Leadership and Diversity in a Virtual World

Key Takeaways:

  • Problems with diversity can be magnified in a virtual working world.
  • However, inclusive and inspirational leadership can help with this.
  • Leadership can even compensate for less acceptance among team members.

Now that much of the working world is fully virtual, what does that mean for diversity and inclusion?  Will under-represented minorities fall between the online cracks and be silenced even more?

Recently, some have started to ask these questions. For instance, older employees may be treated differently now if people assume they can’t use technology. Not being physically together may make it easier for people to speak over or ignore women during video meetings.

In general, minorities may not have a “seat at the table” if there is no physical table to sit at!

What can be done at this?  Here at Lead Read Today, we like to think about how leadership can help with situations, and there is research to suggest that leadership can play a role.

A recent study looked at the role of leadership in the context of diversity and virtual work environments[1]. In a sample of virtual research and development teams from a large multinational manufacturing firm, researchers found that a lack of diversity appreciation in an organization can negatively affect individuals’ job performance.

Interestingly, though, they found that this affect can be diminished if a leader is inclusive and inspirational.

These findings are really exciting for a number of reasons.  We know that organizational culture change can be a long and difficult process.  If an organization does not have the strongest diversity climate, this can have negative effects on individuals; trying to fix this issue can take a long time without guaranteed success.  This is compounded in online settings — working to change a culture when everyone is remote can be especially challenging.

However, if a leader models inclusivity and acceptance, this can have a trickle-down effect; followers can see what to do and possibly be more inclusive themselves.

Additionally, employees who may have previously been bothered by the negative diversity climate may no longer be as affected if they see their leaders acting responsibly — in virtual settings, their one leader who they interact with often may have a stronger effect than the larger culture in general.

Of course, culture change is still important if the organization is not as diversity-friendly as it could be, but in the meantime, it’s great that leadership can play a positive role!

What can leaders specifically do in online settings to model inclusivity? There are many things, such as:

  • Make sure that everyone’s voices are heard in email and video conversations — including minorities who may be more likely to be silenced or forgotten.
  • Publicly speak about the importance of diversity and representation whenever decisions are made – from hiring and recruitment to task force creations and committees.
  • Address diversity and inclusion problems to ensure people know you mean what you say. This can (and often should) be private, but knowing that “something will be done” goes a long way.

Working online can be challenging — especially when people did not necessarily sign up for it.  But together we can make sure that it goes as smoothly as possible for all employees.

[1] Lauring, J., & Jonasson, C. (2018). Can leadership compensate for deficient inclusiveness in global virtual teams? Human Resource Management Journal, 28, 392–409.

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Here at Lead Read Today, we endeavor to take an objective (rational, scientific) approach to analyzing leaders and leadership. All opinion pieces will be reviewed for appropriateness, and the opinions shared are solely of the author and not representative of The Ohio State University or any of its affiliates.