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Middle Managers Are the Missing Key to DEI Success

A new Catalyst report finds that “the overwhelming majority of men (86%) say they are personally committed to interrupting sexist behaviors when they see them in the workplace, but only 31% feel confident they can do so. Men want to be part of the solution. Yet they also sense that the costs of doing so at work are high, and this perception may conflict with their personal drive and intentions to interrupt sexism at work. As more and more companies strive to build inclusive work cultures, this finding is especially concerning.”

These data illustrate that those from the dominant group often have the motivation, yet they lack the skills necessary to drive inclusion. Given that half of managers are from the dominant group, there is a growing disconnect between leaders and the front lines where historically marginalized groups are overrepresented.

Why the Disconnect?

In an era of cancel culture there is a fear of saying or doing the wrong thing that often leads to inaction. The dominant group could fear feeling less relevant, could be concerned about the reputation risk involved in speaking up and could have a zero-sum-game mentality (one person or group wins and one loses).

Sandra Quince, CEO of Paradigm for Parity, explained in an interview that “diversity is the next dirty word. What people don’t get is that DEI is not a replacement strategy. The goal of DEI is for everyone to feel valued. This is especially true for women and marginalized groups.

"We must focus on managers in organizations as they have the most impact on creating a place where women and others of all races and backgrounds can advance and be retained in leadership," she continued. "Many managers are promoted because of their individual work performance, but as they continue to ascend in their careers, [their] companies need to be supportive and invest in the development of their inclusive-leadership skills.”

Quince recommends that organizations focus on middle management to achieve real inclusion, as middle managers represent much of the employee experience. She notes, “Organizations need to have a DEI index for each leader, leveraging the tools they already have, such as engagement surveys, and hold leaders accountable for their results.”

She recommends finding the middle managers who are doing well and building prototypes around key skills to teach others inclusive-leadership skills. In her research, she has found baseline inclusive-leadership skills of:

  1. Trustworthiness
  2. Transparency
  3. Investing in the team
  4. Time for courageous conversations

Research further shows that one-time unconscious bias training is ineffective and can often cause backlash, doing more harm than good. This is the pushback a lot of organizations are experiencing because addressing bias feels separate from leadership. Rather than a separate skill, unconscious-bias training needs to wrap around the skills of inclusive leadership: trustworthiness, transparency, investing in the team and time for courageous conversations.


The first tenet of inclusive leadership centers on trust. Without trust, inclusion does not work. Humans do not stay in places where they don’t feel trusted. Trust starts within. Self-trust is an important skill that inclusive leaders develop even if they start from a place of low trust at the beginning of their journey. Trust is like a rope: the more positive experiences you have, the stronger it gets. Yet, one negative experience can, unfortunately, destroy it altogether.


Transparency is a staple of inclusion. When leaders are honest and they openly and candidly share the information they are privy to share, it unlocks trust. When leaders fear saying or doing the wrong thing, or skirt around issues of conflict, this can create an unsafe work environment where people don't feel they can be honest because the leaders are not honest with them.

Investing in the Team

Investments aren't just monetary; they're also based on time and resources. Leaders signal what’s important by how and where they spend their time. That means investing time in diversity-and-inclusion activities like Employee Resource Group (ERG) programs, and mentoring and sponsoring people from diverse backgrounds.

Time for Conversations

Talking about inclusion opens candid conversations on issues of race, gender, LGBTQ+, disability and more. People carry deep beliefs associated with dimensions of diversity based on their lived experiences and stereotypes. Rather than avoid these courageous opportunities, inclusive leaders see it as an opportunity to build more trust. When leaders talk openly about hard issues it teaches the team that it’s safe to talk about these issues in the future, as long as there is mutual respect.

The disconnect between middle management and the front lines in achieving diversity and inclusion stems from a combination of motivation without corresponding skills; fear of repercussions; a shifting perception of diversity-related terms; and the need for ongoing, integrated training and development at all levels of leadership. Addressing these challenges requires a holistic approach that fosters inclusive-leadership skills and a commitment to building trust and transparent communication within organizations.


This article was written by Julie Kratz from Forbes and was legally licensed through the DiveMarketplace by Industry Dive. Please direct all licensing questions to

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