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Managing Diversity from a Leadership Perspective

As a human resource consultant, I enjoy presenting classes on anti-harassment and discrimination; facilitating seminars on diversity; investigating employee complaints; and completing one-on-one training and coaching sessions with executives, managers and staff.

Most interesting to me are the one-on-one sensitivity coaching and training sessions where I am face-to-face with a person who has violated some company policy. These usually begin with a discussion of ethics; then cover the law and the hidden and financial costs of improper office behavior. From there we go into “soft-skills” training: communication, interpersonal and leadership skills. This is when I generally see the energy and interest of the trainees increase.

There is a difference between a true harasser, a racist, or a sexist and a person who has exercised poor judgment. True harassers are not interested in anything I have to say. They maintain a closed attitude indicating their opinion that the training is a waste of time – and it usually is. In comparison, those who have exercised poor judgment, though defensive at first, usually want to understand how and why their behavior was offensive and how to avoid making the same mistakes. In many cases, they recognize their actions are based on a lack of information or misinformation, and they are eager for clarification. In my experience, executives and managers are especially interested in mending relationships and improving their interactions with people at work. They seek to regain respect and become better role models. They want soft-skills.

In one particular training session, I was working with a Caucasian supervisor who made a comment to a group of African-American women who found it offensive. We spent at least one hour discussing anti-discrimination laws and rules, the company policies against harassment, both ethical and financial reasons to avoid offensive comments and the importance of perspective. In defense of his statement, despite all this information, the supervisor maintained that the same comment made to a different group of people would not have been taken as a racial offense.

As we moved into communication and leadership skills, the supervisor agreed that a successful leader is one who inspires confidence and respect, one who empowers others to be their best. He admitted that he wanted to be this kind of leader. I then asked him if his comments had the effect of making the women he spoke to feel good about themselves – “Did it empower them?” I asked him to consider if his comment inspired confidence and respect in him as a leader. “Did it help paint you as the kind of leader that others would want to follow?” He had to admit that his comment had the exact opposite effect. The supervisor also recognized that his comment would not have created a good feeling for anyone who heard it, regardless of race. This was his “Aha” moment.

Galeleo said, “We cannot teach people anything, we can only help them find it within themselves.” This is the essence of the “Aha” moment: the moment when a trainee gains a new perspective, discovering something about themselves they had not previously considered. It is when they ponder their people skills and leadership potential; when they look at who they are and who they want to be. Facilitating the “Aha” moment brings me the greatest satisfaction as a consultant.

The supervisor may have previously conceded that his comment was inappropriate because of the law, company policy or ethics, however, in his “Aha” moment he decided his comment was inappropriate mostly because it was not aligned with his image of himself as a leader. In that moment he changed his mind, not only about what he said in this particular situation, but in other situations where his comments, while not directed to anyone in a protected category, were still in opposition to his desire to be an effective leader.

The “Aha” moments happen pretty regularly during one-on-one sensitivity coaching, and in group training sessions as well. Interestingly, they never seem to occur during discussions of the law, ethics or revenue. They don’t center around the topic of race, gender, religion or disability. The “Aha” moments usually happen when focused on communication, interpersonal skills and/or leadership – the soft skills.

Having defended employment law claims in both state and federal courts, I strongly believe in training on anti-harassment and discrimination as a way of avoiding costly litigation. People are generally unconscious of their behavior, or how their actions or inactions contribute to employee relations issues. Training can raise consciousness or awareness of what discrimination and harassment look like so people can avoid perpetuating it. Training also helps people recognize when they are the subject of discrimination or harassment and lets them know what steps they can take to protect themselves. Diversity training is also a worthwhile endeavor, providing an understanding of how a diverse workforce can be utilized to positively impact creativity, morale and the bottom line.

In order to create a true environment of inclusiveness, however, training is not enough – it is merely the beginning. Soft skills training, including communication, interpersonal skills and leadership skills, is also essential. These are the skills that foster the kind of inclusion where everyone, regardless of who they are or where they come from, feels they are an integral member of the organization and encouraged to fully participate. The soft skills training that I find most desired and has the biggest impact on diversity is leadership training for leaders of all levels.

The Link Between Leadership and Diversity

A strong link exists between leadership and diversity. Leadership is about empowering people; bringing out the best in others. You bring out the best in people by making them feel accepted, respected and connected. When people feel good about themselves and the organization, they perform better individually and as part of a team, resulting in an organization that performs better. These are the same objectives and desired results of diversity strategies.

