Simply changing your approach can help turn critics into champions


By Robin Pedrelli

Robin Pedrelli, Vision Spring

Robin Pedrelli, Vision Spring

Organizations have struggled with the concept of middle manager engagement since middle managers became part of the picture. And this phenomenon is not reserved for Diversity and Inclusion practitioners alone. Too often, organizations forget the simple things when it comes to middle managers—like respecting their knowledge and ideas, and capitalizing on their potential. When organizations begin treating their middle managers like leaders, like the life blood of the organization, it will be a whole lot easier to engage them.

If you work for an organization that can boast high middle manager engagement, then your job is that much easier. But if engagement is a problem for your middle managers across the board, consider this a tremendous opportunity. This is your chance to win their hearts and minds. Think about the potential that comes with being one of the only leaders in the organization who values and solicits their input. This simple gesture will not only solve your engagement problem, but will also provide you with information that will enhance your strategic effectiveness.

The key to engaging middle managers is involving them throughout the process. Nobody—not middle managers, senior leaders or front line workers—wants to be mandated to do anything, particularly if there is a lack of understanding regarding the rationale behind the mandate. One of my sons wouldn’t eat anything. And dinners had become a bit stressful, with me demanding he eat what’s on his plate and he flat out refusing. When I started engaging him in the process of choosing meals and creating our shopping list, things improved considerably. If he’s involved in the actual preparation and cooking of the meal, he eats with zeal and tries to convince his brothers to do the same. I share this story because it brilliantly illustrates my point—involve your managers throughout the process and you’ll produce champions, not roadblocks.

We can all state the business case for diversity—access to talent, employee engagement, the exchange of fresh ideas, innovation, entry to new growth markets, and so on. If you truly believe the business case for diversity, your middle managers should be the easiest contingent to win over. Who understands the marketplace and workplace better than your middle managers? They are most affected by talent shortages, and the lack of employee engagement and productivity. They are most connected with the marketplace, and are closest to P&L goals.

The problem is our approach. Middle manager engagement is where your D&I strategy should begin, not end. Don’t inform them about your strategy and mandate their participation in diversity efforts. Instead, begin your engagement process by deepening your understanding of the business and what your middle managers know. Where are they or the organization struggling and why? Are there talent shortages in certain departments or skill areas? Where do your middle managers see the most opportunity for growth? Are there pressures to cut costs, and how do your managers feel about that? Are there areas where process improvements can support bottom line performance? What does employee engagement look like, and are there disparities in engagement among employee groups? How is this affecting their ability to meet their goals? A few simple questions focused on their jobs, not yours, can be instrumental in the engagement process.

This knowledge mining exercise can be accomplished in a few different ways. Consider hosting lunch-and-learns with small groups of managers—make sure they understand that the learning is on your end, not theirs. If you have the support of your senior leaders, ask to be included in upcoming management meetings and make sure you have adequate time on the agenda to accomplish your goals. Host your own management meeting, where all managers are invited and the main agenda item is learning about the business.

Once you’ve taken the time to learn what they know, you’ve earned the opportunity to share what you know. Educate them about how a diversity strategy can impact the organization’s success. Tell them about Diversity and Inclusion resources already in place that can support their goals and help meet their challenges. Talk about your employee resource groups and your strategic relationships, and what kind of access those relationships provide. It is critical at this stage of the process that you don’t tell them how, just what.

Now, involve your managers in the strategic process. Engage in a brainstorming session where all middle managers are invited to come up with ideas that drive the Diversity and Inclusion strategy. How can D&I leverage existing tools and resources, and expand on those tools and resources to support the goals of the business. Your middle managers can help inform decisions regarding the kinds of training and resources needed to help them better leverage diversity. Ask them how the office of D&I can help them become more inclusive managers and leaders, and more effectively engage all their employees. Ask how they might use employee resource groups in support of very specific business challenges or opportunities, and for leveraging the D&I relationship to help meet specific pipeline development goals. Ask how they want to support and engage in these efforts.

And finally, share your Diversity and Inclusion strategy with your managers. Not all of the components of the strategy are going to be driven by middle managers, but make sure their voices are heard. They will be much more vested in the success of the strategy if they helped craft it. Consider your managers part of the solution rather than part of the problem. Think of your middle managers as your greatest champions, not your toughest roadblocks