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When It Comes to Diversity, White Male Managers Not Doing So Hot

By Amy Langfield
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How are white male managers doing when it comes to diversity? Great! At least that's what the white male managers said in a recent survey.

What do the non-white, non-male managers think? Not as upbeat.

But according to the study, it's not entirely the fault of white male managers. What we have here, it claims, is failure to communicate.

Lack of candor was a key culprit identified in the "Study on White Men Leading Through Diversity & Inclusion," which compiled results of anonymous surveys of about 700 leaders at eight major companies.

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"This is a baseline, first-of-its-kind study," said Chuck Shelton, the report's author and managing director at Greatheart Leader Labs in Seattle.

Asked to rate the diversity effectiveness among white male leaders in their companies, 45 percent of white men gave a positive rating. Among women and people of color, only 21 percent agreed. Wide gaps were also found in the perception of white men's abilities to coach and improve the performance of diverse employees (33 points difference); build strong, diverse teams (36 points); promote diverse talent on merit (36 points); and include diverse voices in decision making (40 points.)

They are doing great when it comes to being respectful, the survey said, but fall short when it comes to saying what they really think. Too many fear that any criticism or discussion of race or gender will likely get them in trouble, so they avoid it entirely.

Silence can compound the issue. "You don't provide the feedback you would give to the people who look like you," Shelton said. "Ultimately you're discriminating because you're not allowing that person to improve and get ahead."

Shelton has been studying this topic for years and is himself no stranger to the outraged criticism from people with strong reactions to the topic. (For a sample, see the so-called reviews at Amazon of Shelton's 2008 book "Leadership 101 for White Men: How to Work Successfully with Black Colleagues and Customers.")

The survey was taken anonymously by managers at Alcoa, Bank of America, Intel, Exelon, Marsh & McLennan Companies, PepsiCo, Wal-Mart Stores and PWC. About 58 percent of the respondents were white men and about 10 percent of the managers had global responsibilities. Future studies, Shelton said, will focus on making an economic connection between company diversity and their branding, sales, marketing and talent retention.

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Alcoa and other big firms that took part in the study said they're eager to use the data to help even their white men to lean into the diversity discussion.

The survey provided the companies with a lot of information to chew on, said Gena Lovett, Alcoa's chief diversity officer. "This is about enhancing our leadership," she said. "You can't fix what you don't know."

While the report revealed encouraging information, she was surprised by some of the gaps. Some managers admitted they had a hard time articulating the business case for creating a diverse workforce.

Now that we know "these are easy to resolve," said Lovett. Easy, she said, because Alcoa already has concrete examples of how diversity impacts the bottom line. They have examples of revenues rising as a business unit grows more diverse and technical innovations when they mix up the team's make-up.

In Alcoa's tech areas, it's very pronounced. "They demand diverse teams. That's the only way they can get innovation," Lovett said. One example she named was the creation of the Dura-brite™ shiny bus wheels that are lightweight and easy to clean. That team was made up of people from several countries, generations and specialities including technicians and plant people.

Also, "Our customers have made it very clear … that they want to see people who look like them," Lovett said, noting that Alcoa is in 31 countries.

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The survey also allows the companies to use numbers where there were previously only anecdotes. "Having that empirical evidence is an eye-opener," said David Thomas, dean of Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business. Thomas served as a consultant on the study.

He pointed out that the companies that took part in the survey already had good reputations for diversity within their industries. The good reputations, he said, can fool you into thinking everything's fixed. "Diversity is one of those topics in which many people, many companies, they hear the anecdotes and they think they are the exception to the rule," Thomas said.

At McDonough, the MBA program now incorporates work on recognizing unconscious biases, Thomas said.

This isn't going to work for everyone, Shelton said. But "there's a huge group of white men in the middle who are teachable," he said. "That's why the baseline is so encouraging."