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How are middle managers falling down most often on employee inclusion?

Companies are struggling to retain employees from underrepresented groups, many of whom don't feel heard in the workplace. What do managers need to do to build truly inclusive teams? asks James Heskett

Published: Aug 17, 2023 11:01:03 AM IST
Updated: Aug 17, 2023 11:11:10 AM IST

Team members with diverse backgrounds, especially in creative types of work, have been shown to deliver better ideas and bottom-line results than those in less diverse teams
Image: Shutterstock  Team members with diverse backgrounds, especially in creative types of work, have been shown to deliver better ideas and bottom-line results than those in less diverse teams Image: Shutterstock

Search “inclusion” on Amazon and the majority of book entries that come up are for children. Is that an indicator of the current state of management art on the subject?

Fortunately, there is a growing body of research on the related subjects of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI)—the holy trinity of organizational development at present. Team members with diverse backgrounds, especially in creative types of work, have been shown to deliver better ideas and bottom-line results than those in less diverse teams once the initial friction from diversity is overcome.  

Whether based largely on conviction or the acceptance of research on the business value of a diverse workforce, diversity has become a goal—and the most frequently measured of the trinity—common to many organizations. In many cases, it’s an elusive goal. Organizations know how to hire people with diverse backgrounds; they don’t seem to be doing a very good job of retaining them. As a result, with Coca-Cola several years ago being a high-profile example, diversity goals are met in the short term, then missed later on. The culprit? The failure to retain those with diverse backgrounds once they are hired.

A number of excuses are given for the failure. At the moment, the favorites are:


  1. The new generation of talent entering the workforce eschews the notion of a single career.
  2. The reliance on policies allowing work away from the office has created new challenges for managers.
A better reason backed by research is that organizations are failing to engage their employees. Why? In large part because those employees feel that their talent isn’t being fully employed, that their views aren’t heard when it comes to important decisions.

Also read: 5 barriers to diversity and inclusion

Research tells us that employee engagement, retention, and ultimately diversity result in large part from the trust of one’s immediate leader, inclusion, and “voice,” the ability to make one’s opinions heard. This prompts the question: Do we have DEI backwards? Perhaps it should start with inclusion and end with diversity or at least give both equal billing.

From this, we have to conclude that those primarily determining diversity aren’t occupying jobs in human resources. Instead, they are department managers and team leaders on the front line who are responsible for inclusion. But how much attention is being given to the development of their skillset for building the psychological safety, “voice,” and trust underlying employee engagement, retention, and ultimately diversity?

Amy Edmondson, in her acclaimed work on these matters, has an interesting comment buried near the back of her book. She says, “Although I’ve been studying psychological safety for more than 20 years, it’s only recently that I’ve been asked to consider its relationship to diversity, inclusion, and belonging at work.” She reminds us: “A recent tidal wave of harassment claims highlights the costs of failing to create a psychologically safe workplace for women.” May it also suggest that middle managers remain woefully unprepared to foster inclusion—and therefore diversity—in their organizations?

Do middle managers need more training on inclusion? On what aspects of the skillset?

This article was provided with permission from <a href="http://hbswk.hbs.edu/" target="_blank">Harvard Business School Working Knowledge.</a>