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.