How Frontline Managers Practice Diversity Management

Executive Summary

For over 30 years, organizations have engaged in programs to address the growing presence of diverse populations in their ranks and researchers have attempted to identify and quantify a link between diversity and enterprise performance. There remains a gap in the understanding of how organizations get benefit from increased diversity and the role of frontline managers (who must balance managing diversity with improving performance at the team level) in that process. The original conceptualization of diversity management was in response to the growing diversity in the workplace and was intended to develop the capacity to manage the resulting diversity mix. The Diversity Coach recently conducted a study to gain insights from frontline managers about how they are navigating through the challenges of increased diversity and using that diversity to enhance their ability to produce high performance outcomes. We interviewed frontline managers from a variety of industry sectors using a semi-structured conversational interviewing protocol to get their insights. The analysis of their responses revealed patterns of thought and behaviors relating to managing individuals, managing the complexity of diversity, and managing diverse teams for high performance. The findings indicated that a common definition of diversity management is possible, that managing diversity requires a competence with all dimensions of diversity, and that there are a set of management skills that can yield better performance with teams of diverse composition. These insights can have positive impact on theory, practice, and general social acceptance of diversity

Introduction:

In the last few decades, few countries have been left untouched by the rapid diversification of the modern workplace. As a result of increasing workforce diversity, companies are faced with a fundamental concern with how to balance increasing levels of diversity with the need to maintain and increase firm performance. Workforce diversity and the question of how to manage diverse groups have become increasingly important. The problem of managing today’s diverse workforce, however, does not stem from the diversity of the workforce itself but from the inability of corporate managers to fully comprehend its dynamics, divest themselves of their personal prejudicial attitudes, and creatively manage the potential benefit of a diverse workforce. Today’s employees are more likely than ever before to work with people with different backgrounds. However, the research has not kept up with the need for tools and processes to manage the increasing levels of diversity in the workplace. The subject of this research was diversity management. Diversity management is distinguished from other forms of diversity study by the intent to affect business performance. The original conception of diversity management suggested by Dr. Roosevelt Thomas indicated the presence of a diversity-performance link, which is often referenced in the literature. Since then, other forms of diversity study have been added to the field. These other diversity –related topics involve social, psychological, cultural, and political issues and may or may not be relevant to improving business performance. Compared to diversity management, it must be stated that, “Inclusion is not a strategy.”

