Best Practices in Leading Diverse Organizations

While many articles on diversity focus on obvious differences – such as gender and race – the authors chose to focus on culture, which they believe is understudied in American organizations.

They have observed that most organizational efforts at “diversity training” tend to help participants identify key characteristics of other groups, rather than becoming aware of our own cultural identify and how we need to adapt our thinking, reactions, and behaviors. They point to many American’s reluctance to even admit we have an “American culture.” They go on to state that it is obvious to those from other countries that we do, in fact, have a distinctive culture.

As a personal example, our department offers a certificate program in professional English communication for non-native English speakers. We are finding that the participants are just as interested in learning to understand and interact appropriately in an American business culture as they are in learning communication skills. They tell us that the cultural differences and expectations are some of their major obstacles to effective communication in the professional workplace.

Hofstede suggests that we have certain workplace expectations (that may be unknown to us) that are based on our culture. There are four cultural dimensions that are especially relevant to organizations:

  1. Individualism-collectivism
  2. Power distance, that is how far away an individual is from those who have power
  3. Uncertainty avoidance and tolerance of ambiguity
  4. Masculine-feminism

As a whole, American culture values individualism, a low power distance, acceptance of ambiguity, and operates in a masculine manner. Our traditional leadership theories and management philosophies are based on this. Our interpretations of certain behaviors in the workplace are colored by the lens of our cultural values, which in turn impact our actions as leaders. However, as our workplaces become more diverse, leaders need to recognize that traditional American leadership models will not work in all cases and with all people.

One of the things that I appreciated about this chapter is that it reflects some of my own dis-ease with the American ethnocentric leadership models. I also appreciated that the authors recognized that diversity isn’t a “program” but an integral part of an organization’s culture. The perspective of focusing on common goals and interests instead of how people are different is also a much more positive and productive attitude.

Questions: Leadership development in the US tends to emphasize practical experience and individual development while other cultures might choose to emphasize other aspects. What implications do you think the US leadership model has on creating culturally intelligent leaders?

The term “managing diversity” is used often in this chapter and elsewhere. Do you think diversity can be “managed”? What does it mean to “manage” diversity?


Is it okay to comment on my own post? :-)

As I wrote this post, I wondered why Hofstede's cultural dimensions seemed familiar to me. Last year I took WHRE 8141, Foundations in Work and Human Resource Education. Two of my project teammates were from South Korea and they were familiar with the model and directed me to a web site that rated many countries using the Geert-Hofstede scale. Comparing two cultures (US and South Korea) this way helped us recognize some of the reasons why we were having some trouble pulling our project together. As a tool, it gave us a great starting point for some discussions on how to work together more effectively. Check it out at:

What implications do you think the US leadership model has on creating culturally intelligent leaders?

Wow.. heavy question! I think that this leadership model has potentially disastrous results on creating culturally intelligent leaders. (Potentially, not definitely.)

In my opinion, many people in America associate certain characteristics with leaders and often work their way back up, assuming leadership of those who bear certain characteristics. (This reminds me of what we discussed in class earlier when we talked about Trait Theory.)

- I am female
- I am not very tall (okay, okay. I'm short.)
- I look very young (though I'm not quite as young as I look.)
- I am normally soft-spoken and sound very young (people have asked if my "mommy" is home when they call me!)

I don't fit the normal model of a "leader." In fact, I've never really considered myself a "leader" - I just do the best job I can in the situation I am in.

I work with a lot of people online, and when they meet me in person, they are usually really surprised when they see me. They say they weren't expecting a female, weren't expecting somebody so young, or just simply that I wasn't "what they pictured."

I wonder if kids do not pursue leadership roles because they think they can't? I think that is one certainly positive contribution Obama has made - he broke the mold, and an entire generation of children will now grow up considering a whole new world of possibilities.

I think it is additionally hard for women pursuing leadership roles. Traditional stereotypes still abound, and an unfortunate amount of people seem to believe that for a woman to be a good leader, she ceases to become a good home-maker. There was a quote I used to really like - "well-behaved women rarely make history." Upon further reflection, I have to think: What's THAT supposed to mean, really? Well behaved women stay at home? Men are leaders and history-makers, and women are home-makers, and only when they defy their role can they dynamically change history?

What if I never tried to do what I do because I didn't think I fit the mold?

I wonder how many people don't pursue what they would really like to do because they don't think they can?

