Article: Leadership impacts the potential of diversity


Leadership impacts the potential of diversity

Creating a psychologically safe environment is the key to unlocking the potential of diversity
Leadership impacts the potential of diversity

A cultural shift is needed around inclusive leadership which is all about openness, accessibility and availability


Workplaces should be places where people should feel safe to bring their whole complex self


YSC believes that ‘Diversity’ and ‘Inclusion’ are talent and leadership issues. Academic and practical studies have shown that diversity has multiple positive impacts on an organization – from driving innovation to attracting and retaining talent, to creation of more relevant products and better customer relationships. However, it is not as simple as creating a diverse workforce and then reaping the benefits. It is about how the leaders in an organization enable people to bring their full selves to work. Only if leaders create an environment and culture in which people can flourish, can the organization expect to get the full benefit of diversity; and only then people would want to stay in and contribute towards the organization. For that reason, it is impossible to talk about diversity without also talking about inclusion.

Let’s start with Diversity

What do we mean when we talk about diversity? At YSC, we believe that diversity is far more than skin deep. It’s not just about someone’s gender or race, disability or age – the things that we can see.  It’s also about all those attributes that can’t be seen, such as how gregarious a person is, how they think and learn, what their life experiences are, their value systems and how they approach each new day. Are they positive or skeptical, creative or analytical? Do they prefer to solve problems on their own or in teams?  

The first step for leaders is to challenge themselves into thinking about diversity in the broadest sense of the word. Are they aware of all the diversity that already exists in the organization and in their teams? Are they reaching out broadly to bring in additional perspectives, experiences and ways of working?

The challenge of creating a diverse workforce

Creating a genuinely diverse workplace takes effort and a conscious commitment. Recent research on mirror neurons demonstrates that there is an inherent psychological bias towards favoring people similar to ourselves. There are, it seems, neurological barriers that prevent us from developing empathy towards people very unlike ourselves. The good news is that this can be overcome, and the way to do this is to consciously redefine and widen our group. In an organizational context, it means deliberately reaching out to bring in people who are different. Of course, with all the differences, it is also important for the leaders to create a shared sense of identity e.g. aligning people around a common sense of purpose and strategy.

Building a ‘psychologically safe’ and inclusive environment

Even after establishing a diverse team, the question still remains – how can leaders benefit from that diversity? How can they leverage that diversity to drive innovation, retain the top talent and create more meaningful customer propositions? Here, the trick is in creating an environment that feels safe enough for different views to be expressed. 

At YSC, we talk a lot about creating “psychologically safe1”  environments. Psychologically safe environments are those in which people feel comfortable to take an interpersonal risk – to challenge someone, to ask a ‘stupid’ question, to suggest a ‘different’ idea. It is these very things – challenging, questioning, suggesting – that lead to innovation that diversity can drive. But people will only challenge, question and suggest something different in a culture that feels inclusive and safe.  

The second step for leaders is to create a team and organizational culture that encourages people to ask questions, to say what they think and feel, and to put forward different perspectives – leaders need to create psychologically safe and inclusive environments.

From my own experience, I know that when I feel safe and secure, I am at my best. I know that I only voice a dissenting view, or ask a ‘stupid’ question or challenge someone, when I feel that I am understood and valued. When I first started out as a management consultant and everything was unfamiliar, I was very aware of feeling out of my depth and less useful than my colleagues. I remember being very conscious of my difference – my background, experience and minority status. Fortunately, I had joined an organization that was, by its very nature, supportive and inclusive. When I asked a ‘stupid’ question, people took time to talk to me about consulting, and also valued the fact that I brought a fresh perspective. When I challenged the status quo, people took the time to hear me out – I never felt ‘punished’ for voicing a different idea. It was a great learning environment and it was not long before I stopped thinking about the differences I felt. I therefore learned, first-hand, how psychologically safe environments can drive performance.

What does it take?

What does it take for a leader to build a psychologically safe and inclusive environment? At YSC, we believe that the more secure leaders feel themselves, the more open they are to diversity and the more they are able to create psychologically safe spaces for others. Leadership development programs which support leaders in becoming increasingly comfortable with who they are, so that they can value the difference in others, are key to unlocking the potential of diversity. 

Leaders also need to understand the building blocks for creating psychologically safe spaces – simple leadership behaviors that encourage people to speak up, disagree, or share a distinctive point of view. Leaders need to understand the importance of creating flexible working environments that allow the different needs of people to be met and fulfilled.

When hiring, diversity in talent is not about people who are exactly like you; this is something that can be done automatically. Reminding ourselves of our unconscious biases and making recruiters conscious of their choices while hiring talent is vital. It is important to be open and accepting to varied voices, experiences and of different ways of being successful. For example, a person from a different cultural background might respond differently to a situation based on their cultural constructs, and this might negatively affect them in an interview, even though they are highly qualified for the job. Thus, it is important for us to be curious and dig a little deeper than we usually do. Sometimes, we find faults in an answer that we wouldn’t give ourselves; but it is very important to be receptive to varying opinions. So, whilst hiring, it is important that you don’t seek a candidate similar to you, but have a broader perspective and curiously seek talent different from you. The same is the case with identifying and developing future leaders. When having talent conversations, if it sounds like people are describing themselves, known as affinity bias, call it out.  

And finally, role modelling is critical. One woman VP in a multinational oil and gas company told me that the most useful thing she did as a GM of their retail business was role-model flexible working and talk about it openly. She would spend Mondays working at her children’s school and her team was aware of this because she was transparent. They called it her ‘gluing and sticking’ day. The message it sent was very powerful as it empowered many women in the organization who were struggling to find practical examples of senior women doubling childcare and careers in a hands-on way, and this also legitimized conversations surrounding the subject.  Even though the organization had a number of structured diversity programs and initiatives, she believed this example had as much, if not more, impact.

In summary

There is a lot of positive intention as companies are recognizing the potential value of diversity and inclusion. If you want to unleash the potential of your people, there are a number of steps you can take as a leader:

  • Think about diversity in the broadest sense of the word.  Are you reaching out broadly to bring in additional perspectives, experiences and ways of working?

  • Create a shared sense of identity. Are people aligned around a common purpose and strategy?

  • Show simple leadership behaviors that encourage inclusivity. Are you creating a context for curiosity, humility and the ability to truly connect?

  • Leverage diversity by creating a psychologically safe environment. Are you encouraging people to speak up, disagree or share a different perspective?

  • Work on surfacing unconscious bias. Are you open to exploring your own biases, for example, when having talent conversations, if it sounds like people are describing themselves, call it out.
  • Role Modelling. In addition to formal organizational policy, are you role modeling and encouraging others to role model authentic intentionality which embraces inclusivity? 


1 A term first coined by Amy Edmonston, Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at the Harvard Business School.


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Topics: Diversity, Leadership

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