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Leading people is leading diversity

03 Sep 2019 | Shirley Wardell Shirley Wardell, programme director of our research team leadership development programme discusses the importance of encouraging diverse thinking and insight into the valuable skills every leader should prioritise.

I have come to think of the skills leaders need to understand the diversity issues as mainstream leadership skills. To my mind, managing people is managing diversity. Diversity goes beyond minority groups and the obvious power imbalances. Diversity extends to the subtle depth of how we think, which has a direct impact on how well we perform in our jobs.

Diversity grows when people can hear, openly, what everybody thinks. Having practiced that skill, with people we believe are like us, we may be better prepared to listen to those we assume are more different to us. The charming surprise is; that as Maya Angelou says, “We are more similar than we are different.” Once we have accepted that we are more likely to be similar in a broad way, appreciating the specific differences seems to be the key. So how can we be sure that we are able to allow, or even encourage, different ways of thinking?

I choose the Thinking Environment® to help me and my clients to create the conditions for diverse thinking to flourish. When you run an event in a Thinking Environment® everyone has a turn. That means you go around the group and ask everyone what they think. Sometimes people tell me it takes too long, but they are really stumped when I ask them who they would leave out of the round.

In an event such as this no-one interrupts and participants say, “If I don’t interrupt, I might forget my idea.” And again, they look a bit blank when I ask, “What if the person you interrupt forgets theirs?” Giving turns, not interrupting, appreciating each other, asking how to make things better and a positive philosophy are a few of the ways to get everyone involved in a productive way.

The Thinking Environment® has 10 components. However, there are a few principles that sum it up for me:

  • The way we listen to someone has an impact on the quality of their thinking. If we are able to focus on them, stop judging and create a time and space for them, the quality of their thinking improves. At a recent workshop I asked how it feels to be listened to well and people said they felt valued, important, as if their ideas matter, that they have a contribution to make, happy, it improved their self-esteem, relaxed and intelligent. Well, if all those things can be achieved by, ‘just listening’ we should perhaps put listening at the top of the leadership skills list.


  • When you think on behalf of someone else you are disempowering them. When you think your ideas are better, or you are simply too busy for them to find their own answer, you are stopping them from thinking and therefore stopping them from learning and growing. Being able to develop staff has become one of the most valuable assets to institutions and leaders who can do this will have the evidence of their success in their research output.


  • A positive philosophy is required to help people perform well. Our expectations will have an impact on the outcomes. Those expectations include what I expect from the person and what my prejudices are about that person. I need to be able to see there are numerous and unknown possibilities yet to be achieved for every individual.


  • We also need to examine our assumptions about the world. What we expect to be possible in this office, this organisation, this market, this country and this world will have an impact on our own and our team’s thinking. Leadership training needs to explore the assumptions we make and the impact that has on performance, and then show how to, pragmatically, choose assumptions that will help us perform better.


Advance HE’s Research Team Leadership is a two-day programme run in a Thinking Environment® and includes many of the reliable principles and actions that help research leaders to think. They are then able to pass that favour on to their teams and collaborators.

Find out more about Research Team Leadership and book your place now.


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