Do Leaders Simply Look for Themselves When Hiring?

In 2016, there are more women and minorities in leadership positions than there have been at any time in the country’s history. This isn’t to say that we don’t have a long way yet to go before achieving anything close to equal representation in the higher reaches of government and the corporate world, but undeniable strides have been made since I began my career as a management consultant and academic decades ago. These days, there are numerous highly visible leaders who are women, people of color, or both, whom one can tick off at a moment’s notice: from Pepsi CEO Indra Nooyi, to Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, and our current president Barack Obama. And yet in looking back at some of my earliest research on diversity in corporate culture, I’m struck by how much has remained the same in spite of all that has changed. So why has the movement toward the top been so sluggish? There are myriad socioeconomic forces at play that are inarguably worthy of discussion but which I won’t get into here. The cause that I want to get at today is far more subtle than the blatant racism and sexism that we see, sadly, writ large on the national stage in the run-up to the 2016 election. This is a kind of discrimination that many managers fall prey to, despite their very best intentions. Simply put, when people in positions of power (leaders and managers) are choosing their teams, they tend to hire people who remind them of themselves. This can come from obvious similarities (race, religion, educational background) or more subtly, through similar behavior, values, or belief systems).

Those in leadership positions are often extremely protective of any source of acquired power. Therefore, leaders are only inclined to share their power and its privileges with those they trust. And most find it easiest to trust those they feel they best understand, who “fit in,” who are familiar, who are similar. You can see where this is going. The bastions of power are dominated by white men, and the power gets passed on ad infinitum to other white men who remind them of themselves. This tendency, noticed and named back in the 1960s by management theorist Wilbert Moore, is known as “homosocial reproduction,” and it plays a huge part in keeping power secure in the hands of those who have always held it. It is responsible for not only hiring practices but also, perhaps even more crucially, determining whom those in power choose to network with, which has a major impact on who within an organization has access to opportunities for advancement.

In large corporations I often hear the term “fit” used to cloak this unnamed prejudice. Is candidate x a good “fit” for the company dynamic? Will they be a “fit” with clients, with their coworkers? What used to be blatant—managers once made no bones about looking for candidates of a certain race (white) or gender (male) with certain class backgrounds, who attended the same schools or served in the same branch of the armed services as they did—is now far more subtle. There is the unspoken expectation that, even if you are not actually like those in leadership positions, you had better behave like them. Just ask any woman if she ever feared not being taken seriously if she acted too “feminine” in a workplace characterized by masculine men in power.

So how do we combat something so pernicious? Especially as well-meaning managers may be responding to more of an unconscious bias than any malevolent desire to keep women and minorities out of power.

The first step, as with so many things of this nature, is simply recognizing that it exists and persists despite social progress in other areas. Denying that inequalities exist is a surefire way to keep them in place.

Quite aside from diverse hiring practices being the right thing to do ethically, there is now a mountain of evidence to suggest that it’s one of the best things you can do for your organization’s bottom line. Research shows time and again that diverse thinking and healthy conflict are a requirement for effective decision-making. It follows that if you hire only people exactly like you, this is very unlikely to happen. Leaders who rigorously question their own tendencies to look for themselves in those they hire and promote have the best chance of success in the long term.