This study was designed to return to the original conception and explore if managers can realize better business results at the team level using diversity management as a management discipline. To explore the possibilities for business performance, I also examined elements of team performance and management skills.
Key Findings
We asked the managers who participated in this research, “What are your perceptions and lived experiences related to your role in executing diversity management programs? The managers offered a wide range of perceptions and experiences, which converged on a set of behaviors, principles, and attitudes that allowed them to be effective as managers of diverse teams and which could be a guide for other managers of diverse teams. Among the insights they offered was a shared belief that the role of manager was a key factor for being effective with diversity management. Each of the managers believed that management was a talent, which explained why they were chosen for the role and why they accepted the role. Their insights were based on first-hand experience and practice rather than theory and they illustrated the wisdom that comes with direct involvement with a diverse team. Their shared experiences in the role as managers of diverse teams revealed some insights that could serve as a basis for the standardized practice of diversity management. They suggested that (a) the primary focus has to be on getting better results for the enterprise, (b) each individual on the team must be managed differently, (c) the advent of a different diversity mix requires a different management response, (d) diversity on teams introduces new dynamics and new management challenges, and (e) the benefit of managing those challenges is the potential for better team performance.The key insights were:
It’s A General Competency.
The managers in my study disconfirmed the notion highlighted by McMahon (2010) that limited exploration of specific dimensions of diversity is the path to success in the field. They indicated that while specific dimensions of diversity (race, gender, personality type, age, etc.) are relevant on a case-by-case basis, it is a general competence with diversity that helps them manage the daily manifestations of diversity on their teams.
A Common Language.
The original conceptualization of diversity management defined it as a practice designed to leverage differences in order to support organizational goals. The majority of the managers in my study (11 of 12) indicated that what they do as managers of diverse teams conforms to that definition.
It’s About Business Performance.
I deliberately planned my research to focus on management, diversity, and teams in order to direct attention away from the social aspects of diversity and more on the benefits of diversity for enterprise management and team performance.
It’s About Managing People.
My research revealed that the advent of increased diversity in the workplace brought with it additional management challenges.
It’s An Inevitable Reality.
The second major theme that arose in my research, perceptions of managing diversity, addressed the growing reality that employees are increasingly diverse in a broad sense and that many organizations are investing in diversity management efforts. From their frontline positions, the managers identified a perspective on diversity management that keyed in on a common definition as well as a realistic assessment of the pluses and minuses of having more diversity on the teams
It’s About Skills.
The third major theme, perceptions of managing teams, addressed the process of managing a diverse team in order to get high performance and better results. The comments by the managers brought perspective to the behaviors of effective team managers and to ways to get value from diverse teams. Being an effective manager of diverse teams begins with foundational skills at managing teams for performance.
It’s Not Personal.
The advent of increased diversity may be difficult for some people to adjust to. It becomes necessary for the manager to be a role model at responding positively to diversity.
Emphasis on Management Over Leadership.
Finally, the managers in this study concluded that good management (more than leadership) is the key to getting benefit from a diverse team.
Overview
The study of diversity, diversity management, cognitive diversity, inclusion, or cultural diversity is more than an academic exercise. There are millions of practitioners (managers, leaders, and team members) who need the benefit of scholarly inquiry into what has been called the most complex human resource challenge of the 21st century (Heitner, Kahn, & Sherman, 2013). For more than 20 years, researchers have been attempting to confirm the relationship between diversity and performance (Kochan et al., 2003). The results have been mixed. There has yet to be consistent, replicable, and sustainable evidence in the scholarly literature that supports the relationship, which leaves managers and leaders in the field uncertain about the efficacy of diversity management as a management skill or organizational strategy (Thomas, 2011). Researchers have studied diversity topics with a detached attitude and the academic literature that has been produced is hard for practitioners to understand (Guillaume, Dawson, Woods, Sacramento, & West, 2013). As a result, organizations and frontline managers have not realized the benefit and competitive advantage they may have expected from diversity management (Thomas, 2006). Sabharwal (2014) noted that most researchers working in the area of diversity, cognition, and performance are aware of the contradictory findings of prior studies (diversity both improves and impairs performance), which puts many organizations in the bind of balancing seemingly incompatible goals of increasing diversity and maximizing performance (Newman & Lyon, 2009). Field managers and executives have a limited view of the impact of diversity in their organizations (Kravitz, 2010).
Workforce diversity is not a transient or static concept (Barak, 2017). A better understanding of the impact of diversity management on organizational performance would help managers in developing the models, tools, assessments, and management principles that will make diversity management a mainstay of modern management practice. Without such tools, managers will be unable to understand or identify the constructive business benefits of diversity (Shen, Chanda, D’Netto, & Monga, 2009). I performed qualitative phenomenological research to explore several aspects of the real world experience of managing team performance with a diverse and multicultural population of employees. The goal was to identify practical insights from working managers, previously lacking in the scholarly research that may lead to diversity management becoming a practical strategy and skillset. My approach to this research was informed and influenced by a report by the Diversity Research Network who operated under the auspices of the Business Opportunities for Leadership Diversity (BOLD) initiative (Kochan et al., 2003). The report of the Diversity Research Network raised the profile of the diversityperformance link and recommended (with implications for management) how the diversity-performance link could be realized and strengthened (Kochan et al.). My study drew on the actions suggested by those implications, which a review of the literature revealed to be sorely missing in both the academic and practical literature. Some of those actions are:
Modify the business case. There is still no sustainable evidence for the simple assertion that diversity is inevitably either good or bad for business.
Look beyond the business case. Managers should focus on developing the practices and managerial skills to translate diversity into positive organizational, group, and individual results.
• Adopt a more analytical approach. Rather than trust that diversity will yield better (or worse) results, practitioners should examine the conditions that result in diverse teams outperforming or underperforming more homogeneous teams.
• Support experimentation and evaluation. Design and evaluate specific interventions or experiments aimed at creating a positive link between diversity and performance.
• Train for group-process skills. Training programs must help managers develop the leadership and group process skills needed to facilitate constructive conflict and effective communication. The extant scholarly research on diversity is missing a focused approach to discovering how to deliver the benefits of diversity management. The reason for the dearth of research on the business implications of diversity may be the myopic focus on diversity-related inputs and outcomes, rather than diversity management as a process (Carstens & De Kock, 2017). My review of the existing literature revealed that the focus has not been moving in the direction of process. However, the literature does suggest that achieving the objective of learning how to make diversity management a valuable skill will require a common definition, a common construct, a consistent unit of study, and more use of empirical study methods supported by researchers and practitioners alike (Guillaume et al., 2013). My study began that effort.
Study Components
I identified 12 individuals with experience managing diverse teams for the study. They represented 10 distinct industry sectors including technology, professional service, food and beverages, telecommunications, and others. The majority of the participants (10 of 12) resided in the Atlanta area, though most of them had worked in a variety of localities (both nationally and internationally). The participants consisted of 4 males and 8 females. There were six Black and six White participants. Four of the managers were 30-39 years of age, five were ages 40-49, three were ages 50-59, and one was age 60+. Their tenure as managers ranged from 5 years to over 25 years. Prescribed participant demographics appear in Table 1. In addition, I noted that there were five managers of blue-collar (production) teams and seven managers of white-collar (professional) teams. The managers also represented organizations that ranged in size from less than one hundred to over fifty thousand. Overall the mix of participants (see Table 1) met and even exceeded the diversity requirements of the design.

