Diversity is among the most essential workplace trends of the 21st century. People from various cultural backgrounds, religions, generations, and nationalities work together as part of teams, which has an effect on group dynamics and creates unique challenges for leaders (van Knippenberg & Mell, 2016). Leaders who operate in diverse work environments may find it more challenging to gain the trust of their subordinates or select the right approaches to motivation and performance management.
Various leadership theories could provide support to leaders working with diverse employees, thus helping leaders to fulfill their functions when there are differences in demographics between the leader and the people they are leading. In particular, these theories could help to select the right leadership style to apply in this situation. The present paper will evaluate the application of various leadership styles in diverse teams through different leadership theories. Based on the results of the analysis, the work will also comment on the usefulness of the selected leadership theories to leaders of diverse project teams.
Leading Diverse Teams
In order to evaluate leadership styles and their usefulness in diverse teams, it is essential to understand the challenges that diverse teams present for leaders. Diverse teams usually include people with varied demographics, and thus team members may differ in terms of their gender, education, ethnicity, race, age, and similar demographic factors. Research suggests that different demographic variables affect people’s attitudes to work, values, and work behaviors.
For instance, research from the healthcare sector showed that Baby Boomers – the generation born between 1943 and 1960 – typically enjoy recognition, are work-oriented, and work well in teams (Moore, Everly & Bauer, 2016). In contrast, people from Generation X are self-reliant, value independence, and tend to question the rules (Moore, Everly & Bauer, 2016). Teams comprised of both generations are likely to suffer from poor value congruence, and leaders may find it harder to ensure that all team members work well with one another.
Ethnic and racial differences can also affect the way team members function together. For example, research suggests that people from varied ethnic and racial backgrounds differ in terms of their levels of organizational commitment, perceptions of leadership, and motivation (Theodorakopoulos & Budhwar, 2015). Some research studies of diverse teams also showed that they are likely to struggle with decision-making, intragroup discrimination, and poor performance (Theodorakopoulos & Budhwar, 2015). As a result, leaders find it difficult to inspire people from diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds to work together effectively.
Achieving excellent results in diverse team leadership necessitates specific knowledge and approaches to leadership. Leaders have to be able to manage conflicts within the group, respect differences in team members’ values and preferences, and be flexible enough to adapt their leadership behaviors to the needs of diverse employees. These characteristics have to be reflected in their leadership style because a theoretical understanding of diversity leadership is not sufficient to achieve excellent results. Further sections of the paper will discuss various leadership theories and their usefulness in the selected work context, as well as evaluate different leadership styles.
Leadership theories are aimed at assisting organizational leadership in motivating, inspiring, and supporting their employees. The concept of leadership has been studied heavily over the past decades, with some research estimating the number of leadership theories and definitions to be in the hundreds (Hunt & Fedynich, 2018). As explained by Hunt and Fedynich (2018), “the idea of leadership began with an exploration of specific individuals considered to be heroic such as Caesar, Napoleon, Nelson, Mao Zedong and others who led individually” (p. 20).
In modern research, leadership is usually viewed as a set of behaviors, skills, and actions that help persons to lead and inspire their subordinates or team members (Hunt & Fedynich, 2018). The core leadership theories that are studied and applied today are the trait leadership theory, leadership style theory, path-goal leadership theory, contingency theory, and transformational leadership theory.
The trait theory of leadership focuses on leaders’ traits as opposed to their behaviors or skills. According to Demirtas and Karaca (2020), the trait theory “argues that leadership exists as a result of a natural formation and that these formations, which form the basis for a leader, stem from the personal and physical traits of a leader” (p. 199). In other words, good leaders are distinguished from bad leaders by their inherent qualities.
The specific traits that are considered to characterize good leaders vary based on research, but some common themes can be identified. Based on trait theory, leaders have to be intelligent, confident, able to connect with various people and possess an excellent understanding of tasks and operations within the organization (Demirtas & Karaca, 2020). These traits can be applied to behaviors and activities used in various leadership styles to evaluate them.
The style theory of leadership, in contrast, argues that leadership effectiveness depends on leadership behaviors rather than on leaders’ inherent traits. This theory encourages leaders to modify their approaches based on employee and organizational needs (Demirtas & Karaca, 2020). Based on the style theory, leadership capacity is linked to leaders’ ability to identify and execute the appropriate leadership style, regardless of whether it is autocratic or laissez-faire leadership. Consequently, this theory can be used to evaluate the suitability of leadership styles to the selected organizational context.
The path-goal theory emphasizes the flexibility of leadership styles and the need for leaders to adapt to changes in the workplace. According to the path-goal theory, “a leader’s behaviors are effective and motivational to the extent that they are perceived as satisfactory by his/her followers, meet their needs and expectations, and provide them with the necessary orientation, guidance, and support” (Demirtas & Karaca, 2020, p. 111).
Based on this leadership theory, leaders can choose a style that fits their team members best, thus achieving better outcomes. Contingency theory, in turn, stems from the assumption that there is no best leadership style, and that leaders with different traits perform better in different situations. For instance, leaders who are highly structured and organized are likely to perform better in high-control environments, whereas leaders who are social and outgoing can motivate and inspire employees in people-oriented environments (Demirtas & Karaca, 2020). By this theory, managers of diverse teams would benefit from leadership styles that emphasize connectedness with people, respect for their needs, positive thinking, and collaboration.
