Inclusion: Not just about getting diversity on the table, but about accepting diverse leadership styles

As they say , ‘If women ran the world there would be no wars’. Just imagine the power that women can yield in a corporate setting, where there are multiple challenges to deal with and solutions are needed quickly.

There are innumerable studies which have shown that having women in leadership roles increases productivity, gives ground for bottom-up innovation, enables sound decision-making and brings greater employee satisfaction and retention. A recent McKinsey study has highlighted nine key typical categories of leadership behaviours to measure the organisational excellence of companies, and those in the top quartile tend to have an operating margin twice as those in the bottom. Out of the mentioned nine, the study quotes that women use at least five leadership behaviours more often than men. This supports the  case that has been long established for having more women in leadership roles; a case that has driven organisations to have their own diversity and inclusion programs.

While the focus on hiring and advancing women into leadership roles has improved over the years, the all-encompassing ‘inclusion’ still seems to be a limited endeavour undertaken from the top management of many organisations. Most of the Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) programs have failed to create an environment of inclusion at an early stage. Organisational performance is driven by complementary and diverse leadership styles. Thus, it is imperative to understand a few key differences in the various leadership styles and not term any particular style as good or bad.

Let me share an experience with you: I once got an opportunity to work with one very successful woman. She was considered to be the ultimate maternal figure, as she would take care of everyone in the team. Her calm demeanour was often mistaken for an inability to make difficult decisions by the people who had not worked with her. I was a bit apprehensive myself about working on a large-scale complex project with the person in question, as I didn’t want to fail by working with a leader who could not take tough decisions.

Very soon, under her leadership, I understood the importance of participative decision making. No decision was made without hearing the team’s point of view. Her style of participative decision-making greatly motivated not only me, but the rest of the team to achieve the goal. However, deep down I kept thinking about the project and whether it would succeed with only this motivation. I realised she sensed this lack of faith to succeed using her high EQ and reassured me in her way that everything will be alright. We had clear roles and responsibilities but the scope of the problems was increasing. Since everyone in the team was intellectually stimulated, out-of-box decisions were made and there was no hierarchy to get decisions approved and things worked seamlessly.

There was a point when a tough decision was required to be made – there was a team member who would create disarray with the team’s deliverables. Not only would his deliverables be delayed, but also inputs that were required from him would often be tardy. She made the tough decision to move him out of the project, after counselling him and giving him ample warnings. She didn’t bat an eye, and did what was best for the team. In hindsight, I think she made what was a tough decision look fairly simple. The project, which looked like an uphill task initially, was accomplished with ease. I felt that there should be more leaders demonstrating these traits and the world needs to know more about these diverse leadership styles.

Having been a part of the corporate world for several years now, I have reflected on different leadership styles and the importance of each one of them. Based on my experience, I have observed three key leadership styles exhibited by women:

Participative decision-making, leading to high levels of motivation and effective goal setting

More women, generally speaking, tend to have a democratic style of leadership, allowing an open, cooperative and supportive culture. This style of leadership is imperative to nurture teams and empower individuals for their personal and professional growth. It eventually leads to the success of an organisation. This is in contrast to a dominating leadership style which allows individualistic decision making but that does not get the best of all team members.

Empathy leading to intellectual stimulation, in turn leading to innovation

It is generally believed that women understand emotions better and have the ability to empathise more with people and situations. Traditional management styles considered this attribute a weakness. However, the world has realised the importance of being emotionally intelligent and understanding the emotions of the team, customers and stakeholders. The world is also rising to the fact that being more sensitive to team dynamics at work makes positive delivery. Believe it or not, this tendency of women to understand emotions better is backed by science. A Forbes article on ‘Using emotional intelligence is a Women Leader’s secret weapon’ says that it is all to do with the ‘insula’ – a part of the brain that senses signals from different sensory organs and uses those signals to reflect emotional signals back. Women seem to have greater function in their insula than men do. This insula needs to be used by organisations when there are large diverse teams to be managed and where these teams need to work collaboratively to solve problems. These are the main ingredients for successful innovation, and where emotional intelligence is needed more than complex problem solving.

Reinforce work environment and values to create a flat organisational structure

Keeping the two traits in mind, women tend to prefer creating flatter organisational structures that leaves space for a more collaborative and non-threatening environment. This is most suited for a situation where creation and innovation are needed. This approach is a stark contrast to the hierarchical organisational approach which we typically see men creating. A flatter organisational structure allows for role clarity and leaves room to make rapid decisions without consulting too many people.

I personally believe that it is essential for women to create a brand for themselves and not shy away from talking about their accomplishments. The inherent nature is to ‘do it’ and let the world ‘see it’. I think there is an opportunity to ‘do it’ and ‘show it’.

To conclude, it is time that we encourage more women into leadership roles, and help build an inclusive culture in a real manner by keeping the affinity bias aside and making way for different leadership styles! While it is important for an organisation to have diverse representation, whether we are ‘including’ the exisiting ‘diverse’ set enough in the organisation is something to ponder upon. And most importantly as Diane Richlet said –

“Inclusion is not a strategy to help people fit into the systems and structures which exist in our societies, it is about transforming those systems and structures to make it better for everyone. Inclusion is about creating a better world for everyone.”

Anuja Bhargava – Director, Financial Planning and Analysis, Fidelity International.

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