Effective Leadership for Diverse Teams

Topic(s): diversity, leadership, teams
Publication: Journal of Applied Psychology (2020)
Article: Leading Diversity: Towards a Theory of Functional Leadership in Diverse Teams
Authors: A.C. Homan, S. Gundemir, C. Buengeler, G.A. van Kleef
Reviewed by: Mona Bapat, PhD

The research on the effects of diversity on team processes and outcomes has thus far yielded inconsistent results. In addition, research studies have focused on general solutions when it comes to leadership of diverse teams, even though the same type of leadership can affect different teams in different ways.

Therefore, the authors of this study (Homan et al., 2020) developed a comprehensive conceptual framework for leadership of diverse teams. Their focus is on smaller teams so that leaders can more easily observe and address group processes. They also assume that team leaders are motivated to manage diverse teams and understand their needs. The key tenets of the new framework are explained below.


Leader Cognitive Understanding of Diversity

The authors suggest that a more intellectual understanding of diversity can help leaders recognize certain cues more easily. This will help them predict whether their teams are more likely to experience subgrouping, or if there is team cohesion and equal information sharing among all group members. The authors suggest that leaders who have significant experience with diversity or experience with other cultures can use new perspectives when faced with different situations and cultural norms. A stronger understanding of diversity can also allow leaders to better anticipate others’ interests and priorities.

Leader Social Perceptiveness

Social perceptiveness is the ability to be attentive to the intentions and needs of others. In particular, it is the ability to pick up on the nonverbal communication of team members and what they may mean. Exposure to different cultures can allow someone to better read communication cues that may be unique to a particular background.

The authors propose that leaders with high levels of social perceptiveness will have a greater ability to understand the dynamics of diverse teams.

Leader Behavioral Flexibility

Leaders with high behavioral flexibility have the ability to adapt to different situations. The authors suggest that leaders with high levels of behavioral flexibility are better able to shift their work in order to attend to team needs.

Task-Focused Versus Person-Focused Leadership

Task-focused leadership is just as it sounds: leaders focus their efforts on making sure that tasks are accomplished satisfactorily and on-time. Person-focused leaders tend to focus more on team members and their needs. For diverse teams that have conflict, the authors suggest that more person-focused leadership is needed and for teams that are more cohesive, more task-focused leadership is needed. 


The authors recommend that organizations consider this theoretical framework in the recruitment, selection, and development of organizational leaders. They recommend that leadership training programs provide more specific training on the development of cognitive understanding, social perceptiveness, and behavioral flexibility related to multiculturalism. 

Strong leadership is the cornerstone of successful teams in the workplace. In this era of globalization, leaders need to be aware of the dynamics and needs of diverse teams.


Homan, A.C., Gundemir, S., Buengeler, C. & van Kleef, G.A. (2020) Leading diversity: Towards a theory of functional leadership in diverse teams. Journal of Applied Psychology, 105(10), 1101-1128.