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Leaders Aren’t Great at Judging How Inclusive They Areby Zenger Folkman October 6, 2017

Many organizations today are making concerted efforts to become not only more demographically diverse but also more inclusive and welcoming of difference. The latter is much harder to measure than the former. It’s not that hard to count the percentage of women or people of color in your organization, but how can you tell if leaders in your organization are genuinely welcoming? Do leaders know if they are as welcoming as they think they are?

To explore this question, we analyzed one large organization with an excellent track record of hiring and promoting diverse candidates and a reputation for inclusion. This organization had hired us to administer 360-degree feedback assessments for roughly 4,000 leaders, and agreed to let us use that data for this analysis.

Leaders Aren’t Great Judges of Their Own Inclusiveness

We focused on two items that have stood out to us in over 10 years of administering 360-degree assessments with over 1.5 million raters describing 122,000 leaders:

  • “Takes initiative to support and include people of different backgrounds and perspectives”
  • “Actively builds a climate of trust, appreciation, and openness to differences in thoughts, styles and backgrounds”

When we compared leaders’ self-ratings with their ratings by bosses, peers, and subordinates, what we found was that many leaders assume they are better at valuing diversity than they actually are.

The graph below shows the senior leaders’ self-ratings and their ratings by direct reports.

What is clear in this graph is that leaders who are the worst at valuing diversity are more likely to overrate their effectiveness, and leaders who are the most effective tend to underrate their effectiveness. The implications of this data are: leaders are not good judges of their own effectiveness on valuing diversity; and those leaders who are poorest fail to see the problem, while those who are the best don’t realize their skill and capability.

This phenomenon is not limited to inclusiveness — the Dunning-Kruger effect, for example, explains that unskilled people are particularly prone to thinking they are more skilled than they are. Conversely, our research has found that many of the most skilled leaders are too humble and modest in assessing their strengths.

Nonetheless, we find this result particularly disturbing when we see it in the context of inclusivity. While a person’s effectiveness with any skill always needs to be based on the evaluations of others, rather than self-perception, it seems especially true in this case. Inclusivity is particularly in the eye of the beholder. You might intend to be inclusive, and even think you are inclusive, but your impact on others might be very different.

Inclusiveness and Effectiveness Track Together

Some leaders might be tempted to brush aside inclusivity as “political correctness” or “touchy-feely stuff.” But those leaders should pay particular attention to our next finding: a strong correlation between perceptions of inclusivity and overall leadership effectiveness.

Leaders who were rated very poorly on valuing diversity and inclusion were rated in only the 15th percentile for their overall leadership effectiveness, while those who were rated in the top 10% of those two items were rated in the 79th percentile.

This result does not surprise us. Repeatedly, we have seen how prejudicial behavior by a senior executive can have an extremely negative impact on the culture of an organization. Leaders who are ineffective at this create significant problems that will haunt them.

Senior Leaders Are More Inclusive

Using demographic data on 1,628 of the leaders, we conducted an analysis to see whether senior leaders or junior managers are seen as more inclusive.

When we compared the executive population of the more senior leaders with middle managers and junior supervisors, we found that the executives and senior leaders were rated significantly higher on their ability to value diversity and practice inclusion.

This might come as a surprise to some — senior executives are often assumed to be older, stodgier, and less innovative than younger, more junior leaders — but it did not surprise us. In many of our other studies, we have found that senior executives have accumulated more leadership and managerial skill than junior managers. Since inclusivity is closely associated with overall effectiveness in our results, it does not surprise us to learn that the more experienced, higher-ranking leaders are more competent on both. Moreover, it’s worth remembering that this is an organization that explicitly values diversity and inclusion, so it’s not surprising that it would promote people who are skilled at fostering both.

When we looked at senior leaders and lower-level managers by gender, we found that women were slightly more inclusive than men, but these differences were not statistically significant.

Valuing diversity is an attitude and mindset. Practicing inclusion involves a set of behaviors that can be developed in leaders. Our research has shown that self-perceptions in this arena are not highly accurate. While it could be argued that individual leaders may best know what’s in their hearts, others are in a far better position to objectively evaluate whether and how they practice inclusion in their day-to-day work.

 

This article was originally published on Harvard Business Review.

 


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