Middle managers are the linchpin between the strategies of the CEO and top executives, and the delivery of organizational change. Yet McKinsey research shows that while most CEOs support increased gender parity, only 13% of middle managers do: without middle management buy-in, inclusion and diversity change programs are unlikely to succeed.

The promise of diversity in teams is an innovation dividend that comes from new and diverse information, increased integration of different ideas, increased error detection, and better group problem solving. What’s not to like? If you’re a middle manager how can you achieve this dividend? What are the practices you can change or add to your repertoire that will help?

The critical first step for the middle manager is to establish psychological safety in his or her team. Interestingly, recent research at Google highlighted psychological safety as the most important of five key dynamics that set successful teams apart from the rest. And they weren’t focused on diversity, but performance.

Why is it so important? Psychological safety increases open self-expression, creates greater satisfaction, a stronger social fabric and increases trust within a team. In male-dominated teams, power imbalances undermine women’s feelings of psychological safety. The ability to participate is not equal. Many women (and other ‘minorities’) therefore feel unable to fully and freely express themselves.

What’s going on? Identity threat. This is the fear of being judged and treated unfairly, based on gender. Women may lower their performance expectations so that they fall in line with stereotypical expectations. ‘I’m not meant to be a leader, therefore I’m not good at leading’. Negative thoughts about capabilities cause performance anxiety. Attempts to counteract negative messages involves significant cognitive power, which is then not available for the task. Even more vexing, this may be conscious or it may be unconscious. Performance reduces, and the negative loop is perpetuated.

How can the manager establish and manage psychological safety? The manager’s role is to pay attention to the safety of team members and to actively create and maintain the conditions that minimize identity threat, providing security. Actively setting up norms for the team, encouraging people to share information about themselves, encouraging the expression of diverse interests and needs, all help to establish safety.

Coupled with this is the expression of ‘diversity perspective’ which is the explicit acknowledgement that diversity makes a positive contribution, that individuals’ foundational identities shape life experience and have relevance for work. A diversity perspective welcomes diversity as a sustaining factor that leads to new ideas. The manager names and relies on diversity in the team to contribute to team functioning and performance, and advocates its importance to the team’s work.

The greater the attention paid to psychological safety, the more likely diverse members are to feel identity safety and to feel congruent – ‘I am seen by other group members in the same way that I see myself: the things that I believe about myself, that I hold central to who I am, can be expressed in the group’. Greater personal congruence increases personal disclosure. Increased personal disclosure makes the team dynamic more constructive. The more constructive the team dynamic, the greater its effectiveness.

Three key questions for middle managers:

  • Is identity threat a possibility in your team?
  • What do you do to manage team psychological safety?
  • What might you do/encourage others to do to increase safety in your team?
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