Matthew Syed on power dynamics and diversity

We don’t need to make the business case for diversity. We’re sure you already know that companies which don’t prioritise D&I tend to perform worse.

But to get the benefits of a diverse workforce, you can’t simply stop at the hiring stage.

As Matthew Syed explains in his excellent Rebel Ideas: The Power of Diverse Thinking, there are several practical steps you can take to unlock your team’s or company’s potential.

What are dominance hierarchies?

When you think of traditional (or old-fashioned) business structures, dominance hierarchies automatically come to mind. They rely on established status, with people in leadership roles holding most of the power. They make decisions, and those decisions are implemented without pushback.

There are many advantages to using a dominance dynamic. If the leader is actually well-suited to their role, their directives should usually be sound. And the lack of back and forth around each decision also makes things quicker and more efficient.

After all, we’re all familiar with the possible downsides of decisions made by committee: inefficiency, and compromises which leave no one satisfied.

What are prestige hierarchies?

Leaders who operate in prestige hierarchies work quite differently. Their position isn’t based on reward and punishment, unquestioned authority, or intimidation. Instead, their status is built on the respect their team has for their expertise and skills.

In short, the leaders who use a prestige dynamic don’t demand respect. They earn it.

Modern leadership skills are an important part of the picture: emotional intelligence, co-operation, active listening, mediation. Through application of these skills, leaders ensure their team trusts their decisions are underpinned by thorough consultation and debate. The team will also feel more empowered than a dominant leader’s team to point out errors and suggest improvements.

How do power dynamics link to diversity?

If you want to unlock the potential of cognitively diverse teams, Syed points out that dominance dynamics won’t work. They inherently rely on the perspective of the highest-status person, rather than the diverse ideas of the team.

More than that, they reward team members for not speaking up when they think another course of action would be better. This mirroring leads to a kind of collective blindness.

Leaders who use prestige dynamics are much better placed to bring out the strengths of a diverse team. They encourage debate and open conversation, to make sure that all the best and most varied ideas are on the table – thereby growing the team or organisation’s collective intelligence.

What’s the bottom line?

In uncertain times, we have a tendency to want ‘strong’ leadership. It’s comforting to have someone confidently assert that they know exactly what they’re doing, so all we have to do is what they say.

But as Syed observes, it’s actually in times of crisis that we most need the diverse perspectives drawn out by prestige dynamics.

We all know that today’s VUCA business environment is fast-paced and ever-changing. Businesses need to be lean, agile and resilient. Decisions need to be smart, informed by a diversity of voices. That’s why leaders and managers need to be using a prestige dynamic, not a dominance dynamic, developing their emotional intelligence rather than relying on their status.

If you want to unlock the potential of your diverse workforce, it pays to invest in the leadership skills of your management team and middle managers. Get in touch with us at Springboard Future to see how our bespoke virtual coaching can help you maximise your organisation’s potential.