Fortunately, it seems like these barriers are being broken down day by day.

Unfortunately sometimes it seems like they aren't being broken fast enough.

Linda- Your questions were very thought provoking. America has been a leader in the world for a long time and our individuality although by some may be seen as a positive trait, it can also cause problems. I think a prime example of this can be seen when we look back at our country right after 9-11. At that point in time, America had the sympathy and support from many other countries, and within months lost most almost all of it. I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that our government made individualistic decisions and did not consult/discuss with other nations as to what direction we should go. By going our own way we ended up losing most of the sympathy and support that we had obtained.

Jamie- I agree with what you had to say. You really only have to look at our most recent election to see some of your examples in practice. It seems like so many women who take high-up leadership roles have to juggle being a Man and a Woman. If they come off as to nice and sensitive, people wonder how they could ever handle tough situations (war, layoffs, etc...), but then if they come off as to “aggressive” people are turned off by them. I feel Hilary was caught in this situation. I heard people say she was too aggressive (a bi**h if you will), but had she played more of the house wife role, I think people would have said she was not “strong” enough to lead our country. Perhaps the key is to play the cute floozy role like Sarah Palin, and then once elected show your true colors/leadership abilities- this is pure cynicism if that was not picked up-

Thanks, Linda. I’m going to start with your second question, “What does it mean to ‘manage’ diversity?” Although “manage diversity” may sound to many of us like words that contradict one another, if one interprets it to mean “management leading diversity” then I do believe that is possible, and beneficial. In our American culture, I believe the word “manage” is simply overloaded with too many interpretations. It is compared to power, authority, discipline, and contrasted against creativity, and non-hierarchical leadership. Though management is essential, it is often perceived in a negative light, probably because of the general American preference towards individualism, as the authors stated.

This was an enlightening reading for me. My organization, which is in the field of human services, is comprised almost entirely of women. The eight women I supervise are all seeking “individualistm” leadership from me and I have had to work much harder than other managers to form relationships and avoid the downside of differences and “relational demography” (p.278). Essentially, I go the extra mile on everything. That means I also endure graphic conversations about birthing experiences and breast pumps which occur at the end of our staff meetings. I don’t want to be perceived as “the man” or “the boss” all of the time and what message would I send if I said “this is inappropriate” and left the room. It’s only inappropriate to me. In fact, I usually do leave the room, but I do it gingerly. It just isn’t worth losing the relationships and this is part of the reason my team has one of the lowest turnover rates in the entire organization.

By contrast, my superiors, also all women, supervise me and others with a “collectivism” approach and desire that I manage my staff with that same method. To me this is like watering plants with lemonade. If I do this, I will completely undermine the relationships and mutual respect that have taken years to develop. The worst part of this is that my staff do respond positively to the individualism approach. There is no reason to change my method except to please and emulate my superiors. So far, I have resisted whole-sale collectivism by managing staff with a modified and incremental approach. I have done this so many times, I could probably come up with a third option to individualism and collectivism… maybe call it “stuck-in-the-middle-ism.” Reading this chapter was an awakening for me. I can now define the culture shift in my organization as having moved from individualism with low power distance to collectivism with high power distance.

I also wanted to comment on leadership development in the US tending to emphasize individualistic development. Two weeks ago, I attended a training for work on LEAN practices. Without going into too much detail, LEAN is about changing environments and workflow to create smarter, more efficient business practices. The presenter gave an example that at Toyota, when an assembly line worker has nothing to do, they stop working and stand where they are. When managers see this, they know immediately that there is an inefficiency problem. It’s hard to picture this happening in a GM plant or any American workplace. I think that may be one of the detriments to individualism in American culture.

Jamie, in 1993, I was lucky enough to hear Betty Friedan speak about many of the concerns you raised in your blog response. As you said, traditional stereotypes do still abound. Friedan gave an example that women tended not to raise their hands to ask questions as often as men because they didn’t want to appear to be overly-assertive and offend others. In all my years in classrooms I was very surprised by this, yet people agreed with her statement and she actually backed it up with evidence from the audience. Needless to say, I received quite the scowl from Friedan when I, a male, was first in line to get “The Feminine Mystique” signed! She gruffly said, “a man,” then signed my book.

