The crucial role of managers in building inclusion
By Jo Faragher on 25 March 2022
The role of a manager is not an easy one. They’re often under pressure to reach targets set by senior leaders above them, while at the same time dealing with conflicts among teams below or nurturing employees to provide their best work. Throw in a global pandemic and a long period of remote working and it’s no wonder they experience high levels of stress.
At the same time, however, managers can often be the missing link in boosting belonging and inclusion – they are the conduit between the stated values of the organisation and how those values come to life through the workforce ‘on the ground’.
The d&i Leaders Global Benchmarking Survey this year revealed that D&I teams that received strong support from managers were more likely to feel empowered. Organisations where there was less involvement from mid-managers tended to have a more reactive approach to D&I and experience slow progress in making change. “Managers are the ‘culture carriers’ of an organisation so it’s important to get them on board,” explains Donna Herdsman, managing director and head of diversity, equity and inclusion (EMEA) at inclusion consultancy Talking Talent. “They are the gatekeepers of people’s future, who can help them to be the best they can be. A good manager will spend time thinking about how you can develop your strengths, but a not so good manager could affect your ability to fully show up at work.”
Managers’ behaviour directly impacts the experience of employees, she adds, but they are often not specifically trained in what that might involve. “How many organisations spend time with employees talking about the role of the manager?” asks Herdsman. “Organisations expect managers to be ‘on strategy’ and hold their reports to account also, but then often managers don’t know what that means. Managers need to be able to be fair, offering upward feedback on how that overarching strategy impacts on people as well as filtering it downwards so people have a clear view of what is expected of them.”
Helen May, author of Everyone Included: Improve Belonging, Diversity & Inclusion in your Team, says managers are the “critical mass that can make or break inclusion efforts”, but agrees that organisations need to reframe the role of the leader. “Identity-centred leaders are tasked primarily with facilitating the individual talent and wellbeing of team members by understanding, leveraging and supporting the unique talents and needs of each employee. This leadership style focuses on developing managers who are curious, courageous and lead with humanity.” she explains. Herdsman advocates a coaching approach: “We know that people, when asked why they are leaving an organisation will often highlight the manager,” she advises. “Get coaching support so managers can look within. Similarly, if a manager has had a good experience of being managed they are more likely to emulate that. They will go to an open mindset where they realise it’s OK to make mistakes. But for this to work, you need a culture of inclusivity and psychological safety.”
On an individual level, managers’ behaviour can help or hinder inclusion by how they respond to situations. “For example, where frequent microaggressions against those who may be marginalised, often disguised as ‘banter’, go unchallenged in a culture, managers have little motivation to speak up and be an ‘upstander’. Doing so is counter-cultural – and as social animals, human beings are programmed to ‘fit in’,” adds May. “Another example would be a lack of open-mindedness, perpetuated culturally by a lack of diversity or on an individual level existing as a behavioural blind-spot. This can manifest in dogmatic management and flawed judgements, as well as a propensity to exclude the voices of those who are seen as different.”
Language learning technology company Babbel has recently launched a new set of DE&I guidelines in close collaboration with a cross-functional team of 20 colleagues. The end result is a 150-page ‘living’ document that supports managers on guiding principles and how they can embody them. The company also revamped onboarding materials, created a new role of senior organisational culture manager for DE&I and introduced listening sessions. “The introduction of DE&I guidelines across teams marks a key milestone in our pursuit of fair practices and the adoption of a mindset that fosters and promotes diversity and inclusion internally,” says Stephanie Wright, head of learning content and didactics. “The guidelines offer Babbel much more context and clarity on a wealth of topics. They help us scale up and also refine our impact.”
The principles guide how the company develops and curates content for language learners. Babbel has already applied these guidelines to a new product, the Voice Talent Database survey, which invites people to either share their personal story or answer questions about their unique identity. “Content creators are then able to write storylines and characters based on the talent that will voice them, rather than choosing a voice talent based on a predetermined storyline, thus creating a more diverse set of voices and stories. This is not common practice in the voice acting business and is a precedent-setting step towards creating better representation, especially for underrepresented groups, within our in-app audio content,” she explains.
Supporting managers in practical ways can accelerate progress, and May advocates looking at processes to see if they impede progress in D&I. For example, if managers are constantly having to sign off inclusion-focused activities, what does that say about trust and autonomy in an organisation? “A belonging culture relies on the stripping out of unnecessary and restrictive bureaucracy. Corporate practice that has emerged over the past few decades perpetuates homogeneity, dilutes talent and hinders inclusion. Belonging cultures, where everyone is included, put the human experience at the heart of the organisation and leadership,” she says.
Doing this will be crucial if managers want to retain key talent in a tight labour market, adds Judith Feuchtwanger, HR director at benefits platform Perkbox. “Employers must be able to offer the best possible employee value proposition and ensure their workplace is an attractive place to work. The foundation of this is ensuring employees feel that they can bring their full selves to work,” she says. “Managers need to nurture an environment where their employees feel they can bring their authentic selves to work in the knowledge that they will be included and comfortable. Anyone having to work hard to keep their identity hidden will be unable to give 100%, given the energy required pretending to be someone they are not.”
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d&i Leaders is a global community of senior diversity, inclusion and HR focused professionals, looking to collaborate, network and accelerate their workplace inclusion strategy.