May 02, 2011

Leadership, Diversity & Inclusion in Public Service: Insights from Scholarship

"Leadership, Diversity and Inclusion: Insights from Scholarship" By Sonia Ospina, Waad El Hadidy and Grisel Caicedo with Amanda Jones, April 2011

In a report released in partnership with National Urban Fellows, RCLA scholars examine recent research on leadership and diversity, with a focus on public service. They find that scholars are linking diversity with adaptability, arguing that learning how to build organizations that effectively leverage racial diversity can foster the leadership capacity to adapt to other kinds of diversity and thrive in an increasingly complex environment. Yet there is less agreement in the literature on just how to do that. Limited empirical research in the public service field has resulted in a dearth of evidence for what works, even two decades after the diversity agenda has become a focus for public service organizations.

Leadership, Diversity and Inclusion: Insights from Scholarship builds on RCLA's earlier work on race and leadership in scholarly literature. The report offers implications for leadership at the individual and organizational level, as well as for diversity management programs. It was released in conjunction with the launch of the National Urban Fellows' Public Service Leadership Diversity Initiative, a nationwide campaign to move leaders of color from positions of influence to positions of power in public service.

Research Highlights

The review of literature was driven by the fact that despite advancements in diversity at the workforce level, people of color remain significantly underrepresented in leadership positions in public service. RCLA scholars posit that this results from a combination of structural barriers that hinder the professional advancement of people of color and organizations' varying success with diversity efforts. That people of color are not well represented in positions of power is also a reflection of a dominant leadership paradigm in which the experience of diverse leaders is largely marginalized.

However, some research suggests that complex environments mired in systemic inequalities often train leaders of color to traverse in versatile ways, developing bicultural fluency - a skill that majority leaders may not be compelled to develop. This work suggests that all leaders, including majority and minority leaders, need training and support in developing their cultural competence in order to advance leadership diversity and inclusion.

At the organizational level, the dominant term used in the literature is shifting from advancing "diversity" to fostering "inclusion." Scholars agree that a focus on representativeness merely through recruitment strategies is considered an incomplete effort; organizations need new ways of working that are inclusive.

There is a spectrum along which organizations approach diversity - from a focus on compliance to seeing diversity as a strategic resource. There is some indication that the way an organization approaches diversity influences both the employees' experience and organizational performance. Moreover, it seems that a perspective that emphasizes the linkages between diversity and organizational learning is superior to one that emphasizes legal compliance. However, these correlations remain largely untested.

There are also mixed empirical findings about the impact of diversity on performance outcomes. Researchers have found both positive and negative correlations between the existence of diversity and organizational outcomes or team performance. What is lacking is an understanding of why these mixed findings result.

What is clear is that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to building diversity. Context is critical, and doing diversity well is precisely the complex work that requires leadership rather than management solutions.

In addition, new scholarship suggests shifting the case for diversity from solely a market imperative (that it makes business sense) or a social justice imperative (that it is the right thing to do), to understanding that racial diversity is one reflection of the increasingly complex environment in which organizations operate. An organization that can maximize the power of racial diversity can in turn adapt to all the different forms of diversity, increasing its responsive capacity and ability to embrace paradox - all characteristics of an adaptive and nimble organization.

Future Research

In looking at the implications of these findings for future research, RCLA scholars are motivated by the question: What would it take to move the diversity achieved across the public service workforce to the highest levels of leadership in the field?

Research is needed that helps both scholars and practitioners discover what works in advancing and sustaining leadership diversity in public service, including the role of leadership development programs. To do this requires a better understanding of both the enabling factors and the barriers to success.

RCLA scholars suggest three principles for future research. The first is that it is multi-level, focusing on individuals' experience, organizations and the interaction between them. One main takeaway from the literature, as well as RCLA's experience, is that transformation can only be achieved by working on multiple levels in tandem. Continuing to support people of color without shifting organizational environments will not get very far, and creating organizational shifts without supporting individuals is also limited.

The second principle for research is that it should apply a systemic lens that considers the context of institutional racism and structural barriers in which these individuals and organizations are embedded.

Finally, research should have a practical orientation. It should meet practitioners where they are and help them address their most pressing challenges, which would mean making immediate progress and building evidence at the same time.

Addressing the lack of empirical evidence, particularly about how efforts to foster diversity impact organizations and their members, will be essential for advancing diversity for public service in meaningful and effective ways.

This research report was released by RCLA in conjunction with Advancing Diversity and Inclusion in Public Service: A Review of Leadership Development Programs in the US. This scan of leadership programs offers overall findings on the abundance of programs available to leaders of color, as well as a robust listing of leadership development programs at the regional and national levels for leaders of color, programs committed to diversity and open to all public service leaders, and programs that focus on diversity management.

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