Educating and developing leaders of racially diverse organizations

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  • F O R U M

    Educating and DevelopingLeaders of Racially DiverseOrganizations

    Marilyn Byrd

    This article discusses the need to address issues emerging from racial dif-ferences in the workplace under the heading of leadership development.Traditionally leadership development centers on creating models of lead-ership, describing what constitutes effective leadership, and identifying skillsand competencies that will improve the capacity to be a good leader. How-ever, in the real world, relationships among people of different races are oftensources of conflict, friction, and discord. Effective leadership is necessary tomediate and resolve issues stemming from these racially induced differences.

    As advocates of human resource development (HRD), we champion the movetoward environments where learning and performance are essential toimproving individuals and groups within our organizations. Largely unad-dressed in our mission is the acknowledgment that the environment wherelearning and performance occurs is composed of people from different races,cultures, and backgrounds. Hence, excluding differences in people from thelearning and performance equation interjects more idealism than realism inthe everyday occurrences within the workplace.

    The purpose of this discussion is to engage in new dialogue about HRD.The intent is to stimulate thinking among the HRD community regarding racialrelationships in the workplace and redefining leadership development as a toolfor confronting and resolving conflicts that might occur.

    Is There a Problem?

    HRD is a people-driven process. Without the human resource component, theprocess does not exist. Building on this concept, HRD focuses on improving

    HUMAN RESOURCE DEVELOPMENT QUARTERLY, vol. 18, no. 2, Summer 2007 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.Published online in Wiley InterScience ( DOI: 10.1002/hrdq.1203 275

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    individuals who make up groups that form organizations. Organizationalgroups are composed of people of different races who must function and inter-act within departments, work groups, and teams. The dynamics resulting fromthese culturally and racially informed differences are potential sources forconflict that are problematic and challenging to leadership and management(Martin, 2004). Moreover, existing models of leadership are ill equipped toaddress problems and challenges occurring from an increasingly complex anddiverse business environment (Lynham, 1998). For these reasons, changes inleadership knowledge, skills, and approaches to management may be necessaryto address human relations issues that invariably emerge from a multiracialworkforce.

    A somewhat silent topic in HRD literature, racial issues are a reality thatcontinues to plague organizational settings. To properly address issues stemmingfrom racial differences, it is necessary to make a distinction between diversityand race. Race describes a group of people sharing common historical experi-ences and subjected to similar social forces (Madsen & Mabokela, 2002). Inorganizations, diversity is a term commonly associated with organizational train-ing efforts to address cultural and ethnic related differences in the workplace.Phrases such as managing diversity, celebrating diversity, and embracing diversity arealso commonly used in organizations to denote efforts to promote diversityinitiatives and comply with federally mandated regulations. Since society nowembraces the word diversity to be inclusive of a number of contemporary issuesand because diversity is a state or goal that organizations should strive for, racialproblems may have become embedded within the language of diversity.Although the intent is not to minimize the significance of other differences in theworkplace, those differences have not led to the most egregious form of dis-crimination in this country as has been with the case of racism (Caudron &Hayes, 1997). For this reason, we must be mindful of camouflaging raciallyinduced problems by making the claim that we are attending to diversity.Furthermore, we should seek new directions for leadership development thatfoster new meanings for diversity, including democracy and social justice(Madsen & Mabokela, 2002).

    Swanson and Holton (2001) contend that HRD is a problem-orienteddiscipline that focuses on perplexing or difficult situations, matters, andpeople. From these scholars perspective, problems justify HRD and ignite theprocess (p. 16). We might ask when an organization should take steps to iden-tify, and correct if needed, problems occurring from racial differences amongwork groups. We might further challenge by asking what makes a problemcritical enough for HRD to ignite the process. Gilley, Callahan, and Bierma(2003) believe an issue critical to HRD is an area of research or practice thatcontributes not only to the survival of HRD but to its growth and future devel-opment (p. xiv). Lending credence to this perspective of an HRD critical issue,we should concern ourselves with expanding the body of knowledge for devel-oping leaders for racially diverse organizations.


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  • In many organizations, top leaders do not participate in diversity initiatives,yet this group is responsible for influencing the decisions, practices, policies, andculture of the organization (Martin, 1996). Considering leadership developmentto be a lifelong process that includes various stages of education and training(Lynham, 2000), the field of HRD should include developing the interpersonalskills necessary for leaders to diagnose and respond quickly to all type of situa-tions that involve an organizations human resources. For this to happen, the fieldof HRD should consider racial conflict in the workplace as an issue that fallsunder the purview of leadership development.

    Addressing Racial Differences Through LeadershipDevelopment

    Leaders, the most influential part of an organization, have the power to virtu-ally transform an organizations culture. Therefore, it is here we must begin toconcentrate efforts to address racial issues within organizations. Leaders whohave been developed in problem-solving racial issues will have clearer insightinto remedial solutions.

    One of the numerous definitions of HRD includes leadership as a defin-ing construct: HRD is the process of determining the optimum methods ofdeveloping and improving the human resources of an organization and thesystematic improvement of the performance and productivity of employeesthrough training, education and development, and leadership for the mutualattainment of organization and personal goals (Smith, 1990, p. 16). Applyingthis definition, HRD should provide organizations with methods for educat-ing and developing leaders to address racial issues resulting from peer-to peerconflicts, peer-to-supervisor conflicts, and supervisor-to-supervisor conflicts.Leaders are responsible for creating new realities, goals, and visions by con-vincing followers that current realities can be improved through change(Martin, 1996). Since leadership drives performance, it should be equally effec-tive as a change agent to the organizational culture.

