Intuitively, we knew that leadership was important to creating a work environment where each person is recognized and developed, and their talents are routinely...

By Trevor Wilson

A couple of years after my first book was published in 1996 my clients started to ask questions about the importance of leadership to the creation of equitable and inclusive work environments. Intuitively, we knew that leadership was important to creating a work environment where each person is recognized and developed, and their talents are routinely tapped in to. However it was unclear which leadership competencies actually created this reality. A further challenge was identifying a way to measure these competencies.

We turned to the Research Unit on Work and Productivity at the University of Western Ontario to help us identify the competencies of an equitable leader. The academic research team began with the hypothesis that individuals—specifically leaders—played an important role in creating and sustaining an equitable and inclusive work environment. The group set out to develop a measure of equitable leadership with the objective to identify a series of leadership competencies that create, support, and sustain an inclusive and equitable work environment.

Approaches to measuring equity and inclusion at the organizational level and linking it to leadership behavior were still in the infancy stages during this period. The research team started with a thorough review of the literature and organizational best practice both domestically and globally, in order to identify leadership qualities that were linked to effective diversity management, inclusion, talent optimization, and human equity.

One of the areas the researchers discovered was the relatively new discipline called positive psychology (not to be confused with positive thinking). The field of positive psychology was initiated in 1998 by Dr. Martin Seligman, who was the president of the American Psychological Association at the time. His argument was that psychology post-war had focused much of its efforts on human problems and how to remedy them. This influenced clinical psychology as a profession, with a great majority of professional psychologists focusing on what could go wrong with people. This is something we now called “deficit-based” psychology.

The academics argued that the existing management/leadership model, which has been taught for decades in business school, has been based on deficit-based psychology. Commonly accepted models such as Herzberg’s Motivator/Hygiene concept, Skinner’s Behavioral Modification, Management by Objectives, and the classic Taylorite Scientific management model all preceded Seligman’s 1998 introduction of positive psychology. As such, the traditional leadership competencies will have evolved from the prevailing belief about people postulated by deficit-focused organizational psychology.

This original research led to the introduction of eight leadership competencies most related to diversity, inclusion, and human equity. These are also leadership competencies that are approached from a positive psychology, rather than a deficit-based perspective.

Later this year, the ten-year psychometric data for these eight competencies, compiled from almost 1000 leaders globally, will be analyzed. This new research will provide us with a quantifiable understanding of the impact of leadership behavior on the achievement of work environments where diversity is valued and people are valued because of, not in spite, of their differences. This research is also expected to allow us to better understand the benefits of moving from a deficit-based to a positive psychology management paradigm.

Watch this space for the results of this exciting new work, expected in early 2013.

  • Harold M. Frost, III

    March 19, 2013 #1 Author

    Thank you, Trevor Wilson, for your February 28, 2013 blog for traditional measures of “Leadership Shifting Due to Disability.” It is my hope when the time comes that you do do a reality check on what leadership behaviors employers and others are manifesting as in fact promoting “diversity, inclusion, and human equity” in the workforce. The type of reality check that I have in mind can come only from those who suffer firsthand the disabilities, including impairment of key functions such as thinking and working that the non-disabled at work take for granted, plus society’s stigmatizing attitudes towards the disabled, especially the mentally disabled and thus – a fortiori — mentally disabled STEM students and workers. Compared to what could be gleaned from your article, what I have found that is much more encouraging as actually having potential to help the person who acquires at work a mental disability as an adult in mid-life or at mid-career, is the 2nd ed. of the Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology edited by C.R. Snyder and S.J. Lopez (OUP, 2009), such as specific chapters in its parts 5 and 10. Just to take the two examples of Chs. 59 and 61 in part 10, resp., “Sharing One’s Story: On the Benefits of Writing and Talking About Emotional Experience” by K.G. Niederhoffer & J.W. Pennebaker and “Making Sense of Loss, Perceiving Benefits, and Posttraumatic Growth” by C.G. Davis and S. Nolen-Hoeksema: These are not just things that a disabled person can do outside of the workplace with one’s care provider, mentor, or otherwise on one’s own time. These types of things can also occur justifiably at work as a key part of large-employer-mandated workforce development and retention programs and of more efficient efforts to reintegrate the disabled person back into the workplace after having taken an employer-approved leave of absence (such as on long-term disability insurance income) for treatment and remediation of the disability acquired, and then having returned to work to still be paid one’s wage or salary. Such things, however, will NOT happen (such as telling one’s story) if indeed the employer still regards the employed person with a mental disability as having a disorder (described or not in DSM-IV) that impairs ability to function and subtracts from a company’s net worth due to costs associated with trying to help that person during a time of low personal productivity or of a company budget crisis. Such an employer, however, WILL help the disabled person if the latter is regarded as being in a transitional phase with potential for transformative growth not only as a person but also as a professional should there be others who are willing to offer a helping hand when one is down. This is especially true, perhaps, for STEM workers with advanced graduate degrees in their specialties who have been trained to take the initiative to learn and to do exploratory and other STEM research in a self-guided way. I know this as a business owner (of a scientific consulting firm) who spent some time redoing a CV along non-traditional lines to not only disclose a personal mental disability but also to provide compelling anecdotal, case-study and performance-based evidence of transformative growth of a physicist who can now analyze via detailed mathematical, analogic and other arguments important problems that before were well beyond his means, being able to do this even when having suffered a history of isolation professionally by his peers. So, do not leave out the gold test standard of stories of and by the disabled who, after suffering onset of major depression or anxiety, for ex., are not only survivors that many colleagues had regarded as gone forever but are also still, and possibly now, even more worthy of being included as scientific collaborators on funded research projects now that they are back.


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