Leader in a Diverse Workspace? Here’s How to Be More Equitable

Words by Charlotte Hochman, visuals by Michele Caleffi
Reading Time: 4 minutes

If leading a team is hard, leading a diverse team is harder.

 

And leading a remote diverse team, as an increasing number of us are doing, is harder still. Yet recent developments make this a reality for many teams out there. How can a leader create equitable workspaces in these challenging conditions?

The potential for issues are endless: cultural sensitivities, constrained communications, logistical constraints from people living and working in different time zones… and this is just the top of the list.

What’s more, with the current conditions of VUCA (Volatility Uncertainty Complexity and Ambiguity) brought on by the pandemic, a leader’s job can entail having to hold the reins of an operation that can feel scattered and disconcerted.

Wow!Labs has spent the last decade creating diverse teams for innovation, to lead ambitious projects in a variety of contexts. It’s been an unpredictable journey, and the more we do it, the more we want to do it. It does get easier with time as the variables of equity in a diverse team become clearer. 

Here are some learnings we want to share with those starting out considering equity in diverse teams.

It’s essential for you to know what you don’t know. In order to find out what you don’t know, we invite you to map out some elements. You could do this by thinking carefully about the following points, or scribbling your answers to the following questions, or mapping them out on a piece of paper. 

The fact is that dominant professional cultures take a number of things for granted – among them vocabulary, daily rhythms, or sense of humour – that may feel insensitive to different personal identities.

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What cultural sensitivities are present in your team?

 

 Culture is a complicated word. It can point to differences between national origin. On this well-explored topic of intercultural management, there are many resources, of which the Culture Map, useful in corporate settings.

 But there are many types of culture that are not relative to geographic origins. These include invisible subcultures, or groups of interest that people may identify with, be they related to gender, race, religion or any other topic.

Now of course personal identities are by definition personal. The fact is that dominant professional cultures take a number of things for granted – among them vocabulary, daily rhythms, or sense of humour – that may feel insensitive to different personal identities. So what happens if you become more conscious of subcultures present around you?

 It is not a question of becoming a specialist on any of these (unless you want to), but to identify what cultures may be present around you to be more sensitive towards them.

 

Make sure you are conscious of the way people think about their own constraints – which are usually also a source of strength for them- rather than do it for them, or not at all.

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What are the logistical constraints of people in your team?

 

Beyond the constraint of timezones (where would we be without the invaluable tools to optimize them?), other constraints may be invisible to you, as people are used to adapting to organizations more than traditional organizations are to listening to people’s deep needs.

 Parenting is an obvious constraint. Make sure you apply the same thinking to both mothers and fathers as a reflex. Even if this is not a reality in all cultures, as a leader you should leave the space for this to evolve, which you do not if you apply different reflexes to women and men. Also be sure not to take anything for granted by applying your own patterns of parenting, if you are a parent, to the reality of your team’s experience. Just find out about how the role of parent might manifest logistically in the life of the people in the team, and adapt to fit what they need to fully show up, in their own way. 

This applies to other roles than parent that people courageously take up, such as taking care of an older relative or someone vulnerable. Make sure you are conscious of the way people think about their own constraints – which are usually also a source of strength for them- rather than do it for them, or not at all.

So once you’ve found out what you don’t know… well, you can find out the rest over time. 

DON’T just skim through these concepts and get back to normal. DO spend time and energy to create the conditions for people to feel like there is more equity in the work environment you are creating, even if you are outside of your comfort zone. Outside of their comfort zone: that’s precisely where other people are when you’re within yours, if you haven’t established the conditions for equity.

 

As leaders are accountable for productivity, one last point: research consensually points to the fact that such an enquiry into increased equity will result in an increase of productivity, rather than the opposite, as people feel respected in their choices and needs.

 

In the long run, we hope there won’t be a choice for leaders to create environments that are equitable. It won’t be progressive to apply such thinking, but just, as we say, business-as-usual. Until that day, let’s learn what it takes to get there together in practice.

Charlotte Hochman is the Executive Director of Wow!Labs, accelerating innovation for companies, cities and universities in emergent situations. She has founded incubators and designed curriculums for leading institutions. Charlotte is a Fulbright scholar, an Entrepreneur-in-Residence at INSEAD, Designer-in-Residence at CCA in San Francisco, a BMW Foundation Responsible Leader, and a panelist at Obama’s Presidential Summit. Discover her work and access her guide "People spaces: How to create, convene and take part meaningfully in new spaces online”.

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