changes, diversity in the workplace needs to be supported by the leadership team to be successful in the long term. The benefits of diverse teams are often cited — diversity can solve talent shortage or increase productivity, providing fresh ideas, new perspectives, and critical voices.

    Unfortunately, the diversity debate often omits that rethinking and redesigning the workplace always entails extra work and that more diversity brings more friction. If the leadership team is unwilling to accept some teething troubles or to invest into the “diversity project”, failure is inevitable.

    HR managers should also rethink the selection process of the leadership and project management teams. Apart from general leadership skills, such as empathy and (constructive) self-criticism, working with diverse teams especially requires flexibility, diplomacy, and a high tolerance for ambiguity. This means dealing with ambiguous situations and contradictory behaviors without either dismissing them outright or accepting them without reservation. In this kind of leadership role, being able to identify and prevent unconscious bias towards colleagues from different backgrounds is a much more important skill than assertiveness and charisma.

  2. Different Types of Diversity in the Workplace

    The next step is to define the concept of diversity. To what extent does it already describe this company? And how homogeneous is the workforce? The concept of diversity can be very diverse.

    Frequently, diversity is spontaneously associated with fairly obvious factors such as nationality, ethnicity, or race, as these topics are currently trending in the media. For example, the media often report on issues such as the gender gap in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields or the integration of refugees in the workplace.

    However, other types of diversity shouldn’t be neglected unless HR wants to run the risk of ignoring even more potential candidates that could be valuable assets to their team. Diverse teams could also include older employees, people reentering the workforce or looking for a career change, and employees with disabilities. What kind of priorities a company sets also depends on its mission and corporate culture.

    For example, InterNations, an internet company based in Munich, Germany, is the business behind the largest global community for people who live and work abroad. With a multicultural team representing around 40 nationalities, the company cares about diversity and considers it an important topic. However, during a recent in-house TED-style talk, an InterNations software developer raised awareness about different types of diversity, highlighting various ways of creating both an online product and an office environment that is accessible to people with visual impairments.

  3. A Deterrent Effect? How (Not) to Alienate Candidates

    After identifying areas with room for improvement, it is important to think about what could alienate talented candidates. Some recruitment strategies, such as standardized interviews and anonymous problem-solving tests, could neutralize the “cloning effect”, that is the unconscious tendency to hire candidates whose personality or background resembles that of the hiring manager. However, even a job description might sometimes send the hidden message: "You do not belong here!"

    While anti-discrimination laws do not permit mentioning age requirements in a job description, older candidates with a lot of work experience could be put off by job ads promising a work environment for dynamic “digital natives”, complete with foosball tables, games consoles, and after-work parties. And, according to a much-cited academic study, job descriptions referring to a "dominant leader with plenty of entrepreneurial spirit and ambition" would appeal mostly to male candidates. (Of course, there are quite a few ambitious female entrepreneurs and dynamic 50-year-olds with a taste for foosball. However, the stereotypes implied in these descriptions are often perceived unconsciously as a subtle rejection.)

  4. How to Identify and Soften Potential Workplace Conflict

    After successfully completing the recruitment process, the team lead should consider how and why these challenges might arise. Where could diversity lead to communication problems or even conflicts? A classic example is the way people from different countries and cultures give feedback or voice criticism.

    A popular internet meme, for example, explains what the British really think. So, if a British employee says: “I have a few minor comments on your first draft,” this is probably a polite understatement for “this should be rewritten completely.” According to national stereotypes, a German employee would, however, choose to be direct about it and probably ruffle a few feathers.

    The most dangerous kind of team setup is the so-called "unicorn phenomenon” — the uncomfortable situation where a single person is supposed to add “a bit of diversity” to a largely homogeneous team. For example, the 22-year-old undergraduate who is the only woman in a team of civil engineers over 40. Or the Nepalese system administrator who’s the only employee with an international background in a family-run business somewhere in rural Germany. These situations may lead to talent loss in the long run: this isn’t necessarily caused by open discrimination, but simply by the feeling of being automatically considered an outsider.

    As the Expat Insider 2019 Business Edition shows, expat employees often feel socially isolated as well. They do not only struggle with the language barrier and culture shock in their daily life, but they also need to cope with losing their entire support network and professional networking opportunities. If a German “old-school” colleague then insists on strictly separating work and personal life, turning down a friendly invitation to Sunday brunch again and again, this might leave them increasingly frustrated.

  5. Time for Team Building: How to Create Trust

    Setting up a new team or starting a new project requires time for personal and professional onboarding, an initial period for colleagues to get to know each other. The more heterogeneous a group is, the longer it takes for members to build trust, establish routines, and agree upon a common communication style.

    In order to improve team spirit and strengthen social cohesion, team leads should prevent cliques from forming whenever possible — for example, when they assign tasks or organize team events. Otherwise, small subgroups of team members may tend to bond rather quickly in the beginning (for example, young vs. old, men vs. women, specific nationalities, all former employees from the same department, etc.).

    To start with, aiming for quick wins could be a good starting point: easy-to-accomplish milestones help the team members to build trust in each other and their ability to work well together. Joint activities that offer opportunities for socializing and getting to know each other better could be a good way to accelerate the process of getting to know each other. For the initial team building, it’s best to offer general activities that do not exclude anyone — of course, this may look very different depending on the team setup.

    A New York Times report about “neurodiverse” IT consulting companies like Auticon, which specialize in hiring IT specialists on the autism spectrum, provides several vivid examples to illustrate this particular case: for instance, the article describes office parties where it’s absolutely fine to sit next to each other and nibble on pepperoni pizza in complete silence, as the expectation to engage in small talk would quickly irritate quite a few autistic employees.

  6. Mistakes Allowed: Clearly Communicating Expectations

    The more diverse team members are in terms of personality, communication style, personal history, and career development, the more important it is that all expectations are communicated clearly and in great detail. The general rule "too much communication is better than too little" is even twice as significant in a diverse team.

    This does not only apply to practical aspects such as tasks and responsibilities, deadlines and performance targets, but also to the company’s values. For example, InterNations has defined a set of guiding principles to remind all employees of what to keep in mind when they go about their daily tasks or communicate and interact with each other.

    Employees should also understand what they can expect from their team leads and supervisors. For example, the InterNations Leadership Code, the company’s guidelines for the leadership team, also includes a fundamental principle that is particularly important for diverse teams: Create a failure-safe environment.
    This doesn’t mean that employees are always right or that it won’t have serious consequences if they do commit a grave mistake. However, they should be able to trust that they won’t be put under unnecessary pressure and that their team lead or colleagues won’t start pointing fingers. Instead, they should be able to expect fair treatment and constructive criticism.

    Employees who, in particular, represent a minority (at least within the team) or have recently changed careers should be allowed to make mistakes — and be encouraged to learn from them. In the long run, nothing is more frustrating than getting the impression that always doing a perfect job and performing above average is a requirement just to get the same recognition as the rest of the team.

  7. The General Rule Is to Never Generalize

    Last but not least, leaders in a diverse or inclusive organization should always remember the following witticism: all generalizations are dangerous — even this one.

    For example, one female mechanical engineer is not representative of all women in STEM, let alone half of the world’s population. And neither does the new colleague from China represent more than 1.4 billion Chinese people.

    Or as the IT consulting company Auticon puts it: "If you know an autistic person, you know exactly one autistic person.” Even and especially in diverse companies, it’s essential to always focus on the individual person.

    Not all the general advice mentioned in this article will be useful in all situations. There’s no one-size-fits-all kind of approach to this topic. There are just different ways to reach the same goal.

Which are the specific needs of international hires? And how can leaders best support them?