Table 1
Participant Demographics and Diversity Profiles

Participant
Industry
Tenure
Race
Gender
Age Group
C5-101
Transportation
16
Black
Male
50-59
C5-102
Transportation
7
Black
Male
40-49
C5-701
Consumer Products
10
Black
Female
40-49
C5-111
Technology
12
Black
Female
40-49
C5-112
Hospitality
12
White
Male
30-39
C5-141
Professional Services
5
Black
Female
30-39
C5-142
Telecom
20+
White
Female
40-49
C5-151
Consumer Products
25
Black
Female
50-59
C5-152
Food & Beverages
9
White
Male
30-39
C5-161
Non-Profit
15
White
Female
40-49
C5-171
Energy
20
White
Female
60+
C5-181
Multiple
15
White
Female
50-59

In Table 2, I highlight the unique themes, number of participants who commented,on that theme, and the number of unique comments related to that theme representing common elements of the participants’ experiences managing diverse teams.
Table 2 

Themes, participant references, and total comments

Themes
Number Of Participants (N=12)
Number Of Comments (N=104)
Managing People
Principles of managing people
10
17
Characteristics of good managers
11
16
Managing Diversity
Common definition of managing diversity
11
22
Benefits and challenges of diversity
8
12
Managing Teams
Behaviors of effective team managers
11
26
The value of well-managed diversity
8
11
From the 12 transcripts, I reviewed 144 pages of text and highlighted 104 relevant statements or insights. The insights are arranged by the three major themes and six subthemes. The three major themes are, (a) perceptions of managing people, (b) perceptions of managing diversity, and (c) perceptions of managing teams. The six subthemes are arranged under the relevant major theme.