Finally, the transformational theory of leadership evolved as the new approach to leading people that contrasted with the transitional, transactional view of leadership. In transactional leadership, leader-member communication is perceived to be an exchange wherein a leader offers an employee something in return for their motivation, commitment, and performance (Demirtas & Karaca, 2020). Transformational leadership theory posits that charismatic leaders can obtain the same results by working together with employees rather than trading with them.
As explained by Demirtas and Karaca (2020), transformational leadership theory focuses on collaborating with employees to identify a shared vision and offer guidance on fulfilling it. Transformational leadership values collective and personal development equally, which is why leaders are just as interested in employees’ growth and achievement as they are in meeting organizational goals (Berkovich, 2016). This theory formed the foundation for the transformational leadership style, although it can also be connected to other styles.
Evaluation of Leadership Styles
The theories introduced above, as well as other theoretical work in the field of leadership, resulting in the development of various leadership styles. The most common styles in the modern world are a democratic, autocratic, servant, laissez-faire, transformational, and path-goal leadership. Each of these styles has advantages and disadvantages, and the present section will examine their suitability for managing diverse teams based on the general leadership approaches discussed in the previous part of the paper.
Democratic Leadership Style
Democratic leadership style is highly popular in contemporary businesses. The primary characteristic of democratic leadership is the regard for people in the organization. Fiaz et al. (2017) state that leaders who apply this style welcome employee input in decision-making and take care to ensure that their decisions are supported by their followers.
Furthermore, democratic leaders believe in people and their potential to contribute to the organization willingly, which is why they are less likely to exhibit rigorous control, apply sanctions, and use other strict methods to support motivation and performance (Fiaz et al., 2017). Research shows that the democratic leadership style has a positive effect on organizational outcomes in the long term while also fostering organizational commitment and development (Iqbal, Anwar & Haider, 2015). Hence, this leadership style could be useful in various contexts.
Democratic leadership style aligns with most theories of leadership identified in the previous section. On the one hand, leaders who apply this style are generally good at connecting with others and use shared expertise in decision-making, which shows positive leadership qualities as identified by the trait theory. On the other hand, Democratic leaders are likely to respond to employees’ needs and concerns as part of their participative leadership style, which is why this style is also useful based on path-goal and contingency approaches to leadership.
While democratic leadership is different from transformational leadership, it still focuses on collaboration, shared goals, and mutual support, which makes it useful from the perspective of transformational theory. Therefore, the characteristics of democratic leadership and its compliance with the key theories of leadership mean that it could be potentially useful for managers of diverse teams.
Autocratic Leadership Style
Autocratic leadership style is often contrasted with democratic leadership because of the opposing views of the power structure. In autocratic leadership, decision-making is highly centralized, and employees have little effect on their leader’s decisions (De Hoogh, Geer & Den Hartog, 2015). Autocratic leaders are at the top of the hierarchy in their teams and possess the ultimate directive power and authority (De Hoogh, Geer & Den Hartog, 2015). Settings in which autocratic leadership is applied are characterized by high power distance and a significant level of structure.
Although the autocratic leadership style does not appear to be useful in most contemporary workplaces, it can improve organizational and team performance in certain settings. For example, autocratic leadership can benefit organizations that lack structure and focus and require a fast solution to their issues since this leadership style is positively related to short-term performance (Iqbal, Anwar & Haider, 2015).
Autocratic leadership also yields good results when there is a low power struggle within the team, as it provides greater psychological safety (De Hoogh, Geer & Den Hartog, 2015). Thus, it is possible that it can be used in certain settings.
In evaluating the application of the autocratic leadership style to diverse teams, it is clear that autocratic leaders fit into some leadership theories and approaches. In particular, autocratic leadership can be connected to style and contingency theories because there are some instances in which it proves to be useful. Nevertheless, the lack of leader-member collaboration and shared decision-making makes this leadership style ineffective by the transformational theory, whereas its rigid structure is opposed by the path-goal leadership style. Moreover, the traits of autocratic leaders often contradict the idea of a good leader as defined by the trait theory. This means that, based on most leadership theories, it is highly unlikely that autocratic leadership will yield good results when applied to diverse teams.
Servant Leadership Style
Servant leadership is an interesting style that can be traced back to ancient times. As explained by Gandolfi, Stone, and Deno (2017), the ideology behind servant leadership is reflected in the teachings of Confucius, as well as in the Christian Bible. Servant leadership is distinct from many other leadership styles because it focuses on leaders’ ability to serve their followers rather than lead or manage them (Gandolfi, Stone & Deno, 2017).
Servant leadership is somewhat similar to transformational leadership because it treats leaders as part of their teams rather than as the higher level of the hierarchy. A servant leader “gives priority to needs and aspirations of his followers over needs of his own; one who believes in serving others with a continuous desire to lead, helps one’s followers grow, develop, become independent and inspires followers to tread the path of service and become servants” (Kashyap & Rangnekar, 2016).
