Middle managers role in creating an inclusive culture

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Published by
Jan Hills
November 6, 2017

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We have been researching what strategies work when organisations want to create a more inclusive culture. As part of the research we spoke to CEO’s and senior business leaders, as well as HR directors, and heads of diversity and inclusion.

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We have been researching what strategies work when organisations want to create a more inclusive culture. As part of the research we spoke to CEO’s and senior business leaders, as well as HR directors, and heads of diversity and inclusion. We also carried out a survey of the experience of men and women in the workplace. We used our Success Profile methodology which helps to identify the difference that makes a difference in moving to a more gender diverse and inclusive culture. The full results and the model which we created will be shared in our book Brain-savvy Wo+men which will be published in October but we wanted to share with you a little of what we found on Inclusion given it is such a hot topic in business right now.

Who’s implementing the inclusion strategy?

In our research, there was one area we found which was both important for success and which many organisations struggled with. And that was getting middle managers engaged and skilled at inclusion. One of our survey participants, a male in the transport industry said there was a need to “Address the culture of middle management staying in their safety zone.”

Engage middle managers

Most of the senior women we talked to pointed to their manager as a major supporter of or a major block to their progress. One participant said, “If your manager isn’t aware and interested in the challenges and the nuances of gender stereotypes it’s better to move on.” According to our research participants, middle managers make or break a gender initiative. And its key for two reasons:

  1. A survey of leading European companies by McKinsey in 2012 suggests that while most CEOs support moves toward gender parity, only 13% of middle managers share this view. Since around 70% of middle managers are men getting them on board is the difference between real progress and platitudes. The best companies engage middle managers in why gender diversity is good for them, not just good for women. They align their reward and promotion policies to reflect this, they skill up this population, not just senior leaders, to be inclusive and to see their role as creating the right culture for their whole team.
  2. Secondly, middle managers hierarchical position means that they translate the strategic direction to their immediate environment. They must translate the aim for gender parity that many CEOs espouse by changing daily interactions around gender. Many struggle to manage or to even be aware of the subtle micro-messages that signal to women and minority employees they are valued and belong. They also set the tone for the team, they can support or stop issues like mansplaining, maninterrupting, sexist comments and the level of inclusivity and belonging experienced. Research by Elisabeth Kelan at Cranfield School of Management found 4 areas where middle managers can impact the gender inclusion strategy:
    1. Celebrating and encouraging women
    2. Calling out bias
    3. Championing and defending gender initiatives
    4. Championing work practices such as flexible work arrangements.

Managers who are focused on creating a more inclusive work environment know how they can ensure everyone has the opportunity to contribute and their contribution is acknowledged. And that includes the middle managers’ contribution to strategy and gender. Focusing on this population accelerates change.

Most of the organisations we spoke to focused their inclusion efforts on senior leaders, of course role modelling from the top is important but it’s not going to get past the “perma frost” of middle managers unless there is action taken. We only found one organisation, in Australia, systematically taking action with this group. How are you doing on this? We would love to hear your comments.

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