As the population becomes more diverse, so does the workforce. Diversity is defined in many ways – age, gender, disability, sexual preference, ethnicity and culture. In Flex, authors Hyun and Lee discuss the importance of developing adaptive, fluent leadership consisting of managers who can successfully lead people who are different from them. The book The Messy Middle by the founder of Behance, Scott Belsky, digs into this topic as well.
Understanding why leaders need to learn a new skill set is only a first step though. The barriers to closing the skill gaps must be identified and broken down before leaders can learn the skills of flexing. Only then is it possible to change.
When people from different cultures enter a dominant cultural environment, they quickly learn that the specific codes of behavior, cultural values and rules they grew up with can lead to miscommunication and misunderstandings. In the workplace, the cultural differences or social distance of managers and their employees can cause much anxiety and confusion, holding people back from succeeding as leaders and employees. The reason is that people are not using the same set of rules or values to drive their behaviors. The book Backstage Pass digs into cultural differences as well.
Most leadership training programs, say the authors, focus on teaching employees to improve communication, manage conflict, manage teams, promote their accomplishments and hone their presentations. They are not taught how to avoid miscommunicating with diverse people or how to leverage differences as an asset.
Due to lack of understanding, there is lower productivity and higher attrition of top talent. Qualified diverse employees are derailed from promotions and projects or are pigeonholed in a particular position with no hope of progressing. The best book on identifying how this happens and avoiding it in your organization is Bait and Switch.
Miscommunication is a barrier to building trust and respect between people. The social distance can make or break a company. What makes it even more difficult to overcome is that many managers sincerely believe they treat people equally, when in reality they are not connecting with employees. They just do not know it.
A common mistake that managers make is avoiding any recognition, discussion or admission of differences. They believe that everything will be okay as long as people respect each other. This gets to the heart of the book.
What does each diverse employee think respect looks like? It could be quite different from what the manager calls respect. Hiring women, minorities and other diverse people is only the beginning of the workplace journey, yet companies tout their percentages all the time. What they are failing to do after people start work is find areas of commonality and recognize and utilize differences for the success of people and the company.
The result is things like workers from other cultures are expected to adopt Western notions of acceptable behaviors, even when they clash with their learned cultural values; millennials must assimilate which might mean forgoing the use of social media for the organization’s communication model; and women are expected to assume a more aggressive competitive style in order to be considered for leadership positions.
A barrier to communication is a fear of saying something offensive or making an erroneous assumption. Another barrier is that studies have shown there is an unconscious empathetic bias towards people of the same racial group, impacting how information is processed.
The authors review the stages of moving from unconscious incompetence to unconscious competence, and the different mindsets that influence communication and behaviors (denial, polarization, minimization, acceptance, adaptation).
They also discuss different leadership styles, with the fluent leader being the ultimate goal.The fluent leader does not stereotype, engages employee skills and talents on a deeper level, appreciates differences, has respectful inquisitiveness and uses diversity competence to flex across the power gap. Another amazing book on Leadership is Extreme Ownership written by a ex-Navy SEAL.
The authors take the readers on a journey of discovery about communication styles and how they influence relationships in the workplace. An adaptive, fluent leader understands that even small things said and done can make a difference in the way people perceive them. The flex leader learns to find common ground through a trait, communication pattern, cultural dimension, interest or shared experience.
The challenge for managers is that this requires self-awareness, adaptability, developing comfort with ambiguity and complexity, unconditional acceptance of others and flexing across the power gap (with employees, peers and senior leaders).
Having thoroughly explained the flex leader and flex management, Hyun and Lee spend time giving examples of the style works in practice. There is a step-by-step guide on putting the flex management style into practice.
This is not just a management theory book. There are many personal examples of author experiences that demonstrate how different cultural perspectives create barriers. Another book filled with author experiences and creating company culture is Ready Fire Aim.
Also included are numerous examples of real-life leaders who are successfully using flexing to cross the cultural divide and power gap and leveraging diverse thinking from employees to drive innovation. And if that sounds interesting you need to read the book Linchpin.
Managers must learn to discover why people are behaving as they do and will be surprised to discover they have often made false assumptions.
It is not easy to change a management style which is why the detailed information concerning the change process and numerous examples are so useful.
Any leader struggling to manage a diverse team would do well to read this book. Another book that could contend with this one is High Output Management.