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If you’re a well-meaning manager, you probably feel you have done plenty to create equality in your firm, helping your colleagues succeed. But perhaps you have done too much.

Patricia Hein, an assistant professor at the Ivey Business School, has raised an alarm about benevolent marginalization: When good intentions lead to harm. Her research into corporate programs to advance women’s networking and sheltered workshops for the disabled found a dominant group can set out to help a marginalized group but end up controlling them in a paternalistic way. A supportive effort ends up, counterintuitively, perpetuating existing inequalities and structures in the organization.

“What is really interesting about this phenomenon is people often don’t recognize it is going on. The manager doesn’t recognize it’s going on. The marginalized person doesn’t recognize it’s going on. That’s why there is not enough awareness in firms this is happening,” she says in an interview. Indeed, the person being marginalized might feel he or she should be grateful and the manager feels they are doing something great but the dynamic is actually negative, devaluing and diminishing, rather than enhancing and empowering.

In many ways, the dilemma is summed up in the proverb about teaching people to fish so they can eat for a lifetime rather than giving the person a fish that will last just one day. Organizations, she feels, must empower, rather than merely help, disadvantaged groups.

Her interest in the issue was triggered when she attended protests over workplace inequality nearly a decade ago in her native Berlin organized by disability activists. One of the activists told her they felt invisible which astonished her given all the equality efforts in organizations. She still retains his words: “We surrender, but they don’t notice it. This is the most subliminal form of being oppressed. Why is this still accepted in mainstream society?”

The obvious answer: It’s tricky to notice and motives are good. The less obvious answer: It can be tricky to overcome.

Networking events are often created by male managers to help women. But when she interviewed 60 women participating in such sessions she found they frequently felt disillusioned and disengaged. Many of the groups worked effectively but a lot didn’t – often ones organized by male managers. In some cases women were forced to attend – after work, or find time in a busy work day – and no follow-up occurred so the women felt it had been a waste. “Don’t stop the events,” she stresses. “Some worked. But make sure women take the lead.”

Managers have to shift their mindset from the traditional approach of trying to help to empowerment. That involves introspection. “Try to challenge your own paternalistic assumptions and biases. Try to build trust with marginalized individuals and groups and try to understand how they really feel,” she says. “Try to accept that their ideas may be different from your opinion – that when you believe you are helping they may perceive it not as help. You need to be open to being criticized.”

The second step is to engage allies in nonmanagerial roles. Often support staff, close colleagues and friends are closer to the sensibility and challenges of the marginalized people and you can benefit from their input. In the sheltered workshops, they voted, anonymously, to select inclusion champions who then collaborated with managers on initiatives. She stresses it must be anonymous so you can be sure these are the individuals the marginalized people actually want to have support them. This approach, she notes, is also seen in academia, where committees are frequently selected through voting to represent the interests of junior or disadvantaged faculty members.

You also need confidential feedback methods to ensure the changes you make are viewed as useful. “Sometimes organizations say you can always confidentially send an e-mail if you have something you don’t like but in the end who really does that? If it’s an e-mail, you feel like you are being tracked and it’s not truly confidential,” she says. She suggests a box, in a place where the person can deposit their thoughts without being seen.

The third step is to create supportive spaces by handing over responsibilities to marginalized individuals. This can physically be a room or meetings where the group can discuss changes that are happening in the workplace and whether paternalistic behaviours are wrapped within those changes. “And it’s not enough to just create these spaces. You need to make sure marginalized groups can organize these spaces themselves,” she says.

In the sheltered workshops, it was called a disability board where the workers and the allies they had selected came together to discuss issues – and they came up with the ideas of such an entity themselves rather than have managers tell them there would be a board and they must attend. One networking group, moving beyond working on discrimination within the firm, created a startup in investing, using the talents and building connections between its members.

Most organizations have a bundle of well-meaning diversity programs. But well-meaning can disguise the fact they are disempowering, at least in some way. Her ideas on benevolent marginalization can improve your approach.


  • A leadership lesson you may have learned from movies that you need to ditch, according to leadership researcher Emilia Bunea, is that true leaders never really wanted to lead in the first place but reluctantly took the helm, as in The Hunger Games or Braveheart. In fact, research shows that the single biggest predictor of leadership emergence is the motivation to lead, ahead of intelligence or character.
  • The best approach when implementing a four-day week, consultant Izzy Galicia advises, is to stagger the regular working hours of different employees. For instance, some would work from Monday to Thursday, while others would work Tuesday to Friday.
  • Calgary consultant Mike Kerr suggests emulating one of his clients where benches and various seating areas are scattered throughout the office to encourage random conversations. Many of them are labelled with different categories, so you can sit on a couch with a sign reading “I need help brainstorming” or “ask me about my project” or even “in desperate need of a stress-reducing distraction.”

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston-based writer specializing in management issues. He, along with Sheelagh Whittaker, former CEO of both EDS Canada and Cancom, are the authors of When Harvey Didn’t Meet Sheelagh: Emails on Leadership.

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