Driving Diversity: 3 Ways for Leaders to Effectively Navigate Their Workplace

Diversity. Much discussion has surrounded this small but powerful word over the past twenty years in our workplaces. So what is it? Defined at its simplest, diversity it is the sum of differences as well as similarities among and within all people added with the glorious power that comes from that truth.

As a force and concept, diversity solidly remains what makes America, our communities, cultures and each of us, unique and fluid. From whatever role we occupy —leader, employee, parent, student, educator or citizen, we are impacted by diversity.

And it shows up as a factor for leaders to navigate in the workplace in many ways.

We’re currently in a major political season with gaffes, controversies and innuendo. Racial, gender, age, religious and ethnic differences of candidates are on display, along with their platforms. Opposing views on social issues produce not so collegial water cooler conversations. Harassment and discrimination complaints potentially surface when employee interactions run amuck or questions surrounding promotional opportunities and selections arise.

My interest in diversity related topics spans a lifetime. Personal chronicles that include harmful incidents mixed with measureable progress provide me some valuable insight. Growing up during an era where a “white only’ sign was posted on an outdoor bathroom at a service station down the street from my childhood home raised many "whys" in my mind. In addition, having been a woman entering the military, I experienced assumptions made about my potential because of my gender. Now I am over the age of 40, wondering if I’m an "old dog who can’t learn new tricks.”

The insight I’ve gleaned has been helpful as I conduct diversity, inclusion and harassment training for my clients. At times, the sessions are linked to leadership modules as a part of a management development program. Here I continue to learn even more, getting material from the outrageous and the wise in my classrooms.

I also see leaders who are afraid to address diversity related issues. Some are unsure and want some guidance. A few are committed and not just compliant. These observations are important, because part of a leader’s job is to help everyone “get along”.

To address this range of where these leaders are, I use a variety of instructional techniques as well as one on one coaching.  From these approaches, three must "do’s" emerged for me that are critical for leaders to get on the right road.

1. Establish your people platform early and often.

Provide clarity for the people on your team about your guidelines around fair treatment and adherence to organizational policies for a respectful work environment. Stating what you won’t tolerate and what you care about in an open forum sends a foundational message for the office culture. Employees shouldn’t have to guess about where you stand. When diversity-related issues are made known, be a first responder in doing any due diligence. Address concerns, don’t dismiss inappropriate behaviors, and seek support from HR or EEO staff when needed.

2. Build trust and respect by showing up, just because.

Make efforts to connect with employees in visible as well as virtual ways. Check- ins and the old MBWA (management by walking around) are still sound leadership principles. Seek to identify skills, motivations, and ‘beyond the work title’ information on team members in order to build relationships. Be authentic and open in communicating.

3. Choose to include not exclude by reaching wide.

There’s a concept in human nature that states, “like chooses like.” So being aware that this behavior can help be a self-monitoring tool. Show evidence of a wide sweep in the use of gender neutral terms, phrases devoid of group stereotypes and any selections for employee opportunities. Take a look around the room in meetings or other gatherings and see if the likeness choice factor is in operation.

Understanding the breath of diversity does involve gaining perspective. I often ask participants in my diversity workshops this question, “What would our country, lives, careers, families and relationships be like if we were all the same?” Boring? Bland food? Good answer.

Finally for leaders, recognizing and tapping into the power of diversity makes good business sense. In this global marketplace with its variety of partners, associates, consumers, and customer base, new approaches as well as experiences are byproducts. When harnessed constructively, better products and services result. So find ways to cement your diversity effectiveness and drive on!

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