Written by
Wanda Wallace

Published
12 Feb 2016

What can managers can do to create an inclusive culture?

12 Feb 2016 • by Wanda Wallace

In the last few months, I’ve written here about what constitutes an inclusive culture, the differences between diversity and inclusion and the economic benefits of creating an inclusive culture. Most managers ideally want to manage in an inclusive culture and intrinsically understand the value of inclusion. But often, their best intentions are actually counter-productive. Certainly there are several things managers can do to create an inclusive culture.

The more important principal is that managers have to get better at giving actionable feedback to diverse employees –  diverse mindsets, ethnic minorities and women. This is crucial because it’s often the case that these employees are more dependent on manager feedback because many do not have adequate mentors, role models and other supporters in the company. If there is no feedback coming from the manager, there is often very little insight being provided and the individual feels even less valued by the organisation. 

Unpicking behaviour of managers

Often, although managers perform their jobs very well, they receive feedback on stylistic issues that they believe are not relevant to their performance. Or, they find the feedback insulting. One example I have seen many times is the case of a woman being told she is too “aggressive”. For many women that is simply code word for being strong, standing up for what is right or is simply an unfair attack that a man would never endure. In other words, it’s like waiving a red flag in front of a bull. She doesn’t actually understand what it means or have any idea how to fix it. She gets angry and digs her heels in. 

Our original research has shown that women are actually more aggressive than men at work and are less penalised for this behaviour than men. What we mean by aggressive is having to win every argument, every battle. In order to be perceived as a leader and respected by peers, you have to know which battles to fight and which to concede. 

So, instead of a manager telling a woman that she is too aggressive, what he (or she) actually should say is: you need to pick battles more strategically. He needs to give one or two clear examples of how insisting on winning a specific argument cost her elsewhere. He might say something like the following: I want to talk with you about the perception of aggressiveness.

Let me give you an example so you understand what I mean. Yesterday, in the team meeting when we were debating the timeline (the event), you argued with Pat about the timeline you believed was best (the action). The result was that Pat was frustrated and stopped cooperating (the result). Then stop, let her talk. After she begins to see the dynamic, then you can help her identify ways to walk away from a fight and look like the bigger person, winning friends and supporters for down the road. 

How to approach gender & culture differences

A common example I hear from Asian clients is that the feedback they are given – from a Western perspective – is that they need to be more vocal. When a Western manager tells Asian reports that they needs to be more vocal, it goes against every cultural norm they’ve learned. What the Western manager means is speak up, give your opinion, sometimes interrupt or correct another speaker, repeat your opinion and be louder about it. In many Asian cultures, you wait until there is a pause and you give people time to think before jumping in with the next idea. That said, it is true that in order for managers to progress in a global organization, they must be seen to have an opinion and be capable of being heard, so the manager is giving the correct feedback – in the wrong way. 

What the person giving the feedback can do is give better feedback on what it means to be more vocal using specific event, action, result examples. For example, the manager can provide helpful tools such as having the employee call the meeting organizer in advance and say that he/she has a point to make and asking the organiser to call on him/her. 

Giving actionable feedback

Another example is that employees are often told to be “more strategic”. But without understanding what that means, it sounds like an unactionable insult. For instance, one client of mine who is responsible for 10 countries was told by her matrixed manager in New York that she needed to be more strategic. But her direct manager and she knew that actually what she needed to do was what she was doing – being operational. 

What the New York manager meant was that she needed to use the limited time she had with him to discuss things differently. She was going down a checklist of things she had accomplished and asking for his feedback on how she had done those tasks. That made her look tactical not thoughtful about the biggest problems to solve, the ways to approach those problems and how to set up the organisation to be even stronger in the future. What he wanted her to do was take one issue she needed help with and use their call to discuss that in depth. That’s what being strategic looked like to the New York manager.

In all of these examples, there is a recurring theme: managers must get better at giving actionable feedback. Instead of using words that trigger unintended emotions, simply give concrete event, action, result examples to convey what you actually mean. Of course this is true for all feedback for all employees. But for diverse employees to feel included, it’s crucial that they receive actionable feedback. Taking the time to give truly constructive feedback is the first step in showing that you care about the person who works for you. And that is what makes people stay at an organisation.