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How to Increase Diversity in Your Leadership Bench Without Really Trying

A single-minded focus on diversity in the workplace may have drawbacks if the total picture of organizational performance isn’t considered.

I recently attended an industry conference in which the most prevalent theme was Diversity and Inclusion, closely followed by Leadership. This is no surprise, as diversity in leadership roles and especially gender diversity has been a recent hot topic, with particular scrutiny on Silicon Valley and the tech industry in general. These topics are fascinating to me as one of my primary research areas is related to how understanding context can improve diversity in the leadership bench.

I recently talked to a former colleague who works for a consulting firm that specializes in increasing diversity within organizations. The focus of our conversation was on improving diversity while maintaining performance, rather than improving diversity just for the sake of having more diversity. Many organizations seek diversity as an end in and of itself, which can have certain benefits, but a single-minded focus on diversity may have drawbacks if the total picture of organizational performance is not considered.

In general, there are two primary ways of improving diversity:

  1. Recruit a more diverse applicant pool. This helps to ensure there are diverse applicants from which to choose, but it may not be as helpful if the selection process creates a disadvantage for women and/or people of color.

  2. Change the selection process. If the selection process is geared toward attributes on which women or people of color are at a disadvantage, the process can be amended so that it has less adverse impact on these groups. The issue is that efforts to reduce adverse impact can often inadvertently decrease the ability of the selection system to predict who will be the best performers.

Historically, Industrial/Organizational psychologists have faced the dilemma of trying to increase diversity while maintaining validity or improving validity without reducing diversity. Recently, SHL research, Leadership Diversity: A New Approach to the Gender Gap, has turned this dilemma on its ear by showing that it is possible to increase both validity and diversity. The key to improving both validity and diversity is to consider the context in which leaders are expected to perform. This research has demonstrated that different work contexts call for different leader attributes. We identified the contexts that distinguish between different types of leaders and the traits that matter most for success. For example, working in an organization that encourages risk-taking requires different traits than working in an organization that is very risk-averse.

Given the unique contextual challenges that define a leadership role, our solution uses an algorithm that computes a predicted performance score based on a weighted combination of the traits that are most predictive of performance for that configuration of challenges. By considering context, the prediction is more precise than when context is not considered. That’s how our solution, SHL Leader Edge, can improve performance by identifying contexts and tailoring the selection solution to those contexts.

The key to improving both validity and diversity is to consider the context in which leaders are expected to perform.

So, what are the main ways that a contextual approach to leader selection helps increase diversity?

  1. A data-driven approach based on context increases objectivity. Speaking specifically about gender diversity, we know stereotypes influence perceptions of leader effectiveness and stereotypes of a good leader tend to focus on male-oriented characteristics. Research has shown both men and women consider attributes perceived as masculine to be more important to advancement potential than attributes perceived as more feminine. The existence of these stereotypes makes it likely there could be unconscious biases against female leaders. The best way to remove these unconscious biases is to remove the subjective element from evaluations by using a data-driven approach based on assessments and by leveraging context-specific solutions. You can never completely remove subjectivity from leader selection decisions, but this approach can give you an initial pool of candidates that quantifies the degree of fit between each candidate given the context.

  2. Women perform better when context is considered. Women tend to score higher than men on the measures of leader attributes that are most often related to leader success. Our research found the traits in which women had higher average scores than men tended to be positively related to performance within contexts, while the traits in which men had higher average scores than women tended to have no relationship or even negative relationships with performance within contexts. These higher average scores on so many traits that are positively related to performance translate to a distinct advantage on the context-specific leadership solutions. Women had a substantially larger mean score than men on 21 of the 27 contextual challenges we identified.

  3. Diverse leader profiles promote more diversity. Traditional leadership strategies assume that the same characteristics and competencies are needed throughout the organization but focusing on a generic competency profile diverts attention away from individuals who possess diverse experiences, perspectives, and backgrounds. At the extreme, this practice inadvertently reinforces bias in decisions and results in leadership teams composed of people who sound and look the same. Shifting the focus to context-specific prediction not only optimizes the fit between leaders and their context to produce better performance but also opens the door for more diverse leader profiles to be considered for key positions.

The bottom line is that, when we start with the goal of diversifying leader profiles and objectively matching them to contexts, diversity will naturally follow, as will better leader performance throughout the organization.

Learn more about SHL Leadership Solutions to help identify and develop leaders in your organization.

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Jeff Johnson

Dr. Jeff Johnson is a Principal Research Scientist at SHL. His current responsibilities on the Research and Development team focus on designing and developing innovative products and solutions that support employee selection and development, particularly with respect to the identification and placement of current and future leaders. His research demonstrating the impact of context on diversity and the prediction of leader performance led to the development of SHL’s Leader Edge selection and development tool and was awarded the M. Scott Myers Award for Applied Research in the Workplace by the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology in 2018.

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