How New Leaders Can Cultivate an Inclusive Culture Through Differentiated Leadership (Part 1)


Let’s face it. Talent management is hard work.  Cultivating a diverse and inclusive team is even harder.  Each employee comes with a set of unique skills that can positively contribute to the organization’s goals but those can easily be overlooked in a fast-paced setting with competing priorities and limited resources. Since leading a team cannot be avoided for any new leader, or seasoned vet, try this teambuilding strategy to work towards an inclusive work culture that maximizes everyone’s strengths.

What is Differentiated Leadership

Differentiated leadership is a style in which the leader guides his/her staff based on their individual ways of working and communicating by using various strategies to reach a common goal.  This term is not to be confused with Friedman’s Theory of Differentiated Leadership as this article does not focus on the emotional aspect of leadership.  Instead, we will discuss differentiated leadership in the sense of the leader’s ability to intuitively identify the unique needs of each individual and to then select the best response strategy.  This leadership philosophy was inspired by Carol Ann Tomlinson who has coined the term differentiated instruction which defines the strategies being implemented in educational settings across the country. This teaching technique has been used by teachers and school staff alike to design lessons based on the various learning styles of diverse students.

Why Is It Important?

Leading and managing a diverse staff is a role that requires continual training, team-building, morale maintenance, and empowerment, to name a few, in order to bring them along in meeting the organization’s objective .  These soft-skills require a finesse that theoretical teaching does not quite provide nor metrics that do not accurately measure but can be cultivated by any leader over time.  Differentiated leadership promotes an inclusive work culture by encouraging the leader to pay attention to the cognitive function of an individual’s learning, or way of processing information.  Leaders are brought along a learning continuum that brings the nuanced working, learning, and communication styles of individual staff members into consideration when strategically planning, conducting a meeting, presenting information or even something as small as sending an email.

Differentiated leadership is not a new concept as many hardworking leaders have implemented this practice into their offices for quite some time. This strategy does not  focus on the five leadership styles that a leader may bring to the organization.  It flips this notion on its head and encourages servant leadership in which a leader adapts to the intricate needs of the individual staff member that may be by-products of their cultural or educational background.

While Differentiated Leadership can be time-consuming, individuals make up the whole and an inclusive culture starts and ends with oneself.  By easily identifying a number of ways to respond to team of diverse talent while meeting other competing priorities, an inclusive cultura naturally follows.  Stay tuned for Part Two which will discuss examples of how to incorporate this strategy into the workplace.

Melinda Burks is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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