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Why do leaders have stronger feelings of inclusion than employees?

January 6, 2020
By Cathy Gallagher-Louisy

Photo: Getty Images

Senior leaders consistently have a stronger, more positive view of the organization’s dedication to diversity and inclusion, as well as the overall inclusivity of their organization, than their employees. But why?

In the article “Closing the Culture Gap: Linking rhetoric and reality in business transformation,” the authors note “every leadership team — whether its members are willing to admit it or not — is afflicted with some degree of cultural myopia. This is the tendency to see only the team’s own point of view, without fully acknowledging the perspective of others outside the team’s ranks.”

This may be due to several potential factors, including:

  1. Senior leaders are often rewarded with repeated promotions to get where they are, and they have perks and privileges afforded by their rank, which makes them feel valued and included in the organization.
  2. Senior leaders may have access to information about initiatives and strategies that may not be well know by all employees.
  3. Senior leaders often have a strong sense of ownership of the organizational culture and often believe they are doing their best for the organization, while not always aware of the experiences of other employees.
  4. Senior leaders often do not have regular contact with front line employees, and when they do, employees may be reluctant to contradict the senior leader, complain, or speak the truth for fear of reprisal.
  5. Senior leaders may be unaware if there is inconsistency in policy application or management approaches by managers below them in the organization.

In terms of the differences in perceptions of diversity and inclusion between leaders and employees, our research has identified several potential factors:

  1. Diversity identity dimensions. Senior leadership teams are often comprised of people who may not have ever experienced barriers to advancement, exclusion, harassment, or discrimination based on their identity factors (racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, etc.) and may not be aware of the prevalence of such behaviour toward people who are different than them.
  2. Conscious and unconscious bias. Senior leaders may be unaware that they have conscious and unconscious biases. Failure to acknowledge our own biases often correlates to a lack of awareness of the impact of biases on others.
  3. Personal culture alignment. Senior leaders’ personal culture may closely align with the cultural norms of the organization. They may not be aware of how much some people must adapt or “cover” – that is change some aspects of who they are – to be successful in the organization.
  4. Intercultural competence. CCDI’s assessments of leadership teams shows that generally 60 per cent to 75 per cent of senior leaders are operating from a minimization mindset (as assessed by the Intercultural Development Inventory or IDI), meaning they tend to minimize the importance of difference and over-emphasize commonality.

The combination of the factors above may result in senior leaders being unaware of systemic barriers in society and in our organizations and unaware of the experiences of employees in the organization, and therefore they may not be attuned to the impact of systemic barriers nor the need to address them. A combination of these factors may be contributing to a disconnect between senior leaders’ perceptions and employees’ perceptions of the organization.

What are the impacts of this disconnect?

If leaders think the organization is more inclusive than it actually is, or they are not aware of systemic barriers or individual diversity and inclusion issues within their organization – in other words if they do not think that they have a problem – they may not dedicate the appropriate priority and resources to addressing issues or implementing diversity and inclusion initiatives. They may not be “walking the talk”; they may say diversity and inclusion is important but may not be demonstrating that in their day-to-day decision making and behaviours. This can erode trust with employees who are dealing with diversity, equity, and inclusion issues in their workplace.

How to deal with this disconnect

A combination of information sharing, and individual development can help address this inconsistency. It is important to gather information about employees’ perceptions and lived experiences so that senior leaders gain an understanding of what is actually happening in the organization.  Additionally, targeted development on diversity, equity, inclusion, and cultural competence can help leaders understand the issues and improve their capability to address them.  Over time, this has shown to help organizational leaders take real ownership of the issues and demonstrate inclusive leadership.

Cathy Gallagher-Louisy is the senior director of consulting and partnerships at the Canadian Centre for Diversity and Inclusion. For more information, visit https://ccdi.ca/

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