Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic draws from a variety of psychological studies to highlight three factors that show why certain leaders are more effective and committed to diversity.

In the past decade, organizations have shown unprecedented interest in understanding how to manage diverse workforces, including the issue of attracting, integrating, and nurturing talent from minority or socially disadvantaged groups (demographic diversity), as well as people who feel, think, and act differently (cognitive diversity). Although even among Fortune 500 firms, who are much more committed to diversity than smaller, private firms, few report comprehensive data on their diversity composition, and estimates indicate that only 20% of them have a formal Chief Diversity Officer, there is clearly an upwards trend for a growing number of firms to put in place formal roles and processes to boost and manage diversity.

An obvious yet largely unaddressed question concerns why certain leaders are more likely to be effective at – and seriously committed to – leveraging diversity. Based on different psychological studies, here are three key factors that should be taken into account:   

  • Personality: One of the best predictors of whether bosses will value diversity or not is their personality. For example, studies have shown that people are much more prone to tolerating human diversity when they score highly on Openness to New Experiences and Agreeableness, two of the major character dimensions on which people differ. This is in line with large-scale studies showing that Openness is linked to higher levels of curiosity, tolerance for ambiguity, and a lower need for closure.
    photo of Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic

    Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, HR Examiner Editorial Advisory Board Contributor

    Open leaders are better equipped at managing complexity and are intellectually predisposed towards seeing things in different ways. They are also more likely to think independently and detest authoritarianism. As for Agreeableness, it is generally associated with more altruistic, empathic, and prosocial attitudes. Agreeable leaders are less self-centered and more interested in helping others, particularly if they are disadvantaged. In short, if organizations want leaders who genuinely care about diversity, they can begin by hiring leaders who are curious and caring. Note that leaders play a major role in shaping the culture of their organizations, not just through their formal business decisions, but also through what they say and do. Indeed, leaders are a major source of employee engagement (or disengagement), and the culture of any organization – or nation – can be interpreted as the residual product of the values and personality of its past leaders. These psychological dynamics explain why UBER may have decided to replace their polemical founder Travis Kalanick with the more agreeable and empathetic Dara Khosrowshahi: to change not just the company image, but also the culture.
  • Culture: Relatedly, leaders will be much more committed to diversity if they are themselves part of an inclusive culture. That is, regardless of the leaders’ values and personality, they will be more prone to ethical and tolerant behaviors – and less prone to unethical and selfish behaviors – if their environments impose higher moral standards on them. This is because behavior is always a function of both the person and the context. Some people are more altruistic than others, yes, but the same person will behave in more altruistic ways if they are part of an altruistic culture. An organization’s culture refers to the formal and informal rules that govern the interactions between its members – or broadly, “how we do things around here.” Organizations that managed to create cultures of respect will not only nudge their leaders to nurture diversity and inclusivity, but they will also have low tolerance with those who threaten it. Indeed, as scientific studies have shown, “bad apples” are much more common in “bad barrels.” Toxic cultures are like contaminated ecosystems in which parasitic leaders thrive and reproduce, much like bacteria does in polluted environments. Yes, change can happen “bottom-up” but in order to sanitize and sterilize corrupt and toxic cultures organizations need “top-down” change, and its starts with leadership (back to point 1).
  • Competence: As I argue in my latest book (and this related Ted talk), the benefits of group-level diversity can only be leveraged if you have competent leaders. If most leaders hire people like themselves, and if they prefer to manage teams with people who are rather homogeneous, that’s because the alternative is a lot more challenging. In line, it takes a truly competent leader to be pro-diversity and create in their teams a culture that embraces people with different values, styles, and backgrounds. Unsurprisingly, research suggests that leaders with higher levels of intelligence will tend to be less prejudiced. And it’s not just IQ: EQ will also help leaders connect with their team members and manage people who are cognitively diverse.

In short, regardless of the formal title or role leaders have, they will be more likely to nurture and boost diversity in their teams and in their organizations if they are curious, altruistic, smart, and emotionally intelligent – and if they work in environments or cultures that are genuinely committed to creating an inclusive and pro-social work environment where everyone feels accepted and valued.

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