    However, the field of HRD has yet to develop an integrated vision forcreating more inclusive work environments (Ross-Gordon & Brooks, 2004,p. 59), which minimizes issues of racial conflict within the workplace. If thisobservation is accurate, HRD is neglecting the development of leaders toaddress conflict emerging from racial differences. In view of this oversight,race relations as a component of leadership training and developmentprograms have not been actively pursued within the field of HRD. Organiza-tions should plan leadership development programs to be inclusive of skillsneeded to identify, mediate, and resolve issues stemming from a raciallydiverse workforce. To accomplish this, they should begin moving toward racerelations as one of the objectives of leadership development programs, whichis crucial for educating and developing leaders to resolve racial issues withinthe workplace.

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    Leadership development involves various stages in the life cycle thatpromote the expansion of knowledge and expertise required to optimizeleadership potential (Brungardt, 1996). However, society has not sufficientlydeveloped the interpersonal skills of leaders needed to address problems thatare inevitable in racially diverse organizational settings (Martin, 1996). As abeginning point, academic preparation should encourage future leaders toengage in open discourse on race relations. Corporate leadership initiativesshould advocate developing action-oriented leaders who are willing to exposeall forms of oppression that threaten the workplace.

    Alderfer, Alderfer, Bell, and Jones (1992) conceptualized a race relationsworkshop as the educational component of a leadership/management educa-tion program to improve race relations. The catalyst for this undertaking wasthe premise of education as a tool for change. Forming the framework for thisproject was a managers race relations competence, which is an element ofoverall managerial competence: A manager who is competent in race relationspossesses certain kinds of knowledge about key issues in race relations andacts in specific ways with respect to racial issues (p. 1263). Lynham (2000)points out the tendency to confuse leadership development and managementdevelopment. However, there is also a tendency for organizations to use theseterms interchangeably. With this in mind, organizations should closely exam-ine organizational structures to assess levels of authority as well as criticallyanalyze processes to gain a better understanding of where racial issues areoccurring (Chrobot-Mason & Thomas, 2002). While managers are required tohave leadership skills, these individuals are often in midlevel positions andrarely have the influence to transform organizational culture to the extent oftop leadership. Each organization has unique human resource needs andconcerns. To truly address these needs, the purpose and essence of HRDshould be expanded to include race relations within the context of leader-ship/management training and development programs.


    Racial issues in the workplace are a reality and should not be ignoredbecause the subject evokes unease. Instead, incorporating the improvementof relationships into the mission and beliefs of HRD is necessary to supportthe environment for learning and performance. Swanson and Holton (2001)suggest that HRD professionals do not necessarily like to talk about theirwork in relation to problems. Nevertheless, these scholars recognize theexisting state and a future desirable state; the gap betweenthe problemis recognized as opportunity. The opportunity exists to expand the body ofknowledge on how leaders are developed in relation to problem-solvingracial issues within organizations. The challenge is extended to the HRDcommunity to support this effort and inform the field through furtherresearch and theory.


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  • References

    Alderfer, C. P., Alderfer, C. J., Bell, E. L., & Jones, J. (1992). The race relations competenceworkshop: Theory and results. Human Relations, 45(12), 12591273.

    Brungardt, C. (1996). The making of leaders: A review of the research in leadership developmentand education. Journal of Leadership Studies, 3(3), 8195.

    Caudron, S., & Hayes, C. (1997). Are diversity programs benefiting African Americans? BlackEnterprise, 27(7), 121128.

    Chrobot-Mason, D., & Thomas, K. M. (2002). Minority employees in majority organizations:The intersection of individual and organizational racial identity in the workplace. HumanResource Development Review, 1, 323344.

    Gilley, A. M., Callahan, J. F., & Bierma, L. (Eds). (2003). Critical issues in HRD: A new agenda forthe twenty-first century. Oxford: Perseus.

    Lynham, S. A. (1998). The development and evaluation of a model of responsible leadership forperformance. Human Resource Development International, 1(2), 207221.

    Lynham, S. A. (2000). Leadership development: A review of the theory and literature. InP. Kuchinke (Ed.), Proceedings of the 2000 Academy of Human Resource Development AnnualConference (pp. 319). Baton Rouge, LA: AHRD.

    Madsen, J. A., & Mabokela, R. O. (2002). Introduction: leadership and diversity: Creating inclu-sive schools. Journal of Education, 77(1), 16.

    Martin, L. G. (1996). Leadership development in multiracial organizations. In E. F. Holton III(Ed.), Proceedings of the 1996 Academy of Human Resource Development Annual Conference(pp. 639646). Minneapolis, MN: AHRD.

    Martin, L. G. (2004). Learning about race and ethnic diversity on campus: A critical incidentsurvey of faculty and staff. In Proceedings of the Midwest Research to Practice Conference(pp. 134139). Indianapolis, IN: Purdue University.

    Ross-Gordon, J., & Brooks, A. (2004). Diversity in human resource development and continu-ing professional education: What does it mean for the workforce, clients, and professionals?Advances in Developing Human Resources, 10(10), 5985.

    Smith, D. (1990). The dictionary for human resource development. Alexandria, VA: ASTD Press.Swanson, R. A., & Holton, E. F. (2001). Foundations of human resource development. San Francisco:


    Marilyn Byrd is a doctoral candidate in Educational Administration & HumanResource Development, Texas A & M University, College Station, Texas.

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