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Top-down vs. bottom-up: successfully implementing diversity initiatives

Top-down vs. bottom-up: successfully implementing diversity initiatives

By Mary Frances Winters and Linkage Inc (by permission)


1. Introduction

Most diversity initiatives start from the top with the leadership commitment. A high-level strategy is developed, complete with vision, mission and goals. But by the time it gets to the bottom (if it ever makes it!), it is often interpreted very differently.

The intent of top-down approaches is noble, but without an equally effective bottom-up strategy, diversity initiatives invariably get stuck in the middle. In most cases, when a company decides to focus on diversity, the CEO and other top-level executives will incorporate a philosophical message in a variety of company publications and in presentations and reports given both internally and externally. These well-worded communications usually speak to ‘valuing and respecting diversity’, ‘the desire to have an organisation that is representative of the labour force and customer base’, ‘social responsibility, and compliant with the law and anti-discrimination policies’. A wide variety of processes, policies, and strategies are then developed to promote awareness and appreciation of differences, ensure fair treatment, increase representation, and create a culture of inclusion.

2. Basic elements of the top down approach

Some basic elements of the top-down approach include leadership development, training, equal employment and zero tolerance policies, social responsibility initiatives, recruitment and retention programmes, linking diversity to business goals, and culture-change initiatives.

While this approach is a good way for upper-level leaders to visualize and articulate the creation of an inclusive environment within the organisation, the actual implementation of these concepts throughout an organisation is hard work and requires the ability to "see" the workplace from the bottom up. Top-down approaches are often based on "programmes" whereas bottom-up strategies are more process focused.

The vision will not be realized if the plan doesn't ensure that everyone is involved. Top-down only thinking can cause a diversity initiative to be stopped in its tracks, or before it even starts. Starts to work, that is.

By the time the flow of information reaches the lower levels of the company, the message may have changed, the issues may be misunderstood, and what once was a comprehensive stream of goals and strategies may now only be a sea of random thought. Or, it may never get to the bottom at all. And if that happens, the organisation will be cycled back to the beginning stages of planning its diversity model, which will be both costly and time-consuming for everyone involved.

Here are some examples of how top-down messages are interpreted from the bottom up:

# Top-Down Message: Our workforce must represent the labour force and customer base.

>> Bottom-Up Translation: Preferential treatment (quotas) for some groups.

# Top-Down Message: We need to create a culture of inclusiveness

>> Bottom-Up Translation: Including others means some of us who used to be included will now be excluded.

# Top-Down Message: Diversity is good for business.

>> Bottom-Up Translation: Diversity diverts our attention from our main business.

# Top-Down Message: Each of us must examine our biases and stereotypes and work towards valuing and respecting others.

>> Bottom-Up Translation: "There is something wrong with me and I being asked to change my core values, who I am."

# Top-Down Message: We must be a socially responsible organisation.

>> Bottom-Up Translation: "The company is going to waste money on programmes that will take away from profits and my raise."

The resistance on the path from the top to the bottom can be so strong that there is literally a period where everything stops, for maybe even several years and then something happens (usually a problem) and we are called back again to "re-energize" the effort. During the periods of inactivity, employees usually see it as yet "another programme of the month" gone by the wayside!

Using a bottom-up approach in addition to the top-down strategy from the beginning. The bottom-up approach serves to operationalize the high-level strategies throughout the entire organisation.

3. Key features of a bottom-up approach

# Focus on the individual

Recognising that change happens one person at a time and that everyone is different (e.g. have had different experiences), a bottom-up approach develops different learning solutions and strategies to meet individuals where they are. For example, white males often feel excluded from the diversity and inclusion equation. There is a need to understand their issues and concerns.

# Accountability at all levels

Often, accountability is viewed as the responsibility of top management and/or HR. A bottom-up approach puts the onus on every individual to see his/her role in advancing the diversity initiatives. The age old: "What's in it for me?" has to be answered and often top-down approaches provide a punitive rather than opportunistic answer. For example, a zero tolerance policy is sometimes translated from the bottom as: "I better not say anything to someone who is different. I might say the wrong thing and be fired." In a bottom-up approach, a natural work team learning community can facilitate a better understanding of the parameters of zero tolerance for that team. It is an opportunity to learn how to work more effectively with co-workers.

# Community building

There are cultures within cultures in large organisations. Every department has its own unspoken and unwritten rules. One-size implementation will not fit all. Every discrete community in the bottom-up approach is required to "translate" the top-down message and develop its own diversity and inclusion strategies that are consistent with the spirit and intent of the corporation.

Developing the potential of every individual to be a better community citizen is the goal. Weekly one-hour learning sessions which focus on how the group works as a community, listening, learning about each other's similarities and differences can dramatically increase productivity.

# Leaders as teachers

The issues of diversity and inclusion are complex. They are related to many other aspects of business performance including marketing, manufacturing, mergers and acquisitions etc. Consultants are not the answer to getting to a sustained way of life that recognises the power of diversity.

Every leader in the organisation, from the team leader through the CEO, becomes a teacher, both formally and informally in the bottom-up approach. Rather than sending employees off to classes to learn about diversity and inclusion, leaders become the primary teachers not only through their own behaviour (walking the talk) but as thought leaders. A key leadership requirement should be diversity competence. Diversity competent managers are ideally suited to facilitate learning community discussions and promote an inclusive community.

# Ownership

Top-down approaches are seen as "belonging" to the office of the CEO or HR and therefore garner little real investment beyond compliance. Bottom-up approaches are "owned" by the team. Consequently, those most impacted by the company culture, employees at the grass-roots level, will have a say in improving it. Peer influence can be powerful in altering "up close and personal" interactions between co-workers. This also gives the initiative a more voluntary nature, which may foster greater employee participation.

# Direct link to business strategies

In a top down approach, the connections to the business can be abstract and not relevant for everyone. The Winters Group worked with a manufacturing client that was implementing a lean approach. At first employees saw the diversity efforts and the new manufacturing model as competing for their time and resources. We helped them to see the synergy between the two. Lean manufacturing is about involving everyone in eliminating all types of waste. Diversity and inclusion is also about including everyone and not wasting talent through exclusionary practices. The two efforts have been successfully integrated.

Yet, if it's used alone, the bottom-up approach may have pitfalls similar to top-down. By itself, bottom-up may:

1) Allow top leaders in the organisations to abdicate their roles.

2) Be too tactical with no strategic focus.

3) Lead to a loss of focus if there are no overall metrics.

4) Promote inconsistent application of the corporate philosophy/policy.

5) Lead to an increase in employee complaints if noticeable differences in approach and commitment are evident.

An effective diversity initiative will include an emphasis on both top-down and bottom-up at the same time. Shared leadership models will promote high-impact performance, every leader will have clear responsibility for change and the focus will be tactical and strategic. Ultimately, diversity will become part of the core business strategy.

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Gary Watkins

Gary Watkins

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