Middle managers need to up their diversity, equity and inclusion game. They must think harder about roles models, succession planning, psychological safety and team dynamics to harness untapped human potential, explains Apiramy Jeyarajah.

Read this article to understand:

  • The importance of representation and role models at all levels of an organisation
  • What separates great leaders from good managers
  • How to create psychological safety and optimise team performance

Pop culture is usually the first to pick up on zeitgeists. Take Disney, and its front-of-house overhaul. Once upon a time, a Disney heroine would be found longing wistfully for a knight in shining armour to come to her rescue. But Disney princesses are now nuanced individuals with ideas and ambitions of their own. This is one reason why the Frozen franchise, with its strong female leads, has proven such a cultural phenomenon.

Representation matters. By rethinking fairy-tales and happy-ever-afters, creatives are rewriting social norms in front of our eyes. Without representation across all levels of an organisation, you simply won’t get the best out of your human capital. For all the focus on pipeline talent, budding Elsa’s need someone to look up to.

Equity...for who? – Good managers versus great leaders

Organisations tend to focus on the ‘what’ and not the ‘how’. Instead of recognising entry-level recruitment as a starting point for rethinking talent, it has been viewed as an end in and of itself.

Diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives are often viewed as a drain on resources because of the time they can involve. This completely misses the point. Firstly, it is short-termist, viewing diversity as a cost rather than an investment. Secondly, and as the chart below highlights, it ignores the economies of scale that come with creating an inclusive environment.

Figure 1: Systemic inclusion – making a process inclusive to everyone
Systemic inclusion – making a process inclusive to everyone, regardless of neurotype
Source: Sparkle Class, 20221

The notion of ‘psychological safety’ is well-known and widespread in management circles. Coined by Amy Edmondson, a Harvard business management scholar, the phrase intuitively describes the type of environment where people feel able to thrive.

Beyond the more obvious motivational benefits that flow from a sense of belonging, ideas are rarely driven by one person. A recent McKinsey article put it like this: “When employees feel comfortable asking for help, sharing suggestions informally, or challenging the status quo without fear of negative social consequences, organizations are more likely to innovate quickly, unlock the benefits of diversity, and adapt well to change – all capabilities that have only grown in importance during the COVID-19 crisis.”2

Everyone should feel free to show off their differences and not feel obliged to conform or assimilate to a cultural stereotype

There are some basic steps to achieving this. Treating people with respect, listening to their ideas, making them feel valued; everyone should feel free to show off their differences and not feel obliged to conform or assimilate to a cultural stereotype.

Good managers focus on day-to-day operations and tactical fixes. However, truly great leaders focus on their people. They become adept at spotting their employees’ ‘why’. Everyone is different though, and a hyper-personalised approach is key to unlocking potential.

Allowing a degree of freedom within roles should also ensure individuals have enough time and space to experiment and follow their passions, interests and curiosities. Not only is this likely to lead to higher engagement and fulfilment, it will also allow them to better identify their strengths.

Optimising teams

A logical extension of the importance of healthy team cultures is the idea managers should figure out how to optimise their teams.

There is a simplistic and unquestioned belief in meritocracy when making hiring decisions: ‘Hire the best person for the job, always.’ However, this overlooks two key factors.

Managers should figure out how to optimise their team for the delivery of results

The first – under-appreciated potential – should not come as a surprise. The second relates to optimal team dynamics.

Imagine you have a team all capable of achieving seven out of ten on a test. Unfortunately, due to cultural similarities in their education and lived experiences, they all get the same three questions wrong. You are now faced with two candidates for a new hire. One gets the same 70 per cent score, along with the same three incorrect answers. The alternative candidate only gets 30 per cent on the test, but the three questions she gets right are the ones everyone else got wrong.

Who should you hire? There isn’t necessarily a ‘right’ answer to this – and it is crudely over-simplified for effect. As shown in Figure 2, Matthew Syed has a neat way of visualising the issue.

Figure 2: The problem with homogeneity
the problem space
Source: Rebel ideas: The power of diverse thinking, 20203

The ‘problem space’ rectangle represents a universe of useful ideas. Syed argues a lack of diversity in teams and groups is a major issue. For although every individual is smart and has impressive knowledge within what he dubs as a team of clones, “they are also homogenous. They know similar things, and share similar perspectives”.4 Diversity characteristics such as gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic background and neurodiversity are all proxies for the ‘difference’ that should be sought.

Individuals within teams still need to bond and gel together

Individuals within teams still need to bond and gel together, and it is often useful to look outside of industry for clues and inspiration. In this case, I find a mountaineering example particularly helpful.

Nimsdai Purja (Nims) talks about how he selected team members for his record-breaking Beyond Possible mission to scale the 14 largest mountain peaks on the planet. All were chosen for their loyalty, passion and team ethic, but it was the blend of skills and unwavering commitment to the cause that Nims staked his life on.

Opening eyes: Look beyond those who shout the loudest

Let’s get back to Disney. The importance of its public role models and re-wiring of stories is perhaps best summed up by the phrase “You can’t be what you can’t see”. For all their power and truth, there is another, deeper issue at play.

We need to flip the lens from speaker to listener. It is the duty of senior leaders and managers to peer down and across the organisational chart to spot upcoming talent. Yet they routinely miss talent because they cannot see it. This is because, in addition to falling prey to unconscious bias, their way of looking at the world is rarely fit for the future. And given the World Economic Forum estimates 50 per cent of all employees will need reskilling by 2025 thanks to technological disruption, this will only get worse.5

Many fall back on deep-seated notions of ‘fit’ and ‘polish’ when succession planning and hiring

The upshot is that, when plotting out our future leaders, managers often look for the wrong characteristics, behaviours and skillsets. The implications for succession planning and hiring should be clear: instead of valuing ‘difference’ and ‘potential’, many fall back on deep-seated notions of ‘fit’ and ‘polish’.

Linked to the experience versus potential trade-off, with short-term bias often meaning senior management favour the former over the latter. A Harvard Business Review article pointed out “organizations must make trade-offs between current competence and development potential”.6 Ironically, for anyone to progress they must be given a chance to step up.

Disney’s diversity dividend

Disney’s whole business is built around storytelling. Though far from perfect, having only recently just appointed its first female chair, the commitment by Disney and other entertainment groups to shift perceptions and correct biases is inspirational. And to its credit, Disney is trying to improve representation and strong role models behind the scenes, as part of its DEI efforts.

Disney is trying to improve representation and strong role models behind the scenes

It certainly shouldn’t be accused of wokeism. For if anyone reminds us of the imagination and creativity lying dormant in humanity, it is Walt Disney. “We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we're curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.”

An adapted version of this article was originally published in City A.M.

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