Anyhow, it’s a good thing you don’t “fit the mold.” We have plenty of mold. And when people meet you and say you’re not “what they pictured,” you could always respond with “Funny, you’re exactly what I pictured.” Well, I suppose that would be bad customer service.

I wonder, what is the greater offense, being mistakenly stereotyped, or actually “being” the stereotype?

Diversity is quite simply difference, and most humans become acutely aware of differences when they are obvious and visible. One way to grow comfortable with difference is to acknowledge, explore and celebrate it. This can start with the realization that all of us live unique lives - that none of us is a typical representative of our gender, age, race, or culture.

I think Conger and Riggio offer sound advice to this end, though they touch on it only briefly: “Understanding each individual in all of his or her complexity holds the best promise of developing meaningful and positive leader-follower relations” (p. 288). Developing strong relationships with the individuals that make up a team is the only way to truly “manage diversity,” in my opinion.

I am inclined to take issue with Conger & Riggio’s failure to consider the benefits of balanced teams (where in- and out-groups are more difficult to discern because no one demographic is dominant). Their advice to leaders seems to imply that they will always be managing teams that include just a few traditionally out-group members. Instead, I would argue that leaders should develop the skills to build unique relationships so that they are better equipped to build robustly diverse teams. It is only when teams/organizations reach a balance that all of the benefits of a diverse work force will be realized.

Questions: Leadership development in the US tends to emphasize practical experience and individual development while other cultures might choose to emphasize other aspects. What implications do you think the US leadership model has on creating culturally intelligent leaders?

The term “managing diversity” is used often in this chapter and elsewhere. Do you think diversity can be “managed”? What does it mean to “manage” diversity?
Thanks for your great summary Linda! I really enjoyed reading this discussion of managing diversity because it helped me to reflect on a few examples in my recent experiences in student organizations, and even some class groups, where the potential benefits of gathering diverse perspectives were overshadowed by some of the difficulties in 'managing diversity.'

I serve as an executive team member for a student-group on campus and we have taken steps to improve the overall diversity of group's composition. However, we have failed to put into place a way to make our group more inclusive and reconcile some of the member differences that has resulted in the formation of in- and out-groups. Much of this reading reminded me that my situations have been unique and are not purely 'organizational,' but I was intrigued by the concept that successful and effective teams are assembled only when leaders build unique and genuine relationships with team members. I started to realize that my student-group could benefit from more frequent meetings, time devoted to team building, and, in general, activities to foster an organizational identity to which we can all relate.

Though I don't think that Conger & Riggio has solved all of the difficulties of successfully integrating diversity into organizations, I appreciated the greater self-awareness and evaluation it prompted. Up to this point, my experiences with promoting and integrating diversity has been composition-oriented and less focused on 'managing diversity', so I really appreciated the suggestions for taking the next steps and the introduction to the concept.

To (briefly) answer your question about whether or not diversity can be managed, my experiences have caused me to think that the answer is yes. I think that diversity must be managed and because it is not enough to simply compose one's group/organization to 'be diverse' - in age, sexual orientation, gender, race, culture, etc. It takes planned efforts to avoid perils of ethnocentricity and reap the benefits of diversity.

I do believe that diversity can be "managed". In fact, managers and leaders are certainly key in making diversity work for their organization's interests. I also think that the manager or leader should acknowledge the existence of diversity in his/her workplace before it could be managed. A classic example of how diversity can be "managed " is beautifully presented by Nathan on his ability to work "much harder than other managers to form relationships and avoid the downside of differences ...." Managers and leaders can also help their staff to identify with an "inclusive organizational culture rather than with potentially divisive demographic in-groups such as race or gender" (p. 280). Managing diversity also means educating the workforce on the culture and values of the diverse employees that work in an organization. It is therefore the responsibility of the manager/leader to provide resources for the culture and values that this diversity bring to the workforce.

The article mentioned that major benefits that can occur as a result of diversity -- a reduction of costs due to decreased turnover rates among members of minority groups and broadening creativity from people with various perspectives. (p.279). Also the article suggests that there is a strong evidence that superior diversity management may provide "competitive benefits to an organization in a variety of ways" (p. 280). Furthermore, for leaders/managers to "manage " diversity, they should learn skills and techniques that can help them function more effectively in diverse organizations. The article also suggests three ways to manage diversity: increase knowledge of cultural differences and issues, develop ways to manage challenges and enjoy diversity rather than merely tolreate it, and changing behaviors.

Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs