Corporate equity, inclusion and belonging (EIB) strategies are more than just buzzwords in today’s corporate environment – they are fundamental to an organization’s success. Nevertheless, the practical implementation of EIB often hits a stalemate in what is commonly referred to as the “frozen middle” — the realm of middle management. However, recent studies (1, 2, 3, 4) point towards pitching middle managers not as barriers, but as champions for a more inclusive work culture. There are challenges facing middle managers and their impact on EIB initiatives. It is important to reframe these challenges as opportunities for middle managers to build new skills and earn more respect in the workplace.
The Struggle of the Middle
Middle managers are usually the norm bearers in any organization, tasked with striking a balance between crucial business operations and employee satisfaction. While top management often sets the direction for EIB initiatives, it is the middle management that shoulders the daunting task of translating these high-level strategies into day-to-day practices. This paradox often thrusts them into a tug-of-war between driving productivity and fostering an environment of acceptance and respect. On the one hand, they are expected to following a set of rules, policies or regulations that may not always align with their values or beliefs. On the other hand, they must also create an environment where employees feel valued, respected and provide a sense of belonging for who they are as individuals.
Middle managers are frequently viewed as beleaguered individuals within their organizations—caught between the expectations of senior leadership, clients, and employees. Middle managers may feel that they are being asked to do too much, which can cause them to become frustrated and disengaged. The fact that middle managers often have little control over the environment in which they work can also contribute to their feelings of powerlessness. Yet, there are many things that middle managers can do to help drive EIB initiatives—and improve the chances of success for those programs.
The Power of the Middle Managers
Middle managers are poised uniquely in an organization’s hierarchy, acting as a crucial link between senior management and the workforce. This exact vantage point is what makes them a formidable force in the effective implementation of DEI. As both influencers of the workforce and advocates for micro-level realities in boardroom discussions, middle managers play a pivotal role in shaping an inclusive culture. Middle managers are positioned to drive workforce inclusion because they:
1. Are the most likely group of employees to have direct contact with both senior leaders and frontline workers.
2. Have a unique perspective on how to bridge the gap between the organization’s values and day-to-day realities.
3. Have an understanding of what drives employee behaviour, which is key for motivating change.
Bridging the DEI Gap
The answer lies not in bypassing the middle but in empowering middle managers to wield their influence and foster an inclusive culture at the ground level. Organizations should consider equipping middle managers with the necessary tools and knowledge to navigate these complexities through training, empowerment, or evolving their role to include EIB as a crucial KPI.
Based on insights from MIT Sloan, the key to breaking the “frozen middle” is providing middle managers with ample support to become catalysts and champions for EIB, thereby bridging the gap between executive leadership’s vision and on-the-ground implementation.
Strategies to Empower Middle Managers:
- Training and Education: Provide middle managers with comprehensive EIB training that builds their understanding, empathy, and ability to address issues. Create opportunities for them to learn and hone the skills required to lead diverse teams effectively.
- Setting Clear Goals: Incorporate EIB metrics into middle managers’ performance evaluations. Make it clear that their responsibilities include cultivating an inclusive work environment and eliminating biases.
- Encouraging Employee Feedback: Establish mechanisms for employees to share their perspectives on EIB initiatives and their experiences within the company. This feedback loop will enable middle managers to better understand the impact of their decisions and identify areas for improvement.
- Support and Mentorship: Senior management should provide support and mentorship to middle managers, guiding them in their EIB journey. This will reinforce the importance of EIB initiatives and create a sense of shared responsibility across leadership levels.
Let’s view middle managers not as a stumbling block, but as a vital driving force in our quest for inclusive growth. By understanding, enabling, and empowering them to effectively implement EIB initiatives, we can create a pervasive inclusive work culture. It is important to recognize that middle managers are the glue of any organization. They are critical in connecting senior leadership with the front line and inspiring employees to be more inclusive. Middle managers can help create an environment where differences are respected and leveraged, rather than seen as a barrier that needs to be overcome.
It’s time we thaw the “frozen middle” and let the linchpin they truly represent shine.