Human Capital Management

Paying Attention

To make diversity work, managers must stop ignoring difference.

by Kate Pavao

April 2014


Executive coaches Jane Hyun and Audrey S. Lee noticed something during their leadership development coaching and consulting: Frustrated employees and overwhelmed managers. “We heard from voices saying, ‘I wish my manager understood me better’ or ‘I hope my manager would take the time to learn more about me and my background,’” remembers Hyun. “At the same token, the managers we were coaching had a hard time even knowing how to start these conversations.”


Hyun and Lee wrote Flex to address some of the fears managers have when it comes to leading diverse teams—such as being afraid of offending their employees by stumbling into sensitive territory—and also to provide a sure-footed strategy for becoming a more effective leader. Here, Hyun talks about what it takes to create innovate and productive teams in an increasingly diverse world, including the key characteristics successful managers share.

Profit: What does it mean to “flex”?

Hyun: Flexing is the art of switching between leadership styles to work more effectively with people who are different from you. It’s not fundamentally changing who you are, but it’s understanding when you need to adapt your style in a situation so that you can accommodate people and make them feel more comfortable. It’s understanding the gap that might exist between you and others who are different, and then flexing across that gap to get the result that you're looking for.

It’s up to all of us, not just managers, but also employees, to learn how to flex. When you hire new people to the organization, they're expected to adapt. The new people in the organization may need some guidance around how to best flex. They can certainly take the initiative, but if you can give them some direction around the important rules, and connect them with insiders who can help them figure out the most critical elements of the job, that will accelerate how quickly they can contribute to your organization.

Profit: Why is it important right now for managers to understand flexing?

We’re trained, especially in the workplace, to make assumptions quickly, so that you can make the best business decision. But with people, it’s better to remain

Hyun: The workplace is becoming increasingly younger, multicultural and female. The numbers bear it out. Millennials are entering the workforce and becoming a larger percentage of it, which is a global phenomenon. Thirty-six percent of the workforce is multicultural, and close to half is female. It makes sense to better understand the people who are increasingly a part of your workforce, and how to best lead them and manage them as well.

Profit: What do companies miss out on when managers don’t flex?

Hyun: There are high costs for losing people or failing to engage them. The estimated costs of replacing an employee is about 150 percent of that person’s salary. There are studies showing that employee disengagement costs the U.S. something like $450 billion a year.

But voice is the biggest thing you miss out on if you don’t flex. Whenever you want innovation or increased productivity from your people, you need to figure out how to unleash these things. The way you get there is to make sure that everybody’s voice is at the table.

Profit: What are some of the common misassumptions that managers make about the people on their teams?

Hyun: One is what I call the Golden Rule mentality: We assume when we go to the workplace that people are going to think like us and operate like us. But sometimes when you work with people from a different culture or a different generation, they may have a different mindset about doing something, or a different approach to solving a problem, or a different way to manage some situation.

When see something that’s different, we don't understand it, so we don't trust it. We have this hidden bias for people who are like us. That gets in the way of really looking at how we can tap our team members best potential by understanding how their difference may help them be effective in our workplace. We’re trained, especially in the workplace, to make assumptions quickly, so that you can make the best business decision. But with people, it’s better to remain curious.

If you want to build stronger cross-cultural, cross-generational, cross-gender relationships, before you make a judgment, share what you observe with that team member, and connect with him or her in ways that are mutually adaptive, so that you can work together more effectively.

Profit: What are the common characteristics you see in leaders who are successful at flexing?

Hyun: One is what I call “adaptive ability”—leaders who are able to understand that someone on their team is different from them, and willing to adapt his or her style to do that.

Thought LeaderJane-Hyun-125w

Jane Hyun is an executive coach and the co-author of Flex.

Another one is “unconditional positive regard,” which is basically acceptance of others, even in their vulnerable moments. This attitude of grace is critical and essential to a healthy environment in developing people.

If you think about when people enter the workforce, they're only 21 years old. It’s quite a formative time for them. They may not have a lot of management experience, or experience managing complex or even global projects. Creating the best possible condition for their development requires turning their mistakes into teachable moments, and giving them an opportunity to really learn.

Finally, these leaders are not rigid or constrained in a single mode or style. They have this insatiable curiosity about other people. They don’t judge when they see behavior that doesn’t make sense, or is different from their own. For example, maybe someone on their team is a less aggressive than they are. The leader needs to remain curious and thinks, “Wow, I wonder how I can engage in a dialogue with this person to get their potential out in the open.”

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