Leading Inclusively In Asia

By Laurindo Garcia, Content Lead – Catalyse Consulting

As a people manager in Asia you may be accustomed to hierarchical cultures at work. A top-down, ‘command and control’ style of leadership has been the playbook of choice for business leaders in Asia for generations. Leading with a caring yet autocratic approach has certainly yielded results for many Asian corporate leaders in the past. These days however, dramatic changes in the modern business environment might give you pause to rethink traditional leadership strategies. 

The way companies make money today is starkly different from how businesses operated ten to twenty years ago. A growing middle class; exponential advances in mobile technology and machine learning; and, globalisation of supply chains are driving the diversification of customers, talent, markets and ideas to unprecedented levels. Business leaders in Asia must learn to be agile in today’s fast-paced environment. 

When processes, customers and supply chains are in flux, blind spots in business strategy abound. Leaders who cling to long-held hierarchical norms risk limiting the flow of ideas that would otherwise address blindspots. In contrast intuitive leaders invite more diverse perspectives from across the team to inform decisions – regardless of hierarchy – thus illustrating the value of inclusion.

Business leaders in Asia often say they are inclusive. In reality most companies in Asia have a mixed bag of diversity initiatives where quality is uneven, leadership behaviors are often inconsistent and inclusive practices are selective. On one hand there are local companies who encourage workplace diversity by reskilling older professionals and promoting racial harmony within the workforce. But workforce diversity without inclusive leadership is a recipe for disaster.

Increasing reports of workplace harassment and work-related anxiety illustrate the toxicity of workplace cultures in the region. Underemployment of working mothers and people with disabilities amidst marketwide talent shortages highlights how unconscious bias creates barriers for diverse talent to contribute to the economy. 

Failure to be inclusive could spell disaster for any employer. In a survey from Deloitte 39 percent of all respondents reported that they would leave their current organization for a more inclusive one, and 23 percent of respondents indicated that they have already left an organization for a more inclusive one. Given the tight labor market and high cost of attrition employers need to take heed of the signals.

Competition for talent and the need to avert reputation loss due to reports of harassment have compelled an increasing number of business leaders in Asia change their ways. To be sure, there are several strengths associated with the leadership mindset traditionally associated with Asian business leaders. Focusing on harmony, investing in relationships and competency in volatile and complex environments are beneficial Asian leadership traits, according to a report from the Centre of Creative Leadership. 

However research from the consultancy firm Korn Ferry found that Asian business leaders need to do better at inviting and listening to diverse views within the team as a means to anticipate the future. Leading with purpose and helping team members manage stress was identified as another area of improvement for leaders in Asia. And finally local leaders must deepen trust by welcoming different types of people and perspectives within teams. 

Leaders who embrace inclusive practices will help their company win productivity gains and bring out the best of diverse team members. With inclusive practices business leaders are better positioned to attract talent with less effort. Over 60 percent of Singapore employees who want their employer to be more inclusive, according to Workday.

If you want to help your team win in an increasingly diverse and uncertain market how can you do so inclusively? Here are three leadership goals that will help put inclusion into daily practice:

Treat people fairly and transparently: Be cognisant of prevailing stereotypes and unconscious bias that may affect decisions. Be courageous and transparent in all your actions.

For example, raise your self awareness by assessing your unconscious biases. Many reputable online tests are available. Thereafter be candid about your biases, invite your team to test themselves, and work together to address biases in future decision making.

Acknowledge and value the individual: Create a work environment that nurtures a sense of belonging where an individual’s unique characteristics are acknowledged and everyone feels welcome. Doing so will make it easier for people to share their views.

For example, take time to get to know the individuals in your team, encourage team members who share similar interests to engage and encourage employee groups to exchange ideas and insights.

Be culturally intelligent, curious and invite diverse perspectives: Reduce the risk of blind spots and unlock hidden potential by incorporating perspectives from people with different capabilities and backgrounds in business processes.

For example, track the diversity of genders, ages, abilities and cultural backgrounds on your team and actively curate for diverse perspective in projects. Ensure that you cultivate a culture of mutual respect where team members feel safe even when constructive criticism and creative tension arises.

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