How to be an equity-focused leader

Managing your team’s identities at work is a modern leader’s must for driving strategy and growth, says Randall S Peterson


Diversity, equity, and inclusion are key for driving strategy and growth. As such, managing your team’s identities at work is a modern leader’s must, explains Randall S. Peterson.

As the founding director of the London Business School’s Leadership Initiative, a professor of Organisational Behaviour with decades of research focused on diversity, and a Trustee of UN Women UK, I am often asked for advice on how to be an equity-focused leader. Here are five simple recommendations gleaned from my research and work.

Hire diverse teams, but stop making the business case for diversity.

The traditional “business case” for diversity is that more diversity gets you better outcomes. But the latest firm data suggests that this notion is patently false. More diversity produces more diverse outcomes for companies. Some better, and some worse.

At the same time, it is absolutely true that, in order to be a world class organisation, you must be diverse. There is no way around that. The challenge for managers today is to diversify in an optimal way, focusing on equity and performance. As a leader, ask: How do I make sure that I end up with the best of diversity?

To answer that, start by pursuing not just diversity, but diversity and inclusion. Because, unless you do the actual inclusion work, diversifying your team won’t bring about the results you want. In fact, a more diverse group of people may find it harder to work with one another, undermining team trust.

Building credibility within a diverse team won’t happen overnight. Integration and inclusion take time. In some of my research on boards, for example, I’ve found it may take three to five years. Over this time, leaders must work to foster trusting relationships. Which leads me to my next tip.

Work to manage your team’s identities and don’t threaten them.

Another factor that can undermine the business case for diversity is the tendency to shine a spotlight on a new hire who is different. That spotlight can make them feel defensive. For example, when a group of men hires the first woman, it may be tantamount to saying to her, “Ok, show me the money. How do you, as a woman, help me?” It may create an identity threat. And, ironically, people may do their worst work when faced with an identity threat.

That’s one reason why it is so important to create a sense of belonging, especially for underrepresented and minoritized groups. Fostering inclusion is a core leadership responsibility. In my research, I’ve found that responsibility is best met with training, listening, and measuring progress along the way. At the same time…

Allow your team members to stand out while fitting in.

Consider optimal distinctiveness” theory proposed by psychologist Marilynn Brewer. It’s a great explanatory mechanism. On the one hand, everybody wants to fit in and be part of the group, especially when it feels like a safe space with mutual trust. On the other hand, everybody wants to feel acknowledged for making a unique contribution. To strive for “optimal distinctiveness” is to ask: “What's the right level of standing out while fitting in?”

It’s essential that managers help their teams achieve their optimal distinctiveness in a productive way. It’s a balance. My research suggests that, as a leader, highlighting some of the diversity in the room is beneficial – as long as that diversity is relevant to the work to be done. That is to say, managers do well to point out who has a unique attribute or background that helps a project. No one needs a spotlight for simply looking different, as we mentioned above. In constructing a team, note the diverse strands that are coming together to work on a common project while creating a sense of belonging for all.

Help new hires navigate the organisational culture.

For new hires, learning scores of organisational rules and procedures need not be the top priority. Help your team members get to know themselves and how they fit into the organisation. Help them feel comfortable with what they do and don’t disclose in the office. Ask for their feedback and really listen. Of course, new hires need to know the most basic rules and procedures, but getting comfortable to learn and contribute is fundamental for all.

Confronting bias is essential.

Leaders are public figures, even in small organisations. People are watching. And so, confronting bias as a leader is crucial. If something is wrong, if a comment reveals bias, explain why for all to hear.

Leaders should confront bias with a growth mindset. Believe that people can and do change and foster that belief in your team. Research by my colleague Aneeta Rattan, funded by the London Business School’s Leadership Initiative, has shown that the workplace benefits when learning occurs after a negative incident. An equity-focused leader must be steadfast in making sure bias is tackled to instil a more positive outlook for the whole team.

“Create the tracks that change can run on,” is how Professor Rattan has put it. The bottom line is that diversity is key for a world class organisation, but leaders have to do the inclusion work. Managing identities at work is fundamental. Beyond any business case for diversity, leading with a focus on equity – keeping in mind gender and minoritized groups – reaps ample rewards.

Randall S Peterson is Professor of Organisational Behaviour and Academic Director of the Leadership Institute at London Business School.

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