Published: April 29, 2024

DEI News At Leeds, Illustration of diverse people
Leeds alum Dr. Vic Marsh shares how his research provides a new method for minority leaders in workplaces to act as allies in DEI initiatives.

While organizations everywhere are working to incorporate Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) into the workplace, Vic Marsh (PhD’21), a specialist in organizational behavior, says that “most DEI efforts need powerful managers’ help to get to the fundamental goal of correcting unfair workplace processes.” That’s what Marsh and his co-authors examined in their recently published paper, “An ally by any other name: Examining the effects of racial minority leaders as allies for advancing racial justice,” published in the Journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes. 

Marsh shared that his journey began during his first year as a PhD student at the Leeds School of Business, when his professors discovered that the perceptions of effective leadership were skewed by the race of the person advocating for diversity. This inspired him to research solutions to this bias, focusing on two key questions: “Why is there a disparity in how white and non-white leaders are perceived when they advocate for the same diversity initiatives, and how can we mitigate this backlash against non-white leaders?” 

Marsh explains that he and his co-authors “grounded our work in existing research with the goal of creating practical solutions to these complex issues.” The research found that when racial minority leaders engage in allyship that supports those of the same race, they are perceived as less effective allies because of assumed favoritism. The paper also finds that this lowers employee evaluations of leaders and the amount of support for DEI efforts at an organization. 

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“Leaders should be listening to ideas from the bottom up, not just imposing ideas from the top down.”

Vic Marsh (PhD’21)

Most importantly, the paper also suggests a solution to these issues: “voice amplification framing.” This framing asks racial minority leaders to share the voices and ideas of lower-level employees who are of the same race in their allyship. By focusing on voices of people who have less power in the workplace, voice amplification framing reduces the negative effects of same-race allyship. 

“Our findings offer valuable insights for all leaders, particularly those from minority backgrounds,” Marsh says. “Leaders can navigate the complex landscape of diversity advocacy by amplifying the voices of their junior employees, which fosters a more inclusive workplace without risking backlash. That means leaders should be listening to ideas from the bottom up, not just imposing ideas from the top down.” 

Marsh shares that it was surprising to see what misconceptions existed around minority leaders’ work as allies in the workplace. “Employees assume the minority leader wants to talk about DEI and EEO, when minority leaders often have to be volunteered or told to do that work because the risk is so high.” The research bears this out – leaders are likely to receive more negative feedback and less engagement if they appear to favor an ingroup. 

Organizations that want to support minority leaders and DEI work should incorporate voice amplification into training. “The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, especially from minority leaders who have found a new approach to championing diversity without so much backlash, which underscores the practical impact,” Marsh says. “For training, incorporating case studies on effective voice amplification can guide leaders in recognizing and elevating valuable ideas from all their team members.” 

The research doesn’t stop here, though. Marsh plans to continue exploring how moments of organizational conflict can be used to create change, saying “actively managing crises presents opportunities to transform a debate, and that opportunity is here now with DEI if we all seize upon it.” 

This is critical to supporting the ongoing discussion and implementation of DEI in the workplace. The landscape “can feel so negative,” shares Marsh. “What we are missing is sociologist Rebert Merton’s idea of unintended consequences. You can’t assume anti-DEI backlash is smart at achieving its own purposes. It can be outsmarted. We provide one roadmap with this research on how to do so.”