Art: Charter

New research has identified a major hurdle to workplace progress on diversity, equity, and inclusion: managers’ blindness to structural inequities within their own organizations.

“Such resistance may originate from the managerial position itself,” write the authors of the study in the Academy of Management Journal, arguing that as workers assume supervisory responsibilities, they identify more strongly with their workplace, which in turn makes them less attuned to its flaws.

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For insight into how this bias works and its effects, as well as tactics for how to mitigate it, we spoke with study co-author Christopher To, an assistant professor of human resource management at Rutgers University. Here are excerpts of our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity:

Can you explain the psychology behind the pattern your paper identified?

When people think about why managers resist diversity initiatives, they normally point to things like demographics, such as being a white male or ideologically conservative, things like that. That’s absolutely true. At least, that’s what the research suggests. We’re showing that there’s something else on top of that: Managers resist diversity initiatives because, well, they’re managers. They’re motivated to believe that their own workplace contains less inequity.

It comes down to what’s known as motivated reasoning. That’s just a fancy way of saying that we distort information so that we have positive views of our own workplace. Anyone who follows a sports team knows about this. If you’re watching the game, you’ll always see that the referee makes good calls on behalf of your team and bad calls against your team. That’s motivated reasoning.

In this case, managers’ favorite sports team is their own company. They’re motivated to maintain positive views of their own company, because who wants to be responsible for a department or workplace that contains inequity? So what happens is managers, because of this motivated reasoning, are motivated to view their workplace positively, and they see less inequity to begin with. As a result, they’re less likely to support diversity initiatives intended to reduce that inequity.

What are some of the other factors that drive organizational identification?

Power is certainly one reason. Certainly things related to tenure, how long you’ve actually stayed with the company. But usually it has to do with things around culture. How much do they actually enjoy the company? How much do they enjoy being around managers? It’s typical things related to satisfaction. The more satisfied you are with the company, the more likely you are to be identified with them.

We almost always think of organizational identification as a good thing. It leads to better commitment, it leads to more productivity, it leads to better engagement. We want our workers to be identified with the workplace. But there are some downsides—one of them being that you just may become blind to some of the issues within your workplace.

How can employers encourage organizational identification while simultaneously encouraging employees to remain clear-eyed about problem areas?

One solution that both practice and data seems to highlight is really just data, giving data to managers about the potential inequities in their workplace. Let me provide a quick story: Marc Benioff, the CEO of Salesforce, is known to be very ideologically pro-diversity initiatives. But when two of his female executives went up to him and said, ‘Hey, look, we may have some pay discrepancies in our workplace, his initial reaction was just, ‘There’s no way that this is possible.’ What ended up getting him out of that belief was actually seeing the concrete data about pay and inequity within his workplace.

In our paper, we had one study where we took managers and put them into one of two groups. One group, we asked them to just think about a typical day in the office, and in the other group, we asked them to think about times where they saw inequity in the office. And it turns out that managers who were asked to recall inequities ended up allocating much more funding to diversity initiatives. What that suggests is that forcing managers to really confront the inequities in their own workplace on a day-to-day basis, whether it’s these data dashboards or recalling specific examples that can challenge this motivated reasoning, is effective.

How do you prompt that reflection in a way that doesn’t lead to resistance?

Some companies are including equity as part of their data dashboards, where they have things related to pay, potential pay discrepancies, potential performance appraisal differences, potential metrics around leadership opportunities, things like that. That’s certainly the most intuitive one for me.

Another one could be: We ran a study where we told people about the not-here bias, and we asked people to think about how the not-here bias applied to their own workplace. It’s almost like another way of asking them to think about inequities in their own workplace, but it’s a more indirect way of backing into it. You could summarize this not-here bias and then simply just ask people, as part of a training session or as part of a meeting, to really think about how these biases are reflected within their own workplace.

I’ll give you one more. A lot of these ideas are based around the idea that good organizations don’t contain inequity. And maybe one thing we can do is change the narrative around that. It’s not that good organizations don’t contain inequity, because if that’s the case, then managers are motivated to believe that there’s no inequity within their workplace. Instead, maybe you can change what defines a good organization, so that good organizations are the ones that actively acknowledge inequities in their workplace and are taking active steps to combat it. It’s another indirect way of trying to address the issue.

Read a full transcript of our conversation, including the type of data most likely to sway managers and how to adjust DEI training to account for the “not-here bias.”

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