Insights on Leadership and Diversity: 9 Things Leaders Say about Diversity

By Shania Sukamto and Brendan Loon

Advisory was given exclusive access to cover a Fireside Chat organised by INSPIRIT members, Melissa Low, Lewis Liu, Nadia Yeo, Stephanie Siow and Charmaine Leow, and supported by the National Youth Council, during which a line-up of distinguished panellists shared insights on leadership and diversity in society and at the workplace.

The first panel comprised (from left to right) Mohd Ali Bin Mahmood, Chief Executive Officer of Singapore Muslim Women’s Association (PPIS); Greg Tadman, Director (Human Resources) of Page Group Asia Pacific; Dr June Goh, President of the Singapore Council of Women’s Organisations (SCWO); and Lin Suling, Executive Editor at Channel NewsAsia.

The second panel comprised (from left to right) Sujatha Selvakumar, Chairperson of Singapore Indian Development Association (SINDA) Youth Club; Corrina Lim, Executive Director of the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE); and Douglas O’Loughlin, Senior Principal Consultant at the Civil Service College.


Getting a diverse workforce is just a start – and because people are different in so many ways, you could probably get this – but the greater challenge thereafter is to forge an inclusive workforce where people work hard and stay on because they know they have an equal chance at doing well. Diversity is just a state, but inclusion is an outcome of organisational leadership and culture.

Inclusion is not a business outcome, but a people-oriented outcome. It is something less obvious than diversity, and something people feel. As such, it makes inclusion more subjective and naturally harder to get right.

To foster an inclusive culture at the workplace, we need to be mindful of the fact that there are different people around us. This mindfulness may be signalled through something as simple as not having conversations in a language that those around us may not understand.

It may be as simple as including everyone in the conversation, or even having the curiosity to ask the simple question – ‘Is this okay?’ – and respecting the answer received. What matters is that everyone was consulted, or had the opportunity to contribute. More often than not, you will find that they will tell you: ‘It’s fine’. Having a proper understanding of others de-mystifies your relationship with them.

There may be, however, some difficulty with the issue of self-censorship when people feel inhibited to ask even that simple question. They might have reservations, fearing that others will take offence. This must be worked on by the leadership, who should lead such a change and push for this cause.

But the buck does not stop at leadership; it needs to be an open and honest organisational culture that embraces diversity. The leadership’s challenge is to communicate the organisational expectations, beliefs and position on this such that it resonates throughout the rest of the organisation, and to train and educate people in the organisation (especially recruitment interviewers and the senior management) to take precautions against unconscious biases in hiring practices and processes. It has been shown that if you can overlook age, gender and race, you will make different decisions because those biases are stripped out.

There may also be the challenge of navigating an organisation’s branding. How the organisation is perceived by the public might influence some people within the organisation to think that there is a certain way that the organisation should behave, the workplace culture should be or the worker profile should look. Such a way of thinking, however, promotes certain preconceived notions and does not leave much room to consider how a diverse make-up of colleagues is an organisational advantage.
For instance, for an organisation that champions the welfare and rights of a particular group – whether this is a certain gender or ethno-racial group, or even other types of social groups – people who do not belong to that group might feel less welcomed in such an organisation. This needs to change in our everyday discourses, since diversity is a strength.

Almost exclusively, it has been found that the highest performance teams are those with the most diversity in terms of gender, race and sexuality. This might be alienating to people in the organisation or people who want to join the organisation who may not fit this particular mould, which could lead to a self-selection effect where people think they would not fit into the organisation and therefore not come forward to join it.

Processes in place in an organisation might tend to focus on the high-performance individuals and neglect the voices of the rest, resulting in a lot of decisions being made without proper consideration of inclusivity. Sometimes, we need to be deliberate about it as privilege – both that we ourselves have and that which we accord others – is invisible.

Make a conscious decision to step back from your biases – at least those of which you are conscious. And we need to be logical about it. Very practically, interview everyone if you can and look at all their curricula vitae focussing on their merits and abilities first. Is someone clearly more capable than the rest or the general lot? If the answer to that is ‘yes’ but you find yourself hesitating, then those points on which you find yourself hesitating could be certain biases – even unconscious biases – which you have.

Encouraging diversity and inclusion should not be about having hiring quotas. This makes the selection progress biased and inorganic, and can create deep resentment among existing employees.

Diversity and inclusion is also not just about fulfilling a corporate social responsibility or a statistic that is a Key Performance Indicator (KPI). If the only way organisations achieve diversity is through legislated or regulated quotas, then we have not truly succeeded in reducing unconscious bias in human resource practices and processes.
Keeping track of data – the numbers and facts which reflect the facts on the ground for their organisation – could be valuable for leaders to make necessary decisions and be responsible for taking an evidence-based approach against possible biases. If the leadership in unable to change or see the need to change given the evidence, connecting the numbers and facts to the lack of human potential and development, there may be a need for Human Resources to point this out. In the long run, this is also damaging to the organization.

