Research Explores Perceptions of Leaders Promoting Diversity and Inclusion Initiatives

Professor Angelica Leigh found employees give lower ratings to racial minority leaders advocating for the same racial group as the leaders

May 1, 2024
Diversity, Management
Angelica Leigh_Employee Perception of Racial Minority Leaders_Duke University's Fuqua School of Business

When business leaders try to improve the welfare of employees in a minority group, they engage in what social scientists call 'allyship behavior.' But when leaders share the same racial identity with the group they are helping, they may be perceived as favoring their own group and as less effective leaders.

This is according to new research from Professor Angelica Leigh of Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business.

“It’s a paradox: racial minority leaders and women are penalized when they engage in same-race or same-gender allyship behaviors,” Leigh said. “But in my own experience, those groups are the most likely to engage in these kinds of behaviors.”

In a new paper published in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, Leigh and co-authors McKenzie C. Preston of University of Pennsylvania, Terrance L. Boyd of Texas Christian University, Richard Burgess of University of Pittsburgh, and University of Toronto’s Victor Marsh, examined whether perceptions of “in-group favoritism” could harm leaders’ reputation, weaken other employees’ commitment to equity initiatives, or generally undermine the success of diversity initiatives in the workplace.

How perceived favoritism affects leadership evaluation

In their first study, the researchers recruited 301 participants — all current full-time employees who had worked for racial minority leaders. Participants were asked to recall an instance when the leader acted in support of their same racial group or for another racial minority group. Researchers then asked them to rate the leader for “in-group favoritism” and for “leader effectiveness.”

The results showed that employees gave lower ratings to leaders who engaged in same-race allyship behaviors, whereas they rated positively leaders that engaged in cross-race advocacy.

“We didn't find differences based on race,” Leigh said. “Both Black leaders and Asian leaders were rated more positively when they engaged in cross-race allyship, and more negatively for same-race allyship.”

In a second study, the researchers asked 633 participants to imagine a company-wide town-hall meeting where a senior manager — Black or Asian — raised an issue of employee underrepresentation.

In addition to rating the manager for “in-group favoritism” and “leader effectiveness,” Leigh and colleagues added a measure of employee intentions to support equity initiatives. The researchers asked participants to imagine that they were given a chance to spend a discretionary 10% of working time on something other than their core work tasks. The focus of this measure was to test how much time the participants would dedicate to “helping the leader design and implement a new racial equity program.”

They found that employees were less likely to volunteer their extra time to the equity initiatives proposed by a leader that engaged in same race allyship or who proposed an equity initiative that would help members of their own racial group as compared to another racial group.

“Even when you had participants who were very supportive of DEI, they were more likely to put less time towards the program if the program was designed to support Black employees and it was raised by a Black versus an Asian leader,” Leigh said.

How giving credit to others can shift perceptions

“Allyship behavior is usually seen as a selfless action, which leads to heightened perceptions of leaders effectiveness,” Leigh said. However, when employees perceive that leaders may potentially benefit from their allyship behavior, this behavior is viewed as more biased or self-interested,” she added.

“Because of the obvious connection of racial identity with the people that you're advocating for, the selfless nature of the act is obscured,” Leigh said.

The researchers ran another study to test whether framing the equity initiative as the amplification of an employee idea could mitigate the effects.

Leigh said lower-level employees often have insights on what changes may benefit processes and outcomes, but they may be afraid of raising their ideas for fear of repercussions.

“Employees may need a leader who amplifies their idea or another colleague who voices their endorsement for that idea,” she said.

The researchers thought this public endorsement could benefit leaders who amplified the ideas of their subordinates.

“We thought this voice amplification framing might be a way to highlight, once again, the fact that allyship behavior is selfless,” Leigh said.

This experiment sampled 533 employees who were exposed to the same town-hall meeting scenario as the second study. This time, the researchers introduced a situation where the manager publicly endorsed an employee idea to improve underrepresentation of Asian employees in the organization.

“We found that just adding a little bit of language to say that the leader got these ideas from other employees helped significantly reduce the perceptions of in-group favoritism,” Leigh said.

Applying the research findings to organizations

Leigh said many diversity officer positions are held by women and racial minorities — and lessons from this research can help them communicate differently about their work.

“DEI work tends to be collective action,” Leigh said. “Leaders should use the fact that they've done focus groups, they've had conversations with lots of employees in the organization and make sure that people know that this isn't just something that they are advocating for.”

Leigh said understanding how to communicate about diversity in a way that will be heard is especially important as DEI is under attack in some circles.

“Organizations need to be very careful with anything they say or do related to DEI because there's a risk that they will encounter a lot of resistance for those actions,” Leigh said. “But the reality is much more nuanced.”

“What I find in my research is that there are actually a lot more people who support diversity initiatives, and who think that they are a good thing than those that are opposed to them,” Leigh said. “And so, to me, allyship is the way to bring those people in and give them a path towards enacting the values that they already have.”

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