Hold The Applause: Gaining Middle Management Buy-in to The Success of Your Diversity Initiative

by Barry Callender

By now you’ve probably read many publications’ lists of this year’s “Best Places To Work”

or “Best/Top Companies.” These companies win accolades and free publicity, a nice advantage in today’s competitive market for top talent. But you might be surprised to learn that many of these same companies receive low employee-opinion survey scores and frequent complaints, and that many are even subjected to legal action. “Wait a minute!” once-envious CEOs and Human Resource VPs demand, “How can that be?” For the leaders of these progressive companies, answers can often be found just a level or two below them on the company organization chart.

Organizations that receive awards are doing many of the right things. Their CEO is visionary, and the head of HR is strategic and “peoplefocused.” Their diversity initiatives are well designed, and supported by myriad programs. These companies have diverse workforces, strong recruitment efforts for diverse candidates, and may even have diverse representation on their boards and among senior management. They are leveraging diversity in their marketing efforts, developing emerging markets and improving products and services to meet diverse needs. Many even value diverse representation in their supply chains. And, of course, these award-winning companies usually offer diversity training throughout the organization.

These companies believe in diversity, and have invested in programs to support it. So where have they gone wrong?

The seemingly obvious but often overlooked answer is at the middlemanagement level. Employees throughout the organization are most influenced by their direct supervisors; these are the people who deliver the message of diversity—or fail to. Burdened with day-to-day tasks and unconvinced of the immediate relevance of diversity, middle managers often do not actively participate in the diversity initiative. They, and their team, cannot reap its benefits. As a result, some individuals in their department, often those who are different from the cultural norm, aren’t fully supported or utilized. Their career expectations aren’t met. To the casual outside observer things look great, but from within the organization the view is much less enticing.

“I work for an organization that is highly praised for embracing diversity.What happened to me?” asks Denise, a talented employee with an advanced degree and a wealth of experience. Denise chose to work for her current employer based on their reputation as a people-oriented organization. Coveted by three different companies, Denise chose the one where she saw women like herself thriving at all levels. And indeed, her initial assignments allowed her to showcase her talents; she felt that she was fast-tracking. Then suddenly her progress halted as she encountered what is commonly known as the glass ceiling.

Without realizing it, Denise accepted an assignment with a manager who didn’t have good basic leadership skills, much less the understanding to buy-in to the organization’s diversity initiative. Denise began to notice that, on this team, highly talented women and others who were different from the cultural norm often did not receive challenging projects. She no longer felt herself part of an “inner circle”—her opinion was no longer sought before decisions were made. Soon her experience of the organization had changed, and she was frustrated.

How could this happen to a talented employee in an organization that clearly embraces diversity? Many companies, even those with a solid reputation for diversity, can find people like Denise in their workforces today—people who are highly skilled and motivated but underutilized. To people like this, poor leadership can feel like discrimination.

It isn’t unusual for middle-level managers (MLMs) to face, or even create, many obstacles to full participation in diversity initiatives. There are many reasons that often over-burdened middle managers do not make the diversity initiative a priority:

  • MLMs have difficulty understanding their connection to and role in the organization’s business case for diversity
  • MLMs are often promoted for technical proficiencies, not for leadership skills
  • MLMs have been asked to “do more with less” and don’t feel they have time to make diversity a priority
  • MLMs believe that diversity does not apply to them because their teams are homogeneous.

In order to effectively eliminate these barriers, senior leadership must recognize that middle managers are the “glue” of corporate initiatives. They connect the visionaries to the actual doers. Their concerns must be addressed in the planning stages of any initiative, especially one as emotion-laden as diversity, in order to enable them to deliver and support its goals.

Understanding the connection

The organization’s business case is often diluted by the time it is communicated to middle management. Senior leaders and Human Resource professionals can articulate the big picture revenues and costs involved in the business case, but where does this impact the individual middle manager? What role should they play? Middle managers are the ones responsible for making, processing, and servicing products; what are their roles in implementing a successful diversity initiative? A typical attitude might be “Sure, turnover costs the typical Fortune 100 company x-dollars, but what does it cost me when I lose an employee? I can accept that better managing my diverse team should improve innovation, creativity and problem solving, but what is the real financial impact on my work group?”

We can address this challenge in two ways. The first is to communicate all of the elements in the company’s over-arching business case to the MLM, and then clearly demonstrate how he or she is expected to have an impact on certain elements. Second, explain how success will be evaluated, including the specific measures that will be used (this is one of the many places where HR should be a strategic partner). Having metrics specific to that MLM’s area of responsibility will drive success, but this may seem new to an MLM who isn’t typically held accountable for costs. It is important to make metrics clear, achievable, and relevant to the MLM’s specific department and responsibilities.

It is also possible that the organization’s business case is not compelling to a particular MLM. Perhaps the company is seeking aggressive growth and has chosen Mergers & Acquisitions, Access to Global Markets and Government Contracts as its primary business case for diversity. For an MLM running a call center, the relevancy may seem weak. A more compelling business case for that manager would be Retention, Problem Solving and Customer Connection; those issues will feel immediate enough to encourage her/him to make the diversity initiative a priority. Developing secondary business cases that feel relevant and beneficial to managers at every level should be part of the natural evolution of any diversity initiative.