Deb Dagit, Executive Director of Diversity & Work Environment at Merck & Co., says resentment and resistance to diversity usually exists where the focus is on the law and being politically correct. Merck, one of DiversityInc.’s 2008 Top 50 Companies for Diversity, nullifies this challenge by viewing diversity “through the lens of leadership.”

Merck has integrated its diversity initiatives with a leadership model designed to “promote and develop the leadership skills of all Merck people.” This model includes 1) accepting all differences and integrating all ideas, 2) treating all employees with dignity and respect, and 3) promoting collaboration with others and building effective working relationships. By using leadership as a way to foster and maintain diversity, Merck has been able to weave diversity into the fabric of its culture. According to Dagit, “People get it because they live it.”

These same values are embodied in the diversity strategies of many of the Top 50 Companies for Diversity and can be summarized as acceptance, respect and connection.

Fostering Acceptance, Respect and Connection

An African-American attorney I met with recently lamented about her unstable work history. When questioned about it more deeply, she remarked she has yet to find an environment where she feels accepted, respected or connected. She spoke about law firms going to great lengths to bring her to the firm and then promptly forgetting about her. Her ideas are rarely considered and she does not bring to the office her true being and all the talents she has to offer because she does not get the feeling anyone cares. She has felt completely disconnected and isolated. Unfortunately, this is the way many people of color feel; like outsiders who are tolerated but not really welcomed or wanted. Using leadership skills to address these issues would make the working environment more supportive; not just for the people of color, with disabilities or others who might feel isolated; but for everyone in the office. Effective leadership can ensure that all individuals feel accepted, respected and connected.


There was a time in this country’s history when it was a liability to be different; the objective at that time was assimilation. The thought was that our strength came from being the same. In light of a global market and economy, that concept is not longer applicable.

Marcus Buckingham, in his book “Go Put Your Strengths to Work”, states that “true teamwork only occurs when a complimentary set of strengths come together in a coordinated whole.”1 Most teambuilding theories work from the same premise. With assimilation we lose individuality and that set of complimentary strengths, and thus we lose the power of the team. By contrast, we gain more strength by accepting people with differences; differences in opinions, cultures, beliefs and education. If a person feels accepted they will be more motivated to support the organization’s goals and mission.


The Golden Rule states we should treat people the way we would want to be treated. With so much diversity in our society, that rule often gets people into trouble. Not everyone wants to be treated the same way. In today’s world, respect includes treating people the way they want to be treated – what Dagit calls, the Platinum Rule.

Each and every person has something unique and special about them. Respect is also demonstrated by first acknowledginthen valuing those unique qualities and ultimately utilizing the differences of individuals toward a common goal or mission. Some people show their gifts openly while others need a little more prodding. In order to bring these gifts to the surface, it sometimes requires taking the time to get to know people and listening to their viewpoints without letting ego or personal bias get in the way.


The difference between a group of people and a team is connection. A group of people may work in the same office but they work independently, without interaction or reliance on each other. Individuals in the group are focused on achieving their own goals, and the goals of the organization are secondary, if they come into play at all.

A team, on the other hand, is a group of individuals with common goals and objectives. They help and aid each other, working together toward the accomplishment of those goals and objectives. When people feel connected they can turn a group of disconnected individuals into a cohesive team striving toward the same goals. In this way each person, and thus the team, performs better and everyone benefits.

Using leadership skills to promote these simple values can have an incredible impact in creating an environment where everyone, regardless of who they are, where they were born or their educational background, feels welcomed and supported. This is an important key not only to managing diversity, but to retaining all employees.


I encourage anti-harassment, discrimination and diversity training. However, it is important to understand that diversity is not a focus on Muslims, or Asians or women, nor is it a focus on the law. Diversity is a focus on inclusion – not inclusion for some, but for all.

In order to truly create and maintain an inclusive environment that speaks to all employees, soft skills are essential. The most important soft skill for fostering inclusion, and thus diversity, is leadership.

Effective leadership empowers each individual regardless race, sex or religion and inspires the desire and the ability to work together toward a common goal. If a company can manage this, it will be able to more effectively manage diversity.

1 Buckingham, Marcus, “Go Put Your Strengths to Work”, Free Press, 2007