Fostering Diversity and Inclusion with Respectful Leadership - Ideas for Leaders
Idea #165

Fostering Diversity and Inclusion with Respectful Leadership

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Both anecdotal evidence and empirical research suggest that demographic differences can make it harder for leaders and followers to collaborate and cause levels of employee engagement to fall. The problems are greatest where male employees report to a female boss. Overcoming them depends on moral leadership. People who demonstrate respect for others can transcend demographic differences and combat prejudices. As the workforce becomes more diverse, moral and respectful leadership becomes an even bigger imperative for organizations. 


"The answer is moral leadership, or, more specifically, respectful 

One of the goals of leaders is to motivate employees to perform well, work in the collective interest and define themselves in terms of ‘we’ rather than ‘me’. (See Idea Number 164, ‘Instilling Morality In Organizations’.) In this, leaders who are demographically different from followers are at a disadvantage. ‘Similarity-attraction’ effects are known to be important for employee attachment — and employee attachment is, in turn, known to be important for motivation. (People tend to find it easiest to collaborate with people like them — and they tend to use demographic similarity as an indicator of underlying similarities that are harder to observe.)

Leaders who are demographically different and contradict ‘traditional role patterns’ can face the biggest challenges motivating employees. Confronted by a female leader, a male follower may experience not only a lower sense of belonging to the organization but also more uncertainty about their role.

How can demographic and non-traditional differences between leaders and followers be bridged? As diversity in the workforce increases, and non-traditional leader-follower relationships become more common, it’s a question that’s becoming more important — and more urgent. (Reduced attachment can affect performance and, by extension, profitability.)

A multi-source study of 212 followers and their respective 212 leaders suggests the answer is moral leadership, or, more specifically, respectful leadership. Based on 10 German organizations, the study found that leadership that not only integrates followers but also increases their sense of self-esteem, status and autonomy (their ability to contribute independently) is especially beneficial in ‘different gender dyads’, helping to resolve issues of uncertainty and decreased belongingness.

Researchers saw a direct correlation between respectful leadership and high performance where the leader was female and the follower male. Importantly, they found that the way leaders communicate with their followers appeared to matter more than the intensity or frequency of communication.
The results confirm the value of an interpersonal approach. If leaders show an interest in followers’ opinions and take them and their work seriously, they’ll minimise the negative effects of demographic and non-traditional differences and help counter ‘similarity-attraction’ biases.


Consider the following recommendations:

  • Think about the quality of conversations with followers as well as the quantity. (Are you communicating ‘moral cues’?)
  • Moderate the effects of surface-level dissimilarity by welcoming and listening to feedback — integrate employees and value their contributions.
  • Challenge sub-conscious biases in the organization — through, for example, diversity and inclusion workshops. Encourage people to own up to and confront their prejudices — and to question the judgments they make about people they perceive as different from them and who violate stereotypes. (Make it easier for female leaders on the ‘way up’ — try to pre-empt problems in ‘different gender dyads’.)
  • Try to encourage an androgynous perception of leadership — through, for example, female mentors and role models. Think about seconding younger male employees to teams run by women.



‘Morality in Interactions: On the Display of Moral Behavior by Leaders and Employees’, Suzanne van Gils, Erasmus Research Institute of Management, 2012

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Idea conceived

January 1, 2012

Idea posted

Jul 2013
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