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How to help middle managers promote a diverse and inclusive workplace culture


When developing a diverse, equitable, and inclusive work culture, many organizations mistakenly think they can use the same engagement tools for both senior and middle managers.

But where executives and senior managers are often motivated by market position and competition, middle managers are focused on their team and its performance, according to Stephanie Creary, an assistant professor at The Wharton School who studies identity, diversity, and inclusion at work.

Creary is the co-author of “Improving Workplace Culture Through Evidence-Based Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Practices,” a report that includes recommendations for engaging and motivating middle managers to support a company’s DEI work. She discussed her work at the November MIT Sloan Management Review Work/22 virtual event.

It’s important, Creary said, to get middle managers to understand that DEI work is not a “side hustle,” but just as important as their other job responsibilities.

“When it looks like you can just stop doing it and no one’s going to say anything, then we’re feeding the idea that it’s not important,” she said.

The authors learned that framing diversity, equity, and inclusion as “key to ‘culture change’ is too broad for middle managers,” according to the report. Instead, “inclusion can be positioned as ‘making the mix work well’ within a team, which can have more resonance with middle managers, especially globally,” the authors write.

Creary and her co-authors recommend organizations take specific actions to engage middle managers. Those actions include:

  • Connecting diversity and inclusion practices to business goals.
  • Establishing clear accountability measures for middle managers when evaluating employees.
  • Providing middle managers with online resources for handling diversity-related issues.
  • Inviting middle managers to attend diversity recruitment fairs.
  • Naming middle managers to sponsorship roles of employee resource groups.

If an organization chooses to pair middle managers with DEI strategists to work on engagement, the co-authors suggest the strategists ask questions like:

  • What are your business challenges?
  • How can diversity and inclusion efforts help you with these business challenges?
  • What would you recommend doing differently to make diversity efforts more relevant to your business issues?

The co-authors also suggest organizations consider a performance management and reward system for engaging middle managers. It should include key performance indicators that support diversity and inclusion; an outline of expectations for middle management roles in diversity initiatives; identification of behaviors that demonstrate alignment with diversity initiatives; and rewards for middle managers, for example, a salary increase or bonus, or public praise or award.

At the heart of their report, Creary said, is the belief that if middle managers are not showing a commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion work, “perhaps the issue is we’re not meeting them where they are.”

“What are the specific tactics that they need to become familiar with — and that we need to help them become more comfortable with and competent around — so that they can create team cultures that are inclusive and where people feel like they belong?” she asked.

Read next: How can the life sciences industry be more inclusive?

For more info Meredith Somers News Writer (617) 715-4216