Hence, servant leadership is usually perceived positively by employees and strengthens their commitment to the organization through psychological contracts (Panaccio et al. 2015). Since this leadership style focuses on employees’ needs and concerns, it is rather flexible and can be adapted to various organizational contexts.
In evaluating servant leadership, its compliance with some leadership theories is evident. First of all, servant leadership aligns with the principles of transformational leadership theory, including collaboration, shared goal-setting, and others. Secondly, servant leadership is suitable in contexts where high levels of organizational commitment and organizational citizenship behavior are required since it contributes to employees’ psychological contracts (Panaccio et al. 2015).
For this reason, servant leadership is in line both with contingency theory and with the style theory. Still, leaders who rely on servant leadership may not possess the traits highlighted by the trait theory and may fail to switch their style when needed in accordance with the path-goal theory. This suggests that it is not the best leadership style for diverse teams because it is not sufficiently flexible and often lacks authority.
Transformational Leadership Style
The transformational leadership style derives from the transformational theory of leadership, which distinguishes it from many other styles. Transformational leadership is often viewed in connection with organizational change, although it is rather flexible and can be applied in multiple settings. Transformational leadership style provides for unique leader-member interactions because it focuses on employees’ achievement inasmuch as on the organization’s goals (Nguyen et al., 2017).
In transformational leadership, “leaders appeal to the ideals and morals of their followers to inspire the followers to reach their highest levels of achievement and take ownership of the goals of the group” (p. 205). Thus, transformational leadership often refuses the use of traditional rewards systems, focusing on developing employees’ intrinsic motivation instead. This makes it highly relevant to organizations with limited resources, as well as to those that are undergoing a significant change or struggle to meet their objectives.
A transformational leader seeks to unite employees while maintaining and supporting their individual identity, which is why it is likely to be beneficial in highly diverse settings. Research also shows transformational leadership to be relevant in efforts to fuel diversity and support inclusive organizational cultures (Adserias, Charleston & Jackson, 2017). Thus, it should be considered by managers working in diverse contexts.
Even though the transformational leadership style stems from the same theory, it also aligns with the characteristics and concepts evident in other theories. For instance, transformational leaders are likely to exhibit the traits favored by the trait theory as this style necessitates intelligence, charisma, and organizational knowledge. Additionally, transformational leadership can be tailored to the needs of a specific organization or situation, which makes it flexible enough to fit into the contingency theory and the style theory. In the path-goal theory, employees’ perceptions of leadership style are of utmost importance, and transformational leadership is usually viewed positively by employees.
Research shows the positive effect of transformational leadership on employee satisfaction, achievement, creativity, and performance (Demirtas & Karaca, 2020). As explained by Kappagomtula (2015), organizations and teams with high levels of diversity have to undergo significant organizational transformations to foster unity and community-building. Based on these requirements and the compliance of transformational leadership style with the key ideas and theories of leadership, this style might be best suited for leaders working with diverse employees.
Use of Leadership Theories
The present report focused on using popular leadership theories to evaluate the degree to which different leadership styles would be useful to leaders operating as part of diverse teams. The challenges highlighted in the second section of the report show that there are certain skills, qualities, and abilities that leaders must demonstrate in order to be able to lead and inspire diverse teams effectively.
The discussion of leadership theories, in turn, helped to narrow down the ideas behind each theory and apply them to the evaluation of different leadership styles. The process of evaluating leadership styles based on their compliance with the core principles of leadership theories could contribute to the work of leaders of diverse teams in various ways.
Firstly, the use of leadership theories can help to identify the needs and requirements in relation to leadership styles. For example, the various leadership theories examined in this report showed that leadership styles applied in diverse teams should be flexible, people-oriented, and mutually beneficial. Based on these requirements, leadership styles were analyzed, and the most suitable leadership style was chosen. Depending on the organization, team leaders may have different additional requirements and needs with respect to potential leadership styles. Using leadership theories allows to narrow down the criteria, making the selection of an appropriate style much easier.
Secondly, leadership theory helps to gain more insight into the role of the leader in their team and on their relationship to other employees. Most leadership theories agree that leaders need to be conscious of their organizational environment and take on the role that complies with their member’s preferences and needs. The reason why transformational leadership has such a high potential is that transformational leaders collaborate with employees while retaining their authority and role (Demirtas & Karaca, 2020). Consequently, understanding leadership role requirements through leadership theory can help leaders to improve their approaches and behaviors and achieve better results in their work.
Overall, leaders working with diverse employees face a large number of challenges that may impair group performance and organizational climate. In order to overcome these obstacles and achieve organizational goals, it is crucial for leaders to select an appropriate leadership style and apply it consistently. The present report discussed the key leadership theories and applied the results to evaluating various leadership styles.
The analysis showed that transformational leadership would be the most suitable leadership style for leaders who have diverse followers since it responds to the needs of diverse organizations and employees while also aligning with the core principles of most leadership theories. The analysis also helped to show the usefulness of leadership theories to leaders of diverse teams. It is expected that an in-depth understanding of leadership theories can help them to understand the needs and requirements of their followers while also selecting the correct approach to leading.
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