Leadership: the promising alternative for Diversity & Inclusion progress
By Hager Jemel, PhD

Over the last decade, managing diversity and achieving inclusion have become major HR objectives and business imperatives for companies. However, in spite of the growing interest and commitment from both practitioners and scholars in these issues, improvement in terms of discrimination reduction and diversity progress in the workplace is slow.

The findings of the latest study by EDHEC Open Leadership Centre highlights this alarming observation. The study carried out among 767 people within large and small organisations found that:
  • On average, participants rate their organisations just above average in terms of diversity & inclusion (6.2/10 on diversity, and 5.5/10 on inclusion)
  • On gender equality, perceptions are below average: the overall score is 4.9/10
  • Women are more critical than men in their perceptions of diversity and inclusion:
  • For diversity women give an average score of 6.1/10, while men give a score of 6.6/10
  • For inclusion, women give a mean score 5.3/10, while men give 5.9/10
  • The difference is even more striking when it comes to gender equality: women attribute a score of 4.1/10, while men rate it at 6.8/10
According to the authors, this results point to the need for an alternative approach that could accelerate progress on diversity and inclusion. Obviously, traditional diversity programs, e.g. formalized HRM procedures, surveys, diversity training, performance evaluations, networking and mentoring programs, haven’t met their promises. The authors recommend to companies to rely on leadership as an alternative lever to foster diversity and inclusion. Building an effective leadership model can be a powerful tool for organizations to accelerate their progress in terms of diversity and inclusion. More exactly, they have to give impetus to a transformation of leadership behaviours and representations in order to:
  • Enable diversity to find expression in all areas and on all hierarchical levels within organizations;
  • Create a climate of inclusion in organizations
Leadership representations
Leadership representations can be an important impediment or booster to diversity improvement within an organisation. In fact, when the characteristics expected of a good leader are associated with “one specific profile”, all the other profiles are less likely to be identified and perceived as “leaders” or “potential leaders”. On the contrary, a neutral representation of leadership opens up the door for more diverse talents.
According to the study respondents, leadership is particularly associated to vision and charisma; and the most representative traits of a good leader are: being strong, energetic and willing to take risks. In other words, in the collective imagination, the image of a leader is strongly linked to heroism and carries “masculine” connotations. This narrow representation excludes many profiles from the population of potential leaders e.g. women of course but also men that don’t matches with this image.
Transforming leadership models would help managers to get free of stereotypes and then open up positions of responsibility to a greater diversity of talents and thereby contribute to the progress made by companies on diversity.
In fact, diversity and inclusion are not simply matters of gender, age, origins or any other attribute, but above all about how power is represented and practised. A change in perspective by putting leadership and leadership representations at the heart of policies on diversity would lead to effective and lasting transformations that favour diversity and inclusion in organizations.
Towards inclusive behaviours
An effective leader is someone who has the ability to motivate and engage a group of people to achieve a common goal. To engage and inspire diverse people, it’s important they feel accepted, integrated and valued. In other words, it’s important to create an inclusion climate.
The academic literature emphasizes the importance of management values relating to diversity and equal opportunity to promote diversity and inclusion.
To enhance a climate of inclusion, a leader should adopt inclusive behaviours based on interpersonal acceptance, fairness, participative decision making, caring and valuing differences.
Companies have to cultivate inclusive leadership amongst managers to foster diversity, leadership effectiveness and human performance.
Virtuous circle between diversity, leadership effectiveness and human performance
The study assessed the relationship between diversity and inclusion on the one hand, and human performance on the other. For the latter, it measured motivation and satisfaction levels in the workplace among the respondents, as well as their level of satisfaction with their managers. It also evaluated the links between diversity and inclusion and the leadership effectiveness of their immediate supervisors.
The statistical analysis carried out showed a strong positive relationship between employee perceptions of a climate of diversity and inclusion and human performance (employee’s motivation and satisfaction). When leadership effectiveness is added, this positive relationship is reinforced and a positive dynamic is created between diversity, inclusion, leadership and human performance. In fact, strong correlations are observed between:
  • perceptions of a climate of diversity and inclusion;
  • human performance;
  • and leadership effectiveness of the immediate supervisors
Conclusion
In order to boost progress on diversity and inclusion, our recommendation to companies is to pursue their efforts to improve diversity management and, at the same time, adopt a new approach by establishing an inclusive leadership model and culture. For this, they need both to work on leadership representation and on inclusive behaviours.
  • Leadership representations: as shown above, the representations of what constitutes a leader and the attributes of a good leader remain closely associated with “masculinity”. These representations therefore exclude many of the talents found in companies from the population of potential leaders (women, disabled person…). Transforming leadership models would open up positions of responsibility to a greater diversity of talents and thereby contribute to the progress made by companies on diversity and inclusion.
  • Adopting inclusive behaviours (i.e. caring for individuals and valuing their uniqueness and differences, being fair and building a sense of community) would foster diversity and a climate of inclusion in the workplace by creating empowering practices that help all group members grow and succeed, and by promoting the acceptance, the recognition and the integration of each member.
In conclusion, to improve diversity and foster a climate of inclusion, companies need to transform their leadership in order to:
  • Open it up to a diverse range of talents;
  • Favour more inclusive leadership;
  • Improve firm performance and well-being in the workplace!
About Hager Jemel 
Hager Jemel, PhD, is Associate Professor of Management at EDHEC and Director of EDHEC Open, Leadership Innovation Centre for Diversity & Inclusion at EDHEC Business School.
She has also been Director of the Pre-Master Year for the EDHEC Master in Management since June 1st 2017. She holds a Doctorate in Management Sciences from Institut d’Administration des Entreprises de Lille, part of University Lille 1. She has amassed 13 years of experience in Management lecturing and research, and commands strong expertise in the CSR and diversity fields. The EDHEC Open Leadership Innovation Centre has conducted numerous studies on these topics, including most recently “Promises and Paradoxes of Public Leadership”, a study which provides an unexpected portrait of public leaders.
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