Workplace Diversity: 4 Ways to Lead Respectfully

 In Coaching, Leadership Development, Organizational Change, Personal development

It is obvious to almost everyone that we now live in a diverse world. For the respectful leader, workplace communication is free from prejudice and discrimination, and does not include racial slurs or off-colored humor. A respectful leader welcomes the richness of that diversity and treats all people with esteem and dignity at all times. Bad bosses disregard the need for respectful communication, through their own ignorance or blatant denial of its necessity. Disrespect toward others, implied or explicit, will negate everything else you might do well as a leader.

Building Awareness

In today’s society, one cannot miss the diversity. Many communities are a “rainbow coalition” of people from all walks of life, from all over the world. In the workplace, both customers and employees mirror this diversity. As a result, managers have a critical responsibility to model respect and acceptance that their employees can emulate. Your actions, as the adage says, will speak louder than your words.

Communication is easier than ever today with Smartphone’s, e-mail, networking, websites, and the ability to connect at any time with minimal effort. Whether we fly overseas, make a phone call, or interact through a video conference, we can meet new people from different cultures with ease. Yet, it is not quite so easy to melt away the distrust and prejudice that sometimes accompanies cross-cultural interaction. People have various histories and customs in these and other areas that often times make it a challenge to communicate effectively:

  • Family and educational backgrounds
  • Political beliefs
  • Social status
  • Cultural norms
  • Ethnic background
  • Religious beliefs
  • Personal preferences and tastes

In the 1940’s, Abraham Maslow identified a hierarchy of human needs that applies to everyone: physiological care, safety, social acceptance, personal esteem and a sense of self-fulfillment. Even in this 21st century, people have the same basic set of needs; whether they are short, tall, male, female, black, white, GLBT, Methodist, Muslim, Spanish, Japanese, manager or employee. No matter the socioeconomic status, these human needs are consistent for all people. Respectful leaders understand that all people are valuable people–no matter their diverse characteristics–and treat them equally well.

Respectful leaders know that the greatest resource of a business is its people. They recognize the value of diverse people working together as a team. The possible synergy creates newer and better ideas, more depth of perception and ingenuity, increased quality in customer service, and better productivity.

Accepting Diversity

In many instances, for example across the U.S., diversity training has become a legislated because many people fail to accept one another by their own initiative. People often fail to understand that differences are not something to fear, but an opportunity to understand. As a result it is unlawful, and simply not right, to discriminate, show prejudice, or practice harassment towards others in the workplace or society.

Companies in the US are required by law to implement policies or procedures that support discrimination laws and protect both employees and customers. Managers who strongly support diversity are assets to a company and contribute to a collaborative company climate. Those who don’t are expendable, a liability to their companies as they sow discontent and hatred. Their prejudices create a hostile environment for everyone.

In reality, accepting the differences among people comes from within, not from a law or policy. Acceptance extends from the heart as a respectful leader communicates with every customer, co-worker, or employee with courtesy, respect, dignity and care. A respectful leader works to understand differences, not eliminate them.

Respectful leaders move from “heart” acceptance to “hands-on” action, helping their employees become the best they can be. A good employee is a reflection of a good leader; success reflects success as both customers and the company are well served. A respectful leader gives every employee the same opportunity to succeed, or helps them find their niche elsewhere.

Think of a person with whom you have a hard time working with, particularly someone with cultural background, ethnicity, or values that differ from your own. How well do you really know or understand this person? What do you know of his or her interests or hobbies, career experience, education background, family, likes or dislikes, or dreams? Most difficulties in relationships come from a lack of knowledge or understanding that breeds distrust and prejudice. Educating oneself about that which is unknown often eliminates fear of that which is unfamiliar.

Encouraging Diversity

Respectful leaders learn to masterfully work with diversity among employees and create positive and motivating work environments. However, they often first see themselves in the mirror and realize, “The enemy is me.”

Respectful leaders understand that to effectively influence others, they must first manage their own perceptions. Many managers discover, through diversity exercises, that they do not know their co-workers as well as they thought they did. They learn that their critical assumptions and judgments about others arise out of a lack of understanding, or learned biases and prejudices.

Respectful leaders learn that they can change their perceptions. By using a four-step framework called PACT, almost any manager can learn and constructively demonstrate the positive attributes of diversity if they care.

  1. P: Practice being polite, respectful and helpful with all people.
  2. A: Accept the differences in others without judgments. Accept the similarities, too.
  3. C: Collaborate and communicate with all people by being a good listener.
  4. T: Treat all people with dignity, empathy, fairness and equal opportunity.

Respectful leaders learn that their sensitivity to others’ differences, and the ability to positively engage these differences can significantly boost their personal effectiveness and that of their team.

Taking Positive Action

A large agricultural company in the U.S. was trying to work a deal with a multi-national company from Spain. Soon after introductions were made, the U.S. executives wanted to get approval on a contract. The Spanish executives were puzzled and asked the interpreter what was going on. The U.S. executives did not understand that social bonding in the Spanish culture presumes that the parties will take time to talk, maybe eat together, and get to know each other better before conducting formal business. The U.S. managers did not understand their cross-cultural differences beforehand, and as a result did not accommodate diversity, communicate effectively or get the contract.

Business people worldwide are beginning to learn the positive and powerful force of accepting and embracing diversity. This is a lesson learned by adoption agencies that regularly connect people from different cultures. These agencies have shown that disadvantaged children who are adopted and brought into loving and caring yet culturally different homes can overcome inherent obstacles and differences. The adoption process is predicated on the wisdom of a simple philosophy: love one another. Businessman and author Bob Conklin re-stated this philosophy for the work world:

  • Give other people what they need and you’ll get what you need.
  • Help others be successful and you’ll be successful.

Respectful leaders embrace the reality and richness of diversity, and use that as a basis for more effective and helpful communication. As a result, these leaders are proven genuine and credible.


By the way, do you want to learn proven approaches for becoming a better leader and increasing employee engagement? If so, I suggest you check out this complimentary eBook:How to Motivate-No-Inspire Employees: 10 Keys to Employee Engagement.

Or, are you going through lots of change at work and want to help yourself or others cope with it better? Then, check out this complimentary eBook: Changing Change Management.

For over 300 complimentary developmental resources in leadership, customer service, sales, and personal development check out our Superstar Leadership Blog.

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