Middle managers are key to improving inclusion

Role modelling from the top will not be successful on its own

No one can question the benefits of having an inclusive workplace – but how organisations can get there is a much harder issue to get your head around.

I have recently been involved in a research project looking at which strategies work for businesses that want to create a more inclusive culture, which has involved speaking to chief executives and senior business leaders, as well as HR directors and heads of diversity and inclusion. We also carried out a survey to try to capture the experience of men and women in the workplace, and used methodology called ‘success profile’ to help identify the things that make a difference when moving to a more gender diverse and inclusive culture. While the full results are yet to be published, I wanted to share with you some of our initial findings.

There was one area we found that was both important for success and that many organisations struggled with: getting middle managers engaged in, and skilled at, promoting 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”.

Most of the senior women we talked to pointed to their manager either as a major supporter of, or a major block to, their progress. One participant even said: “If your manager isn’t aware of and interested in the challenges and the nuances of gender stereotypes, it’s better to move on.” It seems that middle managers can make or break a gender initiative – and this is a key point for two reasons.

First, a survey of leading European companies by McKinsey in 2012 suggested that, while most CEOs supported moves toward gender parity, only 13 per cent of middle managers shared this view. Since around 70 per cent of middle managers are men, getting them on board is the difference between real progress and platitudes. The best organisations engage middle managers in why gender diversity is good for everyone, not just for women. They align their reward and promotion policies to reflect it, and they upskill this population – not just senior leaders – to be inclusive and to see their role as creating the right culture for their whole team.

Second, middle managers’ hierarchical position means 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. But many struggle to manage or to even be aware of the subtle micro-messages that signal to women and minority employees that they are valued and belong. They also set the tone for the team, they can support or stop issues such as mansplaining, maninterrupting and sexist comments, and they can improve the level of inclusivity and belonging experienced.

Research by Elisabeth Kelan at Cranfield School of Management found four areas where middle managers can impact on the gender inclusion strategy: celebrating and encouraging women; calling out bias; championing and defending gender initiatives; and 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. Role modelling from the top is important – but it’s not going to get past the permafrost of middle managers unless action is taken.

Jan Hills is the founding partner of the Head Heart + Brain consultancy