Skip to content

DEI Implementation Tips for Middle Managers

IDEA programs can be well designed, supported by management, and welcomed in principle by the workforce, but they may still face problems. Corporations experience a higher than 70% failure rate in all organizational-change initiatives, including their DEI initiatives. The trouble with implementation is responsible for a large part of this high failure rate. A recent article[1] in the Harvard Business Review examines the tensions middle managers may face as they navigate implementation. The authors assert that problems arise from two fundamental tensions; between autonomy and control and between short-term and long-term concerns. Middle managers are on the front lines as DEI programs roll out, yet they are typically not included in planning and design. The authors offer helpful advice on avoiding these pitfalls.

Autonomy versus Control Tension

A sense of autonomy is a “core psychological need,” but research has shown that limiting managerial discretion reduces bias in decision-making. For example, blind interviews or pre-selected questions can provide a more fair playing field. However, when managers have traditionally run interviews with little oversight, this can feel disempowering, creating tension between autonomy and control. To address this tension, the authors suggest senior management take the following steps:

  • Connect the big picture to the implementation. Managers are more effective and more likely to “buy in” when the “why” and the “how” are linked.
  • Explain that limiting discretion is in the manager’s interest because it reduces the chance of bias and consumes less time.
    Give training on dealing with DEI challenges and ensure that there are resources, including forums, where issues can be examined.

Short-Term versus Long-Term Tension

Typically, business strategy has a short-term focus, with rewards based on short-term results. DEI Implementation, however, often runs on a longer timeline and focusing on the short-term yields a false picture of progress toward the goal. For example, diversity positively affects long-term innovation, but in the short-term, diverse teams may encounter increased discord as members from different backgrounds get used to working together. Realizing innovation improvement may take some time.

The authors recommend the following to ease time-horizon issues:

 Hold “premortem” sessions with middle managers to deal with foreseeable competing priorities and reasons the initiative might fail.

  • Emphasize the link between short-term efforts and long-term outcomes. Add metrics to track effort and progress, which can be used to recognize and reward middle managers who successfully implement the program. Such strategies maintain awareness of long-term goals but provide short-term incentives (remuneration and promotion) that encourage buy-in by middle management.
  • Encourage long-term mindsets throughout the organization. Too often, organizations have looked to boost their diversity numbers in response to stakeholder criticisms. This approach may give the appearance of short-term progress, but it does little to affect equity and inclusion in the workplace and may alienate some employees. Changing the culture of a workplace takes time.

Middle managers are vital in implementing a DEI program; even the best-designed programs can fail if the implementation falls short. Providing support to middle managers by addressing autonomy versus control and short-term versus long-term tension will make the program more effective. Companies that achieve their DEI goals have increased employee engagement, higher rates of innovation and higher gross and net incomes; enrolling middle management in the program eases implementation and improves the chance of systemic change in workplace culture.
[1]Gorbatai, A., Boros, S., & Ullman, K. (2022, October 19). Why middle managers struggle to implement DEI strategies. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved November 24, 2022, from