Flexing Toward Diversity

As a first-generation Chinese-American, Audrey S. Lee became accustomed to navigating multiple cultures and worlds at an early age — one set of rules and expectations at home and different ones at school, church and other communities. Throughout her life, Lee has learned that while some of her differences could be perceived as barriers, they make her unique and are actually advantages in her career and personal journeys.Audrey S. LeeJane Hyun

Similarly, Jane Hyun was born in South Korea and raised in New York. Growing up bicultural, she experienced firsthand some of the challenges of being the only Asian in the room and learning how to navigate a brand-new culture. Hyun believes that people’s behaviors in work, life and community are guided by many unseen factors, including culture, values, faith and other elements that need to be better understood by companies.

Diversity Executive recently spoke with Lee and Hyun, authors of “Flex: The New Playbook for Managing Across Differences,” and excerpts from their interview are below.

Why is “flexing” a must-have leadership skill?

The current business landscape demands a global focus, whether it is for customers, talent, suppliers or partners. The American workplace is rapidly becoming diverse, with more women, cultures and younger professionals entering the workforce. In 2012, already 36 percent of the workplace was multicultural, and by 2050 the U.S. will be a country with no majority population. And with technology connecting us with a wider range of people, managers are often working with people around the world, even if they never leave the country.

So the reality is that we all will be (or already are) working with people who have different backgrounds, styles and ways of communicating. Flexing is the art of switching between behaviors and style — stretching your own style so you can communicate with someone who is different.

Why did you decide to bring the concept of flexing to light in this book?

There is already quite a bit of conversation and work done around diversity. But we noticed that this very important work is often relegated to a diversity function or group within the organization, and is seen by managers as “extra” or, worse, irrelevant. “Flex” is written in response to this: this is relevant. Interacting with a diverse workforce affects business and day-to-day operations, and flexing is part of the skill set necessary for a leader in this economy.

We also wanted to give managers some of the tools we’ve discovered in our work to help them bridge gaps in the workplace, because there is a need for practical training when working with those who are different from us. A number of recent studies (HBS and Diversity Research Network) challenges the traditional argument for diversity — that diversity automatically equates to better performing, more innovative teams. If you put a group of people with different backgrounds together, you actually get a bit of chaos, misunderstandings and conflict. The studies show that teams who learned how to reconcile their differences and whose differences were valued in their environment were the highest performing, most productive and innovative.

What do you hope your book will do for managers?

We hope this gives managers a new perspective on the dynamics of working with differences. Understanding these frameworks gives managers a way to discuss differences, which are often hard to talk about. Diversity is sometimes the proverbial “hot potato” that managers think they have to deal with, but don’t want to. In “Flex” we introduce nonjudgmental language so that managers have the vocabulary to have such conversations. We hope managers will learn to master this and build it into their leadership toolkit. It’s important to understand that this isn’t about right vs. wrong or superior vs. inferior. Rather, it’s about what makes you more effective in a certain context, and allows you to better interact, respond and lead.

Why does downplaying differences hurt profitability?

The demographic shifts in the U.S. and global focus means a shift in the market for talent as well as customers. Companies have to understand how to acquire, retain and develop both in order to succeed. For example, companies that downplay differences risk losing their employees, who might be disengaged in an environment that doesn’t fully understand or value their talent. When one employee leaves and has to be replaced, that costs the company 150 percent of the annual salary. And according to a 2013 Gallup Study, organizations lose an estimated $450 billion to $550 billion per year by failing to keep workers engaged.

In addition, companies that don’t understand how to leverage their diverse workforce are leaving one of their greatest assets untapped. The benefit of diversity is in the new ideas, different solutions and innovation one gains from a variety of perspectives and experiences. But as we already mentioned, this doesn’t happen automatically! Training the workforce around flex skills is part of a greater strategy to build performance and innovation into business objectives.

What are the advantages of having a diverse workplace?

It just makes business sense. Diversity is a strategic imperative that organizations need to leverage, and being skilled at working across differences will give companies a competitive advantage.

Studies show that organizations that do understand how to utilize their diverse talent benefit enormously. A Catalyst report shows that having women on your board or executive committees increases the bottom line 73 percent on sales and 83 percent on return on equity. The McKinsey Women Matter Report also made a compelling case a few years ago for how having more senior women in your ranks or on boards can increase your bottom line. Women make up half of the U.S. workforce, and as mentioned earlier, multiculturals are a critical segment of the professional workforce. By 2025, 3 out of 4 workers around the globe will belong to Gen Y.

How should a manager handle cultural issues in the workplace?

As we have been working with leadership in managing diverse teams in the workplace, we need to start with the power gap, the social distance that separates individuals from those in positions of authority, whether in a formal or informal structure. In the book, we talk about flexing across that gap, which is the ability to effectively read the gap between yourself and others, and adapting your leadership style as needed to create better work relationships with others.

While we are aware that the person across the table may look and sound different from us (culturally, younger, or across the gender divide), we often resort to the “golden rule.” Therefore, we don’t always know how to bridge the gap that exists between us, and typically resort to leading in ways that are more familiar.

Perhaps you’ve noticed that one of your teamvmembers is more roundabout or less direct in her relating approach and you perceive that she is uncomfortable challenging your decisions. Remember, it’s about meeting your colleague part-way, to identify the best solution for moving forward. In developing better work relationships across differences, you may need to rethink your existing approaches and consider flexing your style to reach that person across the gap.

What does it mean to “multiply the effect”?

In the book, we talk how an individual manager can practice “fluent leader” traits in interactions with co-workers up, down and across the organization. In the latter chapters, we provide examples of how you can “multiply the effect” in an organization.

As a manager, once you understand how to guide an employee to flex across the power gap, you can also coach others on your team to do it for themselves when they find themselves in difficult situations.

As well, those who are not part of the dominant culture may not always know the unwritten rules for navigating that workplace culture. So, to extend your reach beyond coaching your team members, you may consider setting up an onboarding initiative to ensure that newcomers to the organization will understand the rules of the road.

What is the best way to manage the power gap between managers and their employees?

The key lesson here is that both managers and employees have the ability to close the power gap. However, if you are already leading a team or are in a position of power, you can initiate that process, simply because you have the authority to do so, and it may help employees with high power gap to feel more comfortable having that dialogue. When you as a manager want to connect, here are some guidelines for opening the dialogue:

When you are flexing across the power gap, it is about finding a mutually beneficial solution, so avoid blaming your employee. First, think about how you should best connect, and how you might demonstrate the positive intent with your message. Next, initiate a conversation about a situation you have observed that needs attention. Describe the impact of the actions on the business problem at hand and discuss how you might come up with a solution together. Consider your tone, volume and pitch just as much as you prepare the content of your words. If you have them, provide examples of different approaches.

Eric Short is an editorial intern at Diversity Executive magazine. He can be reached at editor@diversity-executive.com.