As the face of the workforce shifts, managers need new skills to connect and effectively lead a more diverse employee base. A new book, Flex: The New Playbook for Managing Across Differences, was written to address this need. MDM Editor Lindsay Konzak recently spoke with the book’s co-author Jane Hyun, an executive coach and global leadership adviser to Fortune 500 firms.
Hyun was inpired to write Flex in part by her own experience. Born in South Korea and moving to the U.S. at a young age, she encountered challenges that sprung from both cultural and gender differences as she navigated her career. She writes in the introduction to the book: “People report to work every day having been raised with a specific code of behavior, cultural values and rules.”
However, she says, they could be assigned to work for managers and coworkers who have management principles that are at odds with that behavior. It’s not that different styles are wrong, she says, but leaders can take steps to bridge the gaps.
MDM: Why did you write the book?
Jane Hyun: We talk often in our work about the importance of diverse employees and leadership, but we often don’t give managers the tools for how to bridge those gaps in the workplace. Flex is about responding to the many voices we’re hearing – that I wish my manager understood me better, or I hoped my manager would take the time to learn more about my background.
By the same token, most managers I knew had a hard time with this – had a hard time even knowing how to start these conversations.
MDM: The book is called Flex. Define what you mean by “flex.”
Hyun: The way we define flex is the art of switching between leadership styles to work more effectively with others who are different from you. It’s not fundamentally changing who you are. It’s not transforming into someone different. But it’s really about a stretching process. It’s about understanding the gap that exists between you and others who are different and then flexing across that gap to achieve the results you’re looking for. … It’s definitely a two-way street. I think that’s important, but I think someone has to start it.
If you’re the manager or leader, the onus is on you to at least begin that conversation. Individual leaders, if they are willing to take that ownership to initiate these conversations, they’re going to get results.
MDM: In the book, you call for leaders to close the “power gap.”
Hyun: That’s right. The way we defined it is it’s a social distance that separates managers and employees across generations, across cultures and across the gender divide, as well.
To define it further, if you’re more egalitarian in your power gap preference, you minimize that gap between yourself and people who are in authority. There’s less emphasis on the title and status, it’s OK to call the senior executive by his first name; you recognize he’s a senior vice president, but you don’t have to be so formal with him.
If you lean more towards being hierarchical, there’s a bigger gap. The power gap is huge between yourself where you sit in the cubicle and the corner office of that senior vice president. So you might expect more direction from that person and maybe are less comfortable with pushing back and maybe even questioning his or her authority. Even if they say, hey listen, I’ve got an open door policy I want to hear your ideas, if you’re more hierarchical you may feel less comfortable with that perspective.
MDM: You’re not asking them to change, but some may read the book and say they are giving up some of their power by employing these ideas. What do you say to that?
Hyun: We don’t believe flexing is giving away your respect or authority. We do believe that decreasing the power gap that exists between you and people who are different from you will allow you to get more engagement from them.
If you’re a manager and you agree to meet your employee part way by decreasing the gap, it really has the opposite effect by creating that trust and communication where before there might have been mistrust or conflict or maybe just uncertainty because they don’t know how to interact with you.
MDM: What’s the cost of not doing this effectively?
Hyun: Companies are losing money due to employees that have one foot out the door because they’re not fully engaged or don’t feel understood. I think that’s part of the cost. And the competitive advantage if you can get this right – the cost can be great but the advantage can be great if you can figure out a way to flex across the gap and make people feel like they are a part of the organization.
MDM: What’s your take on multigenerational misunderstandings or differences in the workplace?
Hyun:Technology has just connected us all and given us access to each other no matter what their
title or level is. If you’re on LinkedIn or Twitter, you can follow the President of the United States, as well as your favorite baseball player. It’s removed a lot of the hierarchical distance between us.
Many of the generations of people coming into the workforce have grown up with that. They can access any of those people. They probably lean toward a more egalitarian style where the power gap is less; they want to collaborate no matter what your title is. They are looking for different ways to work.
MDM: So how do you enter a productive dialogue with employees?
Hyun: When we talk about the actual engaging in the dialogue there are a couple of steps to that. First, you want to initiate dialogue, identifying a behavior that you don’t understand or you see that’s a little different and initiating a dialogue about it.
Then in a nonjudgmental way, without blaming the person, identify what you see. “Hey the last time we had this meeting this is what I saw. What’s going on behind that? Help me understand.” Explore the intentions and values underlying that. If they’re not sharing a lot because it’s a little uncomfortable at first, maybe disclose something about your own style or expectations. Perhaps saying: “You typically have a lot of ideas one-on-one, but in this meeting you didn’t communicate the way I expected you would.”
Disclose a little and dig a little deeper to understand where they are coming from. You want to work together to come up with the action steps. … You might suggest that in the next meeting this is what you’d like to see. Maybe ask the person: ‘What do you think we can do to meet each other partway? How can I flex to you? How can we work together here to obtain results at our next meeting?’
MDM: How can leaders prepare for these conversations?
Hyun: Even before you open your mouth to have a conversation with your employees, there are questions to ask yourself, pre-engagement questions. What are they thinking? What could be behind the action? Could there be generational, gender or age differences that could be at play? Just asking yourself makes you more curious and more open to learning.
How should I connect? How can I break the ice with this person? How can I share my desire to reach out without judging?
Thirdly, how can I put myself in the other person’s shoes? This is the hardest one. … When I speak and begin that dialogue how do I demonstrate positive intent? What can I do to show that positive intent? Could there be some other underlying barriers or previous negative experiences to take into account?
If you ask yourself these questions before you open your mouth you will be more thoughtful and careful – and you will come across as more concerned about the career success of the person you will talk to.
Too often we just kind of wing it, thinking our previous common sense experiences will work with the new generations of people and people who are different from us. But it’s not working. They don’t always think the way we do, or they don’t always respond the way we do. The more we take these conversations seriously, we typically we get a better response from the other person sitting across the table.
MDM: What’s the link between fluent leadership and innovation?
Hyun: I believe the fluent leader who knows how to flex is someone who can leverage that diverse thinking in their employees to get the best out of them. There’s been a lot of research that shows that diverse multicultural thinking has a positive correlation with innovation. You’re thinking differently about things. You’re bringing in a new perspective, not the same way you’ve always looked at things.
Having a diverse workforce in your company is not enough either though. You might have a diverse group of women, younger people, a lot of culture. What you have to do as a manager is facilitate that openness and give them permission to speak up. You need to be a leader that gives voice for the differences to be seen by other people. If you’re not flexing and you’re not asking people to have a voice, you can actually squelch the process. You can be a bottleneck to the innovation that is happening.
Flex, by Jane Hyun and Audrey S. Lee, will be published in late March. To pre-order or learn more about the book, visit the book’s website at www.flextheplaybook.com.