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Making The Hard Choice: A Profile in Courage

Sometimes it’s not about a perfect leader. Someone who excels at inspiration, has a grand vision, challenges everyone to do great things and all those other wonderful traits we all want in our leaders. Sometimes it just comes down to doing what is right and difficult even when you don’t know if or how it will work out. Sometimes it’s just about seeing the problem and having the courage to jump into the deep end and hoping for the best.

Dahlia is one of those leaders. She is the CEO of a mid-sized nonprofit with a mission to effect legislation and policies pertaining to early childhood education. She is passionate about the work and has successfully influenced state and federal laws and funding. When it comes to running the organization, she is a thoughtful and solid leader but no one would say she sets their world on fire. She is well aware of her shortcomings and has worked hard to develop new skills.

Over time, Dahlia has changed the roles and members on her leadership team to amp up the management of the organization and supervision of the talent. She hired me to help develop the newly configured team so they could function more collaboratively and effectively. Without going into all the gory details, let’s just say Dahlia had pulled together a group of smart and well intentioned people who struggled to play well together. I facilitated a series of team discussions to break down defenses and barriers to join in more collective thinking and actions. It was slow and challenging. The team became impatient with my insistence that we keep peeling away the layers to get to more respectful and trusting encounters. They wanted to solve problems and move on.

In my private discussions with Dahlia, she began to surface her increased awareness of dysfunctional team dynamics and her role in them. I coached her to take risks to be more self revealing and open in hopes the others would follow. And they did, up to a point. It was clear there were two team members who preferred to function in their silos and wanted these sessions to end.

An unexpected catalyst left Dahlia with a tough decision. A vital member of the team suddenly left the organization. This person had a very important function and was the most collaborative of anyone on the team. He shared with Dahlia that one factor in his decision was the lack of cooperation from these two team members. He simply had enough. This confirmed Dahlia’s assessment; until these two people had a change of heart no amount of team discussions were going to improve the situation.

We discussed how to proceed. Private one on ones, a team come-to-Jesus meeting, fire one or both of them, some combination of all of them. There were many larger, organizational considerations: filling key functional gaps, destabilizing the staff, derailing projects, creating more departures, making the team’s dysfunction more apparent to all. We talked and talked, testing out each option.

I must admit that in my head I knew the right thing to do. But I thought it was too risky so I kept offering safer options. In the midst of one of these conversations Dahlia simply said, “I think what needs to happen is to bring this to the team for resolution. If we still can’t come together for the good of the agency after all the work we have done, then I will need to make some very serious changes.” Dahlia chose the risky, and right, option. This was a team problem and the team needed to get its act together.

Dahlia was never clearer or more forthright when she began the next meeting. “We have been working for months to let go of our individual agendas and act as a united leadership team to serve the organization. We have failed as a team. Alan’s departure is our evidence. Unless we can collaborate effectively we will fail the whole organization. I fear we already have. We are going to roll up our sleeves, say the hard stuff that has not yet surfaced, figure out how we are going to proceed without Alan and sort out what we are going to tell the staff. Anyone who is not up to the task, can leave now. Anyone who does not step up to do the right thing will be asked to leave.”

Long story short: one person got the message and was able to shape up and the other person was removed. The leadership team turned a corner and accelerated the path to well coordinated collaboration. The conversations were difficult at first but eventually everyone experienced the benefits of saying the hard things, abiding by a set of new and more functional norms and not feeling so isolated from each other. The staff was anxious at first with all the leadership changes but came to experience the new energy and support of the leaders. It took five months from the moment of Alan’s departure for all the changes to settle in and for the organization to stabilize.

For Dahlia, life got much easier. She had a functional leadership team that she trusted to co-manage the organization and staff. She kept taking risks to try new leadership behaviors because she was less uncomfortable and had a big win under her belt. She worried less about losing other key talent. She even got to a place where she was grateful that the crisis had kicked her in the pants.