There is also the danger of then thinking of diversity and inclusion as problems to solve or burdens to bear – it is an unhealthy ‘zero-sum’ way of looking at it. In the same way, diversity and division are not synonymous; another danger is to see diversity and inclusion as a binary choice. This is a false binary. Getting consensus from any team – be it diverse or uniform – is about communication and trust, which the leadership must foster, so that disagreement and contest does not result in any ill-feelings. Even if a team is uniform and homogenous, it does not mean that there will be unity; and, even if there is unity in this case, it does not mean that the best decision has been made.

When we talk about having a ‘majority’ and a ‘minority’, we need to take into consideration the many dimensions of being a ‘minority’: education, age, gender, race, ethnicity, religion, class, disability, personality, background, etc. Diversity is naturally very wide – as it should be – so each of us is bound to have a bias against some particular thing one way or another. This may sometimes be an unconscious bias we do not realise or a bias we deny having. That is why it is good to have people around us who are different from us so that they can raise these biases to our attention, and so make these biases conscious and obvious. Awareness of ourselves, our biases, and of these issues, is a start to begin addressing them.

When it comes to diversity and inclusion, everybody in the organisation has a responsibility to facilitate and foster the creation of an open and honest organisational culture that embraces and values everyone – whether you are in a leadership position or not. The responsibility is simply greater for those in leadership because of the influence you have to drive change within the organisation.

Inclusion should be a function of leadership: take the time to see what is common or not, what is different or not, so that the organisation can begin to put aside differences to work for a common goal, and thereby evolve to reach the outcome of inclusion. If we fail, however, then we are all collectively complicit in perpetuating a culture that alienates those who are different.

This is something that a lot of us, on a very human level, understand viscerally; diversity and inclusion are not distant, abstract concepts but something we feel personally to be very real as human beings. It is about having the values of meritocracy and fairness reflected in the state of the organisations for which we work and into which we put so much time, effort, energy and investment.

Sometimes, we need to figure out how to help people do the work they need to do by being mindful of what difficulties they face in carrying out their tasks, and so work to address those issues by crafting ways to enhance their abilities than emphasise their inabilities or disabilities. For instance, while a person might face challenges in a particular area – whether physical or emotional or intellectual – the same person might have other strengths.

We need to look for ways to help the person’s strengths be used for the collective good of the organisation and society, instead of asking of the person to do what he or she cannot do and focussing on that. We need to have the perspective that everyone has something to contribute and respect that everyone brings something different to the table, be it their skills, knowledge or worldview.

Have compassion: learn to empathise with people who are different, even those whose viewpoints you think are ‘wrong’. They are different from you – it could be a different life experience, different generation, different mindset, it does not matter. You are not limited by them and you should also not limit yourself from reaching out to them.
Have courage: to speak up for yourself and others.

Have conviction: commit yourself daily to work with people who are different from you and to deal with your different biases – cognitive, conscious, unconscious, gender, race, the invisible and visible.

Create a space where people who are different can come together to collaborate. Sometimes, those at the senior level do not realise how having a safe working environment, in which to speak up without anything held against them, has an impact at the other levels lower staff. What is alienating in the environment could even be something very small. For instance, how many of us use the masculine pronoun ‘he’ when we talk about leadership and leaders generally? Even some leaders themselves – some of them, women – use the pronoun ‘he’. These are little things but these add up as most of us do many little things.

Leaders need to have the right mindset and consciously allow space for people with different and diverse backgrounds in their organisation. Allow experimentation, such as allowing for young people – with different backgrounds, students from junior colleges, polytechnics, the Institutes of Technical Education (ITE), and universities, public or not – to step up.

What does it mean for an appraisal to contain a section on teamwork? If people are rated on teamwork, then that might create an incentive for them to fit in by supporting each other’s views. This might in turn structurally de-value the role of disruptive or different views, and so stifle these views as those who hold them might not air these views for fear of not being a good team player. We may also need to shift to structured interviewing, which means that before we even meet the candidate, all the questions are out and we ask everyone the same questions.

Past practices allowed for questions such as ‘What school were you from?’ to devolve in full-length conversations on the teachers that interviewees and interviewers remembered from their common alma maters, so the process was usurped by relationship bias. There is room for us to take a step back and re-look recruitment and selection processes.

At the end of the day, it is not just about accepting people who can do the job, regardless of what they bring to the table. While we respect that everyone brings something different to the table, an organisation has certain values it holds to be the core of its identity and mission, and it should not discard these just to be more accepting of differences. It is ultimately not about throwing open the doors to invite simply anybody and everybody to come and work in the organisation; while all are welcome, not all may work there.

We have to be conscious of the organisational values and whether they are non-negotiable, because we still need people who believe in the identity and mission of the organisation. For instance, if the organisation works for a certain group in society but the individual under consideration does not believe this group to be worth working for, then there is a fundamental mismatch in values that may not bode well both for the organisation and the individual.

What is important for an organisation is to be conscious of what its organisational values are, even as it recruits for certain positions. The key is to not let unconscious biases cause people to be excluded simply because they look or act or are a certain way, and to know that someone was not excluded due to any unconscious biases but based on decisions that were mindful.