Multicultural, multigenerational teams are as part of today’s workplace as the morning coffee routine. It’s why the need-to-have skill of flexing is so important, say executive coaches and global leadership strategists Jane Hyun and Audrey S. Lee. The two define flexing as the art of switching leadership styles to more effectively lead people who are different from you. It’s fluent leaders, or those who can flex, that get the best out of diverse teams.
In their book Flex: The New Playbook for Managing Across Differences, the two explain it’s the differences that aren’t visible—the way we think about things, how we approach problems, our status within an organization—that we need to bridge.
The (dis)comfort zone
We’re all naturally attracted to people who are like us. But as Hyun and Lee point out, teams end up having blind spots if everyone is in agreement. Diversity can bring healthy conflict. And it can also put us in unfamiliar situations, so comfort with ambiguity is key.
|Leaders need to set aside their own biases about what it means to be effective and efficient and to recognize that there are different ways of communicating.|
As a leader, you need to recognize the different backgrounds on your team, as well as strengths and weaknesses. Once these are identified, you can better determine how these pieces can help solve your problem, rather than spending time trying to mold employees to approach problems as you would. Sometimes this will mean you need to ask questions about what people know. Everyone brings work experience, along with perspective from their personal lives, to the table. Curiosity is essential for leaders who want to consistently get the most out of their teams.
Learn a new language
It’s not enough to simply tolerate differences. In today’s workplace, learning to fluently communicate in a myriad of ways is not just a nice-to-have, it’s a must-have, say Hyun and Lee. In order to be a fluent leader, you need to learn different styles of communication, quickly discern preferences of others, and use the method that works best for any given situation.
Awareness of others must also be accompanied by self-awareness. Leaders need to set aside their own biases about what it means to be effective and efficient and to recognize that there are different ways of communicating. And your approach may vary from situation to situation. So while email may be your preferred method of communication, sometimes a one-on-one conversation will work better with a particular employee. As you learn to adapt and stretch your style of leadership, you’re learning to flex and become a more effective, fluent leader.
Close the power gap
“We’re all naturally attracted to people who are like us, but teams end up having blind spots if everyone is in agreement. Diversity can bring healthy conflict.”
The biggest differences we often run into in the workplace come between indirect versus direct communicators. For example, an employee with indirect communication style may not bring up issues unless he is asked, out of respect for authority, while a supervisor with direct communication style may expect that employee to speak up. This creates a power gap between the two that needs to get closed in order to develop trust in the relationship.
It is important to note, say Hyun and Lee, that neither style is right or wrong. As you catch yourself making judgments, it’s the ideal time to try and flex your style. Remember, someone has to initiate the conversation, and you can’t expect someone else to take the first step. When you remain observant, stop making assumptions, and have a conversation, chances are you’ll get a more complete story with new insights that can help you and your teams create more innovative solutions.
This post is part of our ongoing coverage of Microsoft Research and its Visiting Speaker Series. Microsoft Research supports its mission to educate and foster innovation and growth through inviting authors and speakers that inspire big ideas, spark new ways of doing things, or help people see things from a new perspective.