Proficiencies and productivity over leadership

Fortunately this is changing, but it is still common to assume that a middle-management candidate who demonstrates high proficiency and/or was highly productive doing the job will be able to manage others doing the same job. The newly promoted MLM may even pick up a few leadership skills in New Supervisor Orientation. But managing diversity brings a level of complexity to leadership that most MLMs have never considered. Diversity can be even more daunting because, unlike many other facets of management or leadership, managers can’t figure it out their own, on the job. If they make a mistake, they risk offending someone or, worse yet, being accused of discrimination or harassment.

This is one reason why serious consideration must be given to how training is delivered, what it will include, when it will be delivered, and to whom. If the training starts with senior management and is subsequently delivered down throughout all levels of an organization, each level will be able to seek advice from their direct supervisors and other leaders. And if those leaders have a clear understanding of what they should hold their people accountable for, a higher level of trust develops. Once an MLM’s employees have been through training, they are better able to recognize sincere attempts by their manager to figure out what this thing called diversity really means.

A degree of common awareness must be developed, including a clear understanding of what diversity is, and how being diverse impacts the utilization and performance of each employee. Beyond this awareness, each level/role in the organization must be taught how diversity plays out for them. For most middle managers, the first step is basic human resource management, managing the careers of the employees who report to them.

There are many skills involved in successfully managing career lifecycles. The three that best prepare an MLM for success as both an area manager and supporter of the diversity initiative are: orientation and inclusion of new employees, maximizing the productivity of existing employees and the employee development of all, especially those employees who demonstrate high potential. Other diversityrelated skills, which are natural offshoots of basic awareness, are sales, team dynamics and customer service.

“I don’t feel I have time to make diversity a priority.”

If you asked a typical middle-management executive, he or she would probably say, “This diversity initiative is the CEO’s latest hot-button and I already don’t have time for the first three initiatives we started this year! My evaluation is based on production, quality and safety. These initiatives come and go, but my evaluation stays the same. So what do you think I pay attention to? Of course we should hire more women and minorities, but I can’t focus on everything!”

This statement lays out a number of issues for senior leadership to address, ideally before launching the diversity initiative. First, they should question whether changes in business processes are often perceived as hot-buttons or the “flavor of the month” instead of necessary changes that must be integrated into daily business practices. Second, as demonstrated by this manager’s comments, the only way to drive change is to hold people accountable for it. In well-led organizations this will not be seen as an additional burden to middle management because the organization has already determined—and communicated—the many ways that investing in their employees’ growth and development pays off for the organization, and for their teams. In other words, people management is not a passing fad, but an integral part of the way business is conducted.

Diversity and leading a “homogeneous” team

“Well, I dodged another bullet! When I look over my department, I think we have a great team and everyone gets along. Shouldn’t we? The junior person has been here ten years; we’re all white males, most with families. It will be interesting to watch the other MLM’s figure out how to make diversity work on their teams …”

Regardless of what is written into an organization’s definition of diversity, to many in middle management the initial goals and communication often sound like a new spin on affirmative action. Combine this with a limited understanding of the subtleties involved in managing the less obvious elements of diversity, and you have an MLM who doesn’t see the need to become an active participant. During training, it is critical to explore and communicate the organization’s definition of diversity, focusing on the subtleties that can increase buy-in and understanding. If race and gender were the only obstacles to increased productivity and innovation, we’d have more efficient workplaces today! Is the MLM aware of, and can he or she articulate, the different thinking, communication and workstyles of their direct reports? Have they determined what the other subtle differences are and what their impact on the team has been? Most importantly, have they determined how to leverage those differences to foster innovation, creativity and productivity?

As a senior leader, I would also point out to any seemingly “disinterested” middle manager that the ability to successfully manage a diverse workforce is a prerequisite for future leaders of the company. Managing different teams in different areas should be a part of the company’s leadership development program, increasing the chances that potential senior managers will have led an obviously diverse team at some point in their careers.

Making diversity relevant and important to all levels and functions of middle management is no small feat. Clearly, senior management cannot sit back, admire its visionary high-level diversity strategy, and assume that others will make it happen. Employees, middle managers, and senior leaders must share a common understanding of the meaning of diversity, and work together towards a shared goal. The progressive companies mentioned earlier in this article have a distinct advantage: if many parts of their diversity initiative are going well, it creates an almost invisible support system for middle management. For organizations that are just beginning the diversity process, plans that incorporate a holistic approach and address the challenges of middle management from the outset will dramatically increase the likelihood of success.

Discussion Leaders:

1. How can you make diversity relevant and important to all levels and functions of your middle management? Where would you begin? As suggested in this article, could creating a secondary business case help the leadership at different areas and levels share a common goal? What issues would you address to make diversity relevant to more areas of the organization?

2. What does your organization do to support and strengthen leadership skills for new managers and executives? How do diversity issues figure into this training?

3. If accountability is key to ownership and active participation in your diversity efforts, how should success in that area be evaluated? What strategy will you use to measure the progress at the middlemanagement level on those elements relevant to both corporate’s overall diversity initiative and the manager’s specific department and responsibilities?

About the Author: Barry Callender

Barry Callender is Managing Director of Business Delivery at Simmons Associates, Inc., where he is responsible for the coordination of program development and training delivery activities. He also serves as lead facilitator and consultant to clients in the U.S., Canada, and the UK.

Printed with permission of Workforce Diversity Reader Spring 2003 www.workforcediversity.org

Barry Callender