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. Under constant scrutiny, entertainment groups must – on the surface at least – placate the highest court of all: public opinion.

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. A generation of young women will grow up inspired by these bold, funny and intelligent female characters, who can fight their own battles without the help of men.

Representation matters. Shrek, Black Panther, Encanto… the list of thought-provoking releases from the entertainment industry goes on. And those who write off attempts to champion issues like social mobility, ethnic diversity, gender representation, age equality, neurodiversity and LGBTQ as mere woke-ism are misguided and outdated.

By rethinking fairy-tales and happy-ever-afters, creatives are rewriting social norms in front of our eyes. They are alerting us to conscious and unconscious biases that have been handed down through generations; inculcated onto us by years of cultural subversion and subterfuge.

Without representation across all levels of an organisation, particularly in leadership positions to role model what is possible now, 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. Starved of a sense of belonging, minority groups of all kinds are unlikely to reach their full potential.

The long-term consequences of getting this wrong, of creating unhealthy cultures and sub-optimal teams, are significant. After all, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”, as legendary business thinker Peter Drucker put it.

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

For too long, organisations have focused 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

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, it ignores the economies of scale that come with creating an inclusive environment.

As Figure 1 highlights, solving for one aspect of diversity not only benefits other minority groups but everyone across the organisation. Improving processes and embedding inclusion helps the whole system.

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 can thrive. A ‘safe’ environment allows team members to feel vulnerable, free to ask a ‘silly’ question or air a half-formed idea. It also refers to cultures where juniors feel comfortable challenging senior colleagues without fear of reprimand, humiliation, or backlash.

Beyond the more obvious motivational benefits that flow from a sense of belonging, ideas are rarely driven by one person. Innovation tends to be combinatory, building on what has gone before and often sparks from thinking around subjects.

Psychological safety is more important than ever

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 It goes on to state: “Given the quickening pace of change and disruption and the need for creative, adaptive responses from teams at every level, psychological safety is more important than ever.”

There are some basic steps to create psychological safety. 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. Of course, all this should be management 101, yet the pressures of daily and corporate life mean simple managerial responsibilities often get neglected.

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’ – what motivates them personally and professionally. There is no cookie cutter, though. Everyone is different and a hyper-personalised approach to understanding what makes them tick is key to unlocking their potential. Trusted managers therefore need to flex and adapt to each individual.

Allowing a degree of freedom within roles should ensure individuals have enough time and space to experiment and to follow their passions

And, while in general you might hope each team member buys into a large, collective goal, this doesn’t really matter so long as they deliver output that contributes to the greater whole. Individuals’ underlying motivations are often varied and deeply contextual. Allowing a degree of freedom within roles – avoiding rigid role profiles and micro-management – should ensure individuals have enough time and space to experiment and to 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 and, often, reach unexpected solutions in the process.

The responsibility on managers to harness this latent human potential is huge, but all too often underestimated. It requires an empathetic and active approach to development (both their own and their underlings), an open-mind and a focus on constant improvement. As legendary business thinker Tom Peters puts it: “A passive approach to professional growth will leave you by the wayside.” His wisdom applies to middle managers as much as anyone else.

Optimising teams

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

There is a simplistic and unquestioned belief in meritocracy when making hiring decisions: ‘Hire the best person for the job, always.’ It is hard to challenge such straight and intuitive logic. We must though, as it 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. It is merely meant to get you thinking. 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

Yet as the complexity of our jobs, teams, departments, companies, industry and economy increases, the need to have broad perspectives will only grow. This is not something managers, teams and organisations can ignore. Andy Haldane, former chief economist at the Bank of England, also picked up on this dilemma in a Financial Times article called Diversity versus merit is a false choice for recruiters5 in which, among other things, he argued a team full of Lionel Messi’s would be far from optimal.