Major Theme 1: Perceptions of Managing People

The first topical theme of this study relates to how frontline managers get the best from each individual contributor on the team. The study participants had a broad range of insights on this topic. I discuss them under the two subthemes: principles of good management (6 examples) and characteristics of good managers (5 examples).

Principles of good management. The participants based their perceptions of good management skills on their experiences with managers they worked for as well as their own experience of managing others. The principles included:

• Get to know them (each worker)
• Give them responsibility
• Give them what they need to perform
• Know yourself
• Learn to listen

Characteristics of effective managers. The managers had definite ideas about what constitutes a good manager of people. They mentioned five traits that are essential in order to perform as people managers. They are:

• Be fair
• Trust
• Go the extra mile
• Coach (ask, don’t tell)
• Have a development plan In addition, the managers acknowledged that the role of people manager is,
• Not for everyone

Major Theme 2: Perceptions of Managing Diversity

The second topical theme of this study relates to how frontline managers navigate he growing diversity in the workplace. The study participants had similar insights on this topic. I will discuss them under the two subthemes: common definition of diversity management (2 examples) and challenges and benefits of diversity (4 examples).

Common definition of managing diversity. The interview protocol included a definition of diversity management, which the participants were invited to consider (accept or reject). The managers were very open in sharing their own perceptions of the topic and offering examples of how their definition supported or did not support the protocol definition. Overall, the managers embraced the definition I offered and gave examples of how it fit with their experience at managing diverse teams. These are their responses. Respond positively to diversity management programs Recognize the many dimensions of diversity

Benefits and challenges of diversity. The managers were practical about the pluses and minuses of diversity. On balance, diversity was a plus for them, but they recognized the importance of acknowledging the challenges that come with diversity.

• Challenges relate to the natural conflict, tension, and discomfort that come with more diversity.
• Benefits accrue from the broader range of perspectives that come with more diversity.

Major Theme 3: Perceptions of Managing Teams

The insights of the participants focused on the concept of managing diverse teams to achieve high performance. Their insights relate to the behaviors of effective managers of diverse teams and the value or benefit of well-managed diversity.

Behaviors of effective team managers. Most of the managers considered themselves effective in getting the best from a diverse team. They offered several ideas that made them effective.
• Prefer diverse teams
• Manage conflict, tension, and discomfort
• Define team
• Be a role model for diversity
• Be open-minded and honest
• Don’t take it personal

The value of well-managed diversity on teams. The managers felt that good management is the key to getting benefit from diversity on teams. They identified the value of diversity when it is managed well. It is easier to manage same-ness, but more diversity yields better outcomes. It is important to seek out diversity to insure access to a wide range of perspectives. Diversity + management =performance (not diversity alone; not management alone).

Interpretation

My study showed that frontline managers are important contributors to the success of diversity management efforts and are the key to getting benefit from the large investments being made on diversity-related activities. The results point to a set of useful factors that managers found relevant for their work in managing diverse teams. The results also indicate that the wisdom obtained from direct involvement with managing diversity should not be overlooked or taken for granted. Organizations can make progress and demonstrate tangible benefits from their diversity management efforts if they would heed the insights shared by these managers.

Significance to Practice

The field of diversity management has been plagued by failure to produce a consistent, replicable set of practices to insure success. In fact, diversity management continues to be a field of study rather than a management discipline because of the lack of a uniform set of practices to be used by everyone who wants to execute against a diversity management strategy. A response by executives who are introduced to diversity management principles has been, “Now what? Tell me what to do.” Diversity management practitioners have been unable to answer that complaint because there is little agreement about definition, desired outcome, or standard practice.
The diversity continuum (response to the advent of increased diversity) describes an evolutionary progression from acknowledging diversity to understanding diversity to valuing diversity to managing diversity. The actual practice in the field seems to be stuck at the valuing diversity level with emphasis on concepts like inclusion and appreciating cultural differences. The original intent of the diversity management movement was to encourage organizations to move to the managing diversity level, which would produce tangible results so powerful that a return to understanding diversity would no longer be necessary. The idea was to produce consistent, replicable, and sustainable evidence that well-managed diversity is a positive asset for modern enterprises. My research sheds light on the practice and benefits of effectively managing diversity for the purpose of improving performance.
The next steps in the conversation about diversity management should focus on developing standardized tools, techniques, and skills that will allow managers to gain traction with diversity management using a disciplined approach to execute it.

