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Managing diversity

Today's business leader has to bust myths about workplace diversity if he wants his multicultural employees to work as a team

Managing diversity

A STUDY on managing diversity and bridging communication gaps was conducted by the Singapore Human Resources Institute (SHRI) in September 2008, and it revealed that a majority of workers (77 per cent out of 272 participants) in Singapore felt that their organisations’ leaders were not able to motivate and enable staff to achieve both individual and corporate goals.

How then can these managers become more effective?

In today’s diverse workplace, effective corporate managers and leaders need to be able to command respect and motivate a multicultural team, and to separate the facts from the myths.

Workplace diversity refers to differences among people working in an organisation.

Besides the usual race, ethnic group, age and gender differences, workers also come with different religions, personalities, cognitive styles, tenures, organisational functions and educational backgrounds.

If diversity in the workplace is well managed, workers with varying backgrounds can bring different skill sets and experiences to their tasks.

Diverse teams can empower organisations and help them gain competitive advantage.

The SHRI study discovered that there were many myths surrounding diversity.

Corporate leaders should bust these myths and encourage their employees to embrace diversity so that they can utilise the advantages diversity provides.

Myth 1: Diversity is divisive.

Reality check: Employees from diverse backgrounds can be brought together for common goals. If communicated properly, there will be harmony in the company’s environment.

Myth 2: There is a single business case study for diversity.

Reality check: Each company has its own case study and requires its own analysis and customised solution. The mix of cultures may vary from one company to another, and gender may also play a part.

Myth 3: The hardest part about creating a diverse workforce is recruiting.

Reality check: The hardest part about creating a diverse workforce is retention. Contrary to popular belief, monetary benefits are not the key to retaining employees. Benefits like networking sessions and sharing sessions that make employees feel supported and valued are the ones that contribute to high retention rates.

Myth 4: Diversity requires lowering standards.

Reality check: It is sometimes wrongly assumed that a multicultural workforce has a negative impact on performance. With good management, the same productivity as a homogeneous workforce can be achieved without compromising on the standards.

Myth 5: If the chief executive officer is onboard, diversity will succeed.

Reality check: If the rest of the senior management is not as committed, diversity will fail. The acceptance of diversity starts right at the top, but it should spread to all levels for it to become part of an organisation’s culture. Everyone must take ownership of inclusion practices and be accountable.

Good leadership behaviours

Successful leadership in a diverse workplace requires that a manager continues to practise good leadership behaviours with all contributors under his charge, and not just with employees he is most comfortable with.

Ms Lenora Billings-Harris, a diversity consultant and the author of The Diversity Advantage: A Guide To Making Diversity Work, once interviewed hundreds of corporate leaders to find out what makes a good corporate manager or leader.

She asked them to think of the one manager or leader whom they had worked with who motivated them. They were then asked to describe what attributes, characteristics or work habits of this person had made an impression.

From the responses, Ms Billings-Harris found that the successful manager or leader:

* was fair and respectful towards others,

* had high personal standards,

* believed in employees’ abilities and potential,

* encouraged and stretched workers,

* led by example,

* mentored and coached,

* asked for and appreciated different points of view,

* listened,

* criticised objectively,

* had integrity, was honourable,

* helped employees solve their own problems,

* had a vision, and

* developed a trusting environment.

Lead all types of people

Successful corporate managers and leaders are able to embrace diversity effectively and practise leadership behaviours with all contributing members of their team at all times.

They must be able to lead no matter how different a team member is from them, and no matter how uncomfortable they are with that member’s differences.

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