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Racial Inclusivity: The Role of Managers and Leaders

Welcome to lesson 5 of How to Build Racial Inclusivity in Your Workplace. In this lesson, we'll explore the role of managers and leaders in building racial inclusivity.

The management profession has evolved significantly over time. From the harsh taskmasters of the 19th century – bullying their staff in working conditions that'd be considered illegal today, to modern 21st-century managers who are increasingly interested in wellbeing, social responsibility, and inclusivity alongside their more traditional corporate objectives such as achieving project milestones or sales targets. There's far more fertile ground for being an inclusive manager and leader today than there's ever been before, which presents a valuable and rewarding opportunity to those in management and leadership to positively influence the organisation around them towards greater inclusivity – including for ethnic minority workers.

Let's start by looking at the role of leaders. The evidence suggests that inclusive leaders are good for organisational performance. Research by Deloitte in 2018 shows that teams with inclusive leaders are 17% more likely to report that they're high-performing, 20% more likely to say they make high-quality decisions, and 29% more likely to report behaving collaboratively. Furthermore, the research shows that a 10% improvement in perceptions of inclusion increases attendance by almost one day per year per employee – thereby reducing the cost of absenteeism. So being an inclusive leader has practical benefits to the entire organisation – not just for minority employees.

The same research identified six key traits exhibited by inclusive leaders.

  • Number one was a visible commitment to diversity – holding others to account and making diversity and inclusion a personal priority.

  • Number two was humility – the ability to admit mistakes and create space for others to contribute.

  • Number three was an awareness of bias – both personal and structural.

  • Number four was a curiosity about others – having an open mind and willingness to listen with empathy.

  • Number five was cultural intelligence, i.e., an understanding of, and the ability to adapt to, other cultures.

  • Number six was effective collaboration – the ability to empower others and foster diversity of thinking.

So the old, heroic style of leadership – making swift and unwavering decisions while never showing weakness is out, and a more empathic style of leadership – listening to others, admitting to mistakes, being humble is in. Leaders can give themselves permission to be imperfect and to work with a wide range of stakeholders, including the affinity groups we explored in lesson 4 to deliver racial inclusivity.

What about middle managers? How can they support racial inclusivity? Research by Wharton People Analytics and Diversity Inc recommends three actions that middle managers can take. The first recommendation is for middle managers to support their direct reports in finding suitable mentors or sponsors within the organisation. This can increase the individual's sense of belonging – which the same research shows leads to a 56% increase in job performance as well as help the individual's career progression. The second recommendation is for middle managers to build an active relationship with their direct reports – especially those from minority groups. This can be through regular check-ins that are centred on open and honest conversation, sharing personal stories about career paths, and demonstrating enthusiasm and involvement in inclusivity initiatives. The third recommendation is that middle managers take ownership of inclusivity policy. This can include proactively communicating policy and guidance to their team and linking it to the team and departmental objectives, or actively encouraging team members to get involved with inclusivity initiatives such as training courses or affinity groups.

We've covered the role and senior leaders and middle managers separately, but how can senior leaders support middle managers in delivering a racially inclusive workplace? As Jonathan Byrnes from MIT once said – "Regardless of what high-potential initiative the CEO chooses for the company, the middle management team's performance will determine whether it is a success or a failure." Going back to the research by Deloitte, there are five options senior leaders can use. The first option is the use of storytelling to elicit an emotional engagement with inclusivity initiatives. Affinity groups can be a source of stories that can cut through rationalised resistance. The second option is directly addressing myths and misconceptions, such as the misconception that inclusivity initiatives are divisive or lead to unfair penalisation of those in majority groups such as white men. The third option is to engage in open, honest, and non-judgemental dialogue with middle managers so that they can express any anxieties or concerns they may have and have those concerns answered or alleviated. The fourth option is to expose middle managers to powerful new experiences – such as working in a diverse and high-performing team or experiences that put them in a minority position – so that they can see the organisation through a minority lens. The fifth option is to make tough decisions to ensure that the organisation's inclusivity policy and values are upheld by all middle managers. It's up to leaders to make clear which behaviours and attitudes are acceptable and which are unacceptable.

To recap – inclusive leaders are good for organisational performance. The six key traits of inclusive leaders are a visible commitment to inclusion, humility, awareness of bias, curiosity about others, cultural intelligence, and effective collaboration. Middle managers can help their direct reports find suitable mentors, build active relationships with their direct reports and take ownership of inclusivity initiatives. Leaders can engage middle managers by using storytelling, addressing misconceptions, exposing managers to powerful new experiences, engaging in open and honest dialogue, and making any tough decisions necessary to uphold inclusive values.

In the next lesson, we will explore the role of organisational culture in racial inclusivity. Thank you for listening, and I'll speak to you again in lesson 6.

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Written by

Andrew Sivanesan