How To Successfully Lead Today’s Diverse Workforce

Perhaps we need a new word. Roget’s Thesaurus provides the following synonyms for leadership: authority, command, control, direction, domination, foresight, guidance, power, pre-eminence and primacy. This presumes a leader is someone out in front, with all the answers in hand and perhaps trailed by a cadre of willing followers.

But being a leader today is more complex. Not only are the business challenges daunting, but the increasing diversity of the workforce makes building a cohesive organization difficult.

There are four things you need to do to lead today’s diverse workforce successfully:

Appreciate: Withhold judgment — don’t jump to conclusions.

Acknowledge: Legitimize diverse perspectives.

Arbitrate: Surface differences and establish clear and effective group norms.

Adapt: Frame and deliver messages in ways that are meaningful to each individual.

To appreciate requires a willingness to withhold judgment. What seems to be an illogical interpretation or odd behavior to you may seem normal to another. Everyone’s initial reaction reflects a particular bias or lens, shaped by each individual’s background and experience.

Acknowledging there is no reason any individual’s perspective should automatically be given primary significance gives you the ability to fairly hear and evaluate multiple points of view.
Second, leaders must publicly acknowledge the legitimacy and benefits of alternate views. This often requires teaching: helping others discover that colleagues see issues differently and becoming comfortable with differences. As a leader, facilitate group discussions of how a situation looks and create a context in which it is acceptable — preferably desirable — for people to express different views.

Third, leaders must arbitrate the inevitable behavioral differences that will arise. Again, in a group, ask employees to share perspectives on how things might be done, acknowledge the validity of various views and establish ground rules or norms for use in your particular circumstance. To the extent possible, make these rules situation-specific. Rather than pronouncing one view right or wrong, conclude that in this situation, the group will follow this course of action.

For example, areas for discussion may include:

How individuals view time and place: Older employees began their careers when work was the time spent in the office. In contrast, younger workers tend to view work as something you do anywhere, any time, and find set work hours a throwback to another era. In your circumstance, does it matter whether people are working in the office or somewhere else? Does everybody have to work the same hours to accomplish the tasks?

How colleagues communicate: Some are accustomed to brief texts, while others may be uncomfortable with digital communication and even feel offended by a lack of face-to-face interaction. What method of communication will your group use for what purpose? What response time is expected under which circumstance?

How we sync up and organize: Older employees typically are planners and schedulers, while many younger colleagues are coordinators. Neither approach is perfect for every situation. What requires a plan and schedule? What can be coordinated in real-time?

Fourth, you may need to adapt your communication using language that resonates with members’ differing values and preferences. Consider how the U.S. Army has delivered the same message — “Join the Army” — to successive generations.

With traditionalists, whose values include respect for authority and a desire to affiliate with institutions, it used a powerful, finger-pointing image and the command: “Uncle Sam Wants You.” In contrast, the idealistic boomers, self-occupied and bent on personal growth, would never have responded well to this approach; the Army switched the message to “Be All You Can Be.” The self-reliant members of Generation X were asked to join “An Army of One.” And today, to reach a generation of family-centric Y’s, the Army is speaking directly to parents with the message, “You Made Them Strong; We’ll Make Them Army Strong.”

Tamara J. Erickson is the author of What’s Next, Gen X? Keeping Up, Moving Ahead, and Getting the Career You Want. She can be reached at