Diversity characteristics are all proxies for the ‘difference’ that should be sought by those trying to develop effective teams

Diversity characteristics – such as (but not limited to) gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic background and neurodiversity – are all proxies for the ‘difference’ that should be sought by those trying to develop effective teams. Personality tests, skills-based assessments, varied career experience, cultural interests and tastes can all help to build a better team dynamic.

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. He speaks of having to trust his fellow mountaineers with his life. Mingma David was selected because he was the strongest climber Nims had ever met. Lakpa Dendi was chosen for his sheer strength and ability to carry crazy amounts of kit to inhospitable places. Gesman Tamang was “willing to put everything on the line” and chosen for his bravery. Geljen was apparently the best dancer – well, I guess we all need to have a little fun sometimes.

All were chosen for their loyalty, passion and teamwork, but it was the blend of skills and unwavering commitment to the cause that Nims staked his life on. Trust runs both ways and Nims was able to leverage the strengths each individual brought to the mountain face.

As an aside, in making the impossible possible and by specifically promoting his crew’s respective Nepalese identities, Nims also helped improve representation.

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”. These words have reverberated around the DEI echo chamber for as long as I can remember. For all their power and truth, there is another, deeper issue at play.

We need to flip the lens from speaker to listener. The quote speaks directly to those looking upward for inspiration, advice and direction. But who is the listener? It is – or at least should be – those higher up the chain of command.

It is the duty of senior leaders and managers to peer down and across the organisational chart to spot upcoming talent

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. In many cases they don’t even have a vocabulary for describing it, let alone know where to look. 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.6

When plotting out our future leaders, line managers often look for the wrong characteristics, behaviours and skillsets. The implications for succession planning and hiring should be obvious – though, in fairness, managers have likely been let down by poor training and simply defaulted to unhealthy views of what constitutes talent. Instead of valuing ‘difference’ and ‘potential’, many fall back on deep-seated notions of ‘fit’ and ‘polish’.

Linked to this is another behavioural barrier standing in the way of effective talent identification and less traditional candidates reaching their full potential. It is 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 focused on this very issue, pointing out “organizations must make trade-offs between current competence and development potential”.7 Using high-profile case studies, the authors identified critical, but typically ignored, inclusive leadership traits such as curiosity, insight, engagement and determination. Tragically, the authors found these overlooked characteristics are the biggest signals of leadership potential. Developmental growth mapping, job rotations, targeted coaching and support are suggested as ways to help bridge the gap. In doing so, a person’s strengths can be better aligned with the core competencies required in various roles.

The authors concluded: “A scientific approach to talent development – focused on spotting high potentials, understanding their capacity for growth in key competencies, and giving them the experience and support they need to succeed – will be an extraordinary source of competitive advantage in the coming decades.”

To progress, everyone must be given a chance to step up

A great irony here is that to progress, everyone must be given a chance to step up. In other words, somebody else must take a gamble on them, with no guarantee of return. The degree to which polish trumps potential in these decisions is somewhat contentious, but it is not a stretch to argue it plays a significant role.

The other great irony lies in something called ‘The Peter Principle’, which argues employees get promoted to their level of incompetence, the point being that technical and subject-matter experts don’t always make the best managers as the skillset required is vastly different.

Disney’s diversity dividend

Disney’s whole business is built around storytelling. This is also at the heart of the Diversity Project’s ongoing FishOutofWater campaign. Through personal stories that amplify the lived experiences of so many minority groups, the primary goal is to raise awareness. However, an unexpected benefit sprung from the vignettes: the campaign became a platform for people to speak their truths and get much closer to becoming their authentic selves at work.

Our intention is to make sure every person sees themselves or their life experiences represented in a meaningful way

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. The company recently launched a digital platform called Reimagine Tomorrow, which highlights the stories of minority employees, ensuring their voices are heard and amplified. As Disney’s chief diversity officer Latondra Newton puts it: “Our intention is to make sure every person sees themselves or their life experiences represented in a meaningful way.”

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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