Significance to Theory

The field of diversity management has been around for three decades and still does not have a unifying theory or uniform practice. Both researchers and practitioners have been free to present a variety of constructs under the banner of diversity management with no means of checking. The premise of my study was to focus attention on a single unit of study and the set of behaviors that translate into value and benefit from the fact that increasing diversity is a new reality. In the process, this study points to the possibility of a unifying theory that emphasizes the combination of diversity and management practice to produce improved performance (diversity + management = performance). It will take more research using a qualitative approach to amass enough evidence to validate that formula.
Here are the basic components of such a theory. It begins with a set of principles like (a) get to know them (personally), (b) give them what they need to succeed, (c) be fair to each person, (d) know yourself, (e) coach more, tell less, and (f) build trust. In addition, it includes characteristics of effective managers, which included things like, (a) listening. (b) sharing responsibility, (c) working from a development plan, and (d) making sure you like being a manager (it’s not for everyone). Each of these represents an insight to help frontline managers perform better as managers of people, each of whom has unique strengths, weaknesses, needs, and desires.

Significance to Social Change

Diversity in society, like diversity in organizations, must be managed with the intent to demonstrate its inherent value while acknowledging its innate disruption. The focus of managing diversity is to improve performance and to clearly demonstrate added value from increasing diversity. The social engineering approach (diversity for diversity sake) has produced backlash in organizations as well as entrenched tribalism in the larger society. The process of advantaging one group to the disadvantage of another is not a workable solution. The practice of doing things that advantage the entire team is much more palatable. This study helps to overcome the stigma of diversity programs by providing insights and promoting more research that strive to find out what actually works to get value and improved performance from the diversity mix at work and in society, especially in light of the dynamic changes that are occurring specifically with respect to diversity in the nation and the workplace.

Conclusion

Prior research has focused on discrete elements of diversity and has assumed (without evidence) that more diversity contributes to improved performance. It is time to move beyond rhetoric and toward evidence of improved results. My research encourages more emphasis on the specific practices that are necessary to get benefit from the advent of increased diversity. This study focused on a unit of study (the team) and a set of practices (management skills) and a proponent (frontline manager) that have been missing in prior research and prior practice.
The managers in this study identified a set of principles for managing individuals, managing the added complexity of diversity, and managing diverse teams toward high performance. They further indicated that a common definition of diversity management is possible and that my working definition fits with their general experience. The data indicated that (a) a general competence with diversity is more useful than an emphasis on any particular dimension of diversity , (b) diversity brings additional management challenges, which are outweighed by the benefits of a well-managed diverse team, (c) there are a set of management skills required to navigate the tension, conflict, and discomfort that come with increased diversity, and (d) well-managed diversity yields better team performance.
The results point to a new direction for inquiry in the field of diversity management.The new approach focuses on skills and practice rather than awareness; emphasizes management more than leadership; and targets improved performance rather than increased diversity as the desired outcome. The general outline of this study will allow future researchers to continue to collect more data about the experience of managers inside organizations and to develop a body of evidence that can serve as a foundation for theory and a basis for theory testing. My study suggests that the field of diversity management can become a management discipline with a unified theory and a uniform set of practices, which will benefit academics, practitioners, and society.

James O. Rodgers recently earned a Ph.D. from Walden University. He has been called the leading strategist and the #1 thought leader for the concept of diversity management. This paper is a summary of his dissertation entitled, “Frontline Managers’ Perceptions and Lived Experiences in the Execution of Diversity Management Programs”.
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