As for me, I learned a good lesson too. Don’t underestimate the courage of a reserved, decent leader. With so many other bolder leaders I never hesitate to push them to put themselves and their teams on the line for the greater good. I had acknowledged loads of growth in Dahlia but wasn’t sure she was ready to call the team out and address all the defenses and bad behavior. I will remember this with the next Dahlia I meet.

What’s Wrong With A New Leader Making Massive Changes Immediately?

All conventional wisdom suggests that when a new leader is hired to make significant changes, s/he must be thoughtful, strategic and measured. The mandate for change must be clearly understood by the entire organization, even if there are pockets of resistance. The leader must understand that change does not occur “because I said so” but rather through the engagement of those whose lives are going to be altered (supporters and naysayers). Real organizational change that gets fully implemented can only happen when the leader forms productive alliances and relationships with key constituents and influencers. This requires loads of listening and learning about this operation the leader has now been asked to lead.

Too often, however, new leaders charge full steam ahead thinking that ramping up in the first 100 days only means taking urgent action. A more careful read of all the best literature (see Michael Watkins) states very clearly that a balance between learning the culture, people and key relationships with some early winning actions is the key to success. After all, pronouncing a slew of directives will usually leave the leader with few who will follow orders. Without building those connections early on, all subsequent edicts will be met with (at best) skepticism or (worse) resistance. Et voila: no change.

So rather than emulating the mistakes of the person who currently occupies the Oval Office, here are some recommendations for new leaders brought in to make changes.

  • Communicate a compelling mandate. Most new CEOs have been handed a very specific agenda by the board; such as improve profits, weed out the under achieving products and people, grow or prepare the business for an IPO. Staff may not be aware of these concerns so early communications that balance what needs to be fixed with a desired better future need to occur. Big meetings, small gatherings, one on ones. Lots of explaining in hopes of gaining early support for the new direction.
  • Learn, learn, learn. Each organization is so unique even if they all have marketing, finance, R&D and all the other disciplines. The culture, how things formally and informally get done, the cliques, the early adapters, the institutional wisdom, the pent up potential, the wisest advisors, the bad pennies, the antiquated systems, the hiring practices, the compliance parameters….all of it must be absorbed. This doesn’t happen in the first 3 months. It can take 6-12 months depending on the size of the organization. But appreciating what is before making a bunch of changes is essential to being a credible leader.
  • Base decisions on data. In organizations there can be “felt” needs and “actual” needs. Both are valid but in the end the leader must see the data to assess the need for making changes. Feelings can be a warning sign of problems but are not sufficient for decision making. The leader will be seen as erratic if s/he makes emotional or impulsive decisions.
  • Select 2-3 early wins. Bite off small pieces that are doable out of the gate. You may telegraph that a big change is coming but start with something that has a high probability of success. Even better, pick something that staff would feel is a good thing rather than a threat. It could be some technical training that hasn’t been provided but most want that dovetails with that something bigger down the road. It could be eliminating a low performing product line and reassigning those resources. Pick a no-brainer or two.
  • Engage staff support for change. Form an extended leadership council that helps to shape, lead and implement the bigger initiatives. Tap the informal leaders lower in the organization for key roles in the change efforts. Remove a stinker or two that no leader before you had the guts to do to gain staff admiration. Conduct ongoing conversations with all levels of staff to uncover the biggest pains and empower them to fix it. In short, make the change agenda “our” agenda rather than yours.
  • Take the long view. The most sustainable and high impact changes in an organization take place over an extended period of time. It is important to understand the pieces of the journey, how it will effect the staff, what is flexible or not and how fast you need to move. Oh, and there is the rest of the business to run while the changes are afoot so the best laid plans usually get altered. Not a sprint.

There isn’t a high performing professional who takes a new leadership role who doesn’t want to come out of the gate raring to make stuff happen. I wish I could say that I have followed my own advice to a tee but I seem to have a habit of wanting to “add value” immediately. And by “add value” I mean “proving how smart you were to hire me because I can really get great shit done quickly.”  And by that I really mean that I have to prove to myself  (and others) that I am going to be great at this job. We all need to understand that we are adding immeasurable value by taking the time to cultivate good connections in the organization even if it doesn’t look like a flurry of activity. Activity and orders do not equal effective leadership nor is it a winning formula for facilitating change.

So if you are a new leader who is expected to make some significant changes, take a breath and get to know the people and how things work. You will gain much more traction, support and respect for whatever happens next.

Can You Lead People Without Understanding People?

What do these things have in common? The new technology is ready to launch and there is push back from the staff. The CEO has been explicit with the executive team about creating a more inclusive culture and the message falls on deaf ears. The marketing team has presented the new branding approach and the CEO tears it up. The operations team receives the lowest customer satisfaction ratings yet insists that everything is going great. The CTO complains that his terrible 360 feedback is simply sour grapes. The employee engagement survey highlights a lack of confidence in the senior team and the executives gloss right over it.

Wrong strategy? Wrong implementation plan? Wrong communication process? Maybe a little of all those things but the common thread is: people. We are funny creatures, we human beings. We will go to great lengths to ignore any input that differs from our own sense of just how fantastic we are. We will dig our heels in when asked to change because we do love our comfort zones. We will outright reject criticism to fortify our fragile egos. At the heart of organizational and leadership effectiveness is skill and insight about what makes people tick.

Sadly, most of us only get on-the-job training about human behavior. And by on-the-job I mean living life. As we move through school, friendships, families, jobs and communities we encounter lots of people. We have experiences that shape how we see ourselves and those around us. In the best case scenario, we have a propensity towards self reflection, listening to others and seeing people in all their nuance and complexity. The norm, however, is to lock into an image of ourselves as we wish to be seen and to simplistically categorize others. This is a unique challenge in the workplace. Whereas we might work hard to create a great relationship with our spouse, we don’t have that same commitment with our colleagues. When a spouse says, “You aren’t listening to me” we will dig deep to focus better and absorb the message. When a direct report says the same thing we might counter with, “I don’t think you are hearing me!”

So if you don’t have any formal training (courses, therapy, coaching) how can you develop some understanding about human beings including yourself?

  • Do some learning. Read books on human development and behavior. Attend seminars, spend a week at the Center for Creative Leadership, seek out the regular guidance of a professional expert. Watch and study people who excel at human interactions. Commit to a course of disciplined action just like you would if you suddenly decided to learn how to play the piano.
  • Set on a path of self reflection. Developing the habit of taking a step back to review your actions and underlying motives will sound like belly button gazing to many of you. But understanding others begins with understanding ourselves. Quinn, Kouzes and Posner are business writers who do a good job of speaking to business people on this topic. They even have workbooks you can use to ponder their questions. It’s a start.
  • Get help. Okay, this is coming from a former therapist. A good therapist or coach provides a safe and supportive place to say out loud all those things that have been swirling around inside you that block your growth. At the same time you will be getting help understanding other people’s behavior. Having an objective expert in human development and behavior whispering in your ear and listening to you is invaluable.
  • Practice new skills in safe settings. Once armed with some insight and ideas about what new things you want to try, find safe people and places to experiment. A good friend, a trusted colleague, a family member. Ask for feedback and suggestions for improvement. You are trying to develop new muscles so think of it like going to the gym. You need to push yourself a bit without injury to yourself or others.
  • Ask for forgiveness as you take it live. One of my extremely introverted CEO clients preferred staying locked in his office over engaging publicly with the staff. After months of discussion he was ready to come out of his cubby hole. At the all staff meeting he announced, “I have received the feedback about how I am always behind a closed door and that you want me to be more accessible. I am terribly shy and socially awkward but I am committed to trying some new things. So if you see me wondering the halls or cafeteria like a lost puppy, please be kind and help me out.” It was so endearing and the staff couldn’t have been more supportive.
  • Ask, don’t assume or guess. Someone raises his voice with you and it sets off alarms. Is he mad at me? Is he just mad? Is this passion about the task? Is he trying to exert some influence to go in a different direction? And even before you get through your whole list of thoughts you probably return the favor and raise your voice. Remember, we are apes originally and we do imitate. When you hit those panic moments take a breath and ask him what’s going on. “Why are you raising your voice?” This serves two purposes: it alerts the person that he has shifted gears (which he may not be aware of) and you don’t have to read his mind.

When we have overdeveloped technical skills but limited interpersonal skills we are only using half of our capacity and that other half is critical to effective leadership. The probability of using analytic, intellectual, technical thoughts and methods to understand self and others is very high. But it is also wholly insufficient. Good head skills are useful but they need to be paired with good heart skills.

It seems so odd to me that it is not mandatory to take courses on human development and behavior before you enter the work world or take a leadership role. Nutty idea, I know, but if people will always be the engine for accomplishing organizational goals don’t you think we ought to develop some knowledge in this area? Play it in reverse: would you go to a doctor who has amazing interpersonal skills but very limited medical know-how. Seriously?

If You Don’t Manage Your Career Path, Someone Else Will

As you reflect on your accomplishments of 2016 and think about what you want in the coming year, consider some of these stories.

Maxine changed jobs mid-year to join a company that she felt fit her ambitions and outlook much better. Initially she was so relieved to leave her old dead end job. She had been promised multiple assignments and promotions but they never materialized. She was done waiting and decided to find a better opportunity elsewhere. Her new company was abuzz with excitement and possibilities. She connected easily and quickly to her manager and team mates. But within four months she became aware that there was lots of activity and interaction but very little to show for all the hard work. When she began to talk more candidly with her colleagues she discovered that trying new things was more important than showing results. When she inquired about how a person gets rewarded or acknowledged she was told that teamwork is valued over individual efforts. Maxine remembered hearing this in the interview process and appreciated it. What she didn’t understand was that her singular efforts were not going to get her ahead in this new company. She is now wondering what to do about her career.

Simon is an HR executive who is highly regarded by the senior team and staff. After six years in the position he is wondering what comes next for him. He enjoys the HR function but realizes that the only career opportunities in his future are other senior HR roles at other companies. He gets bored just thinking about the next 15 years as an HR executive. He wants to branch out but can’t figure out how to do that. He likes the company, has a great relationship with the CEO and feels pride in what he has been able to accomplish for the organization. When he discussed his desire to spread his wings with the CEO she was sympathetic. They explored running a small unit of the business, overseeing communications and greater involvement with the board. Nothing made Simon’s heart sing. When he thought back to grad school and choices he was making, he always knew this moment would come. He understood that the HR path is a narrow one and didn’t create many options. The CEO is thrilled with Simon and has no intention of replacing him but he is thinking about his future and wondering what will keep him engaged.

Isabella has been in a senior marketing role for five years. She has received raises, great reviews and respect and praise from her boss and colleagues. But she has not been promoted to a more senior role. She has a long list of accomplishments that have translated to increased sales and profits for the company but when she asks her boss about a promotion he is vague. He offers high praise on the one hand and minor corrective feedback on the other. When Isabella asks him directly what it will take for her to get promoted her boss replies, “We are trying to keep the organization flat and are holding off on any promotions.” When she challenges him about the recent elevations of Jason and Martin her boss explains that their functions required it. Isabella is left wondering what the real story is about her standing in the company. Is she as valuable as she is being told? Is there a gender issue? How can she get an accurate fix on her future?

These are just a few examples. I’ve got a ton more stories but you get the point. You think you are doing all the right stuff but then you hit a wall. Is it you? Is it the company? Is it the sector? Maybe all of the above? For the sake of this discussion let’s assume that you are in fine shape. You have great functional and interpersonal skills and a strong track record. How, then, can you smash through the walls or ceilings or boundaries that are keeping you standing still?

Do everything you can to not paint yourself into a corner. From early in your career and all the years that follow, learn new stuff and work outside your chosen path. If you are an engineer with aspirations to move up, get involved in a talent management task force or external partnerships or internal liaison to marketing. If you are in HR take on operational responsibilities or learn about budgeting. In other words, build a resume that reