Reinventing Diversity

Posted on February 7, 2012

Reinventing Diversity

Blog: Reinventing Diversity

Globalizing Diversity & Inclusion

Successful leadership of a global team or organization is closely linked with one’s approach to inclusion and diversity. But assumptions about what diversity is and how to include people are often based upon a domestic workplace context that may or not be relevant in a more multicultural setting. For instance, what if your team includes a team member who is ethnic Chinese from Hong Kong who grew up in Vietnam, another team member who is a French national on international assignment in Beijing, and a third team member who was born in the Netherlands, educated in the U.S. and is now living and working in India? What diversity and inclusion principles might be relevant here? This blog examines leadership behaviors and inclusion & diversity practices that can be applied across various settings.

Leadership Behavior: Expand Ownership

The book, What is Global Leadership? 10 Key Behaviors that Define Great Global Leaders1, notes that the most effective leaders are able to “Expand Ownership” by creating a sense of engagement in a shared process and accountability for setting and achieving targets. Two possible obstacles to such active cross-border engagement are outdated organizational systems and local customs that influence the workplace status of each person. Although fully overcoming these obstacles is a complex challenge, a key principle of diversity and inclusion is relevant to expanding ownership when it is used to cultivate a deep understanding of local circumstances.

Identify who is included or excluded, and why
Every society has insider/outsider dynamics. These are impacted by factors such as ethnicity and gender that are already top of mind for many, but may also involve other issues with deep roots such as: 2

Here are a few examples:

  • A Chinese employee from Hong Kong is seen as “not Chinese enough” by his colleagues in Beijing, who are also suspicious of his Cantonese accent and foreign education.
  • An Indian manager who did not attend one of the country’s elite schools is designated as high-performing but not high potential.
  • An Egyptian worker from a religious minority group is passed over for a promotion by a management team dominated by people with a different background.
  • A Brazilian banker is treated with caution by potential clients because his family name is not one that is well known or respected.
  • A talented Japanese team member who received an undergraduate degree outside of Japan is seen as abrasive and “still young.”
  • A Muslim German of Turkish origin is seen as being high potential for assignments outside of Europe but finds little opportunity at the company’s German headquarters.

In addition to the sources of conscious or unconscious bias stemming from such local diversity variables, a leader must also ask himself or herself about related factors that can cloud an assessment of others who are different. There are a number of typical reasons why leaders tend to misjudge others who come from a different background. These include:

  • A tendency to evaluate most highly those who are most like us;
  • Incorrect assessment of a candidate’s general capabilities based upon language skill level;
  • Evaluation of performance based on activities, not results – there may be more effective ways to get the job done in global settings than with the leader’s customary style;
  • Misinterpretation of leadership conduct based on different cultural values, such as direct versus indirect communication or the acceptable degree of emotional expression.

Once these forms of local bias and personal misjudgment are understood, leaders can employ a number of strategies to achieve greater inclusion. For example, patterns of delegation are shaped by culturally influenced definitions of good leadership and preferences for more collective or individualistic behaviors. Western leaders in Asia are known for what is sometimes labeled a “delegate and disappear” style; this is usually based upon their previous experience in settings that emphasize individual accountability, and an aversion to so-called “micromanagement.” However, they may find that being more regularly present with employees and rolling up their sleeves together to get things done will be seen positively as “attentive management” that fosters a real sense of inclusion. Conversely, leaders who are accustomed to a more hands-on approach to leadership may need to learn to assign a task and then back off, being available for consultation when needed, but allowing subordinates to struggle with tasks in a way that gives them a growing sense of confidence and responsibility.

Leadership Behavior: Adapt & Add Value

Even the most successful global leaders find it difficult to strike the best balance between adapting to local circumstances and selecting areas in which they can add value through providing input, instruction, or direction based upon their own expertise. The timing and the manner in which they add value is often quite different from what they have been accustomed to in the past. This challenge is mirrored in the struggles of aspiring leaders in more junior roles. We often hear comments such as:

“I tried to jump in and make decisions quickly, but had to learn that things take much more time in this culture.”

“Please help me to understand what executive presence means. I don’t think that people at headquarters take me seriously.”

“I’m based in Singapore and interact with other managers primarily by conference call, but can’t seem to get into the conversation.”

“I’ve lived in so many places, I don’t know who I am anymore. Things are so different here, and I need to think more about what my core values are.”

Leverage diversity to cultivate future leaders

If you are leading a global team or in the position of mentoring or coaching people from another part of the world, there is a strong likelihood that they, too, must confront the challenge of how and when to adapt or add value. There are a variety of approaches that can be helpful:

  • Bring attention to the issue of timing, and assist future leaders to consider whether they should slow down or speed up in order to have the maximum impact in an unfamiliar environment;
  • Find ways to position the background or strengths of an individual with co-workers;
  • Encourage team members to draw out the views of less vocal meeting participants;
  • Ask others what they have to learn as well as what they can teach in a new setting;
  • Analyze problems from various angles that bring out the skills of all team members;
  • Support individuals in identifying their own core values and skills and how they can best contribute.

Although the basic principles of inclusion and diversity have universal appeal, they must be carefully applied in order to be effective in the complex world of global business. Solid knowledge of local diversity factors plus a flexible approach to leadership are essential. Insight into the behaviors of accomplished global leaders – behaviors such as Expand Ownership, and Adapt and Add Value — can provide further clues about how to understand and address inclusion on a global scale, and how to best leverage the diverse life and work experiences of future leaders. By the same token, a deep commitment to valuing inclusion and diversity will enable leaders to fully appreciate and respond to the requirements for success on a global scale.

Interested in learning more about Aperian Global’s global approach to inclusion & diversity? You can learn more on our Global I&D solutions page or reach out to us for a free, 1-hour consultation.

Contact us for a free consultation

Additional Reading

Women in Tech: The Impact of Gender Diversity in IT
Fostering Motivation in the Global Workplace
Three Steps to Address Unconscious Bias


1 Gundling, Ernest, Hogan, Terry, and Karen Cvitkovich, What is Global Leadership?: 10 Key Behaviors that Define Great Global Leaders. Boston: Nicholas Brealey, 2011.
2 Gundling, Ernest, and Anita Zanchettin, Global Diversity, Winning Customers and Engaging Employees in World Markets. Boston: Nicholas Brealey, 2006.3 Gundling, Ernest, Hogan, Terry, and Cvitkovich, Karen, Ibid., p. 92

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