Leading with diversity in mind: Do we have a choice?

Pierre Casse

“Differentiation-diversity- is the condition for life” (François Cheng)

Putting diversity into perspective, it seems that one can first reflect on the three following statements:

  • The most important diversity is in each individual. We are different at every moment of our life
  • To grasp and understand our own diversity is a key to being and growing and…we need other people to do so!
  • Diversity is what unites us (living beings)

True or not…!


“Diversity: the art of thinking independently together” (Malcolm Forbes)

There is no question that leaders are more and more confronted with the challenge of leading teams and organization made up of people who think, feel and behave differently.

But, honestly, where is the difference from yesterday? The challenge of diversity has always been around. What’s different maybe today is the concern about managing that diversity to avoid conflicts, destructions and maximize the synergy or creativity?

Diversity basically means differences in cultural backgrounds, genders, age and, more important, in mindsets i.e. in the multiple ways we represent the world and act in it.

Acknowledged and managed properly diversity can lead to an added value that can make a major difference in our organizations (and countries for that matter) Mismanaged it can lead to what we all know too well i.e. communication breakdown, rejection and destruction.

The process of interface between different people is very well know (all leaders should be aware of this very well know reactions that we all have when facing differences):

Phase one, we find somebody strange because he or she does not share our basic ways of being (Different ways of dressing, eating, talking, judging, working…): “What a peculiar way to be!”

Phase two, very quickly after the first impression of strangeness (this is not our way), most people pass a negative value judgment on the individual (or on the group that person belongs to): “This is not right!”

Phase three, the negative appreciation of the other way to be or behave leads very quickly to a rejection behavior based on the unfamiliarity of the other way (this cannot be right according to my own value system): “I cannot work with somebody like that”

Attribution and diversity

“I must try to see the difference between the picture of a person and his behavior, as it is narcissistically distorted” (Erich Fromm)

Another major problem related to the management of diversity is the so called attribution process that we all suffer from. What is it and how does it work? In a very simple way, we can state that attribution is the distortion of empathy! It is the (unconscious) tendency that we all have to understand other human beings not according to their mental programming but on the basis of ours. In other words, I understand what another human being said not according to the reference of that individual but by using my own one that can be close to his or in some cases very far apart. In many cases we feel that we have understood each other when we actually are quite wrong. The major problem is that we do not know that we have indeed misunderstood each other.

Here is a very simple illustration of the attribution way of life:

  • The manager said: “When is your report going to be ready?” (In his mind the manager is asking the team member to take responsibility and assess the time needed to get the report ready)
  • The team member’s reaction: “I do not know” (My boos is putting pressure on me and he does not trust me. He wants to check on me)

There is a good chance that a communication breakdown will occur If the two people do not clarify what their intents were when they said what they said.

Seeing things from the other way is absolutely critical in taking advantage in diversity.

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Prof. Arnold Smit
Dr. Nenad Filipović, Director of Executive Education, IEDC
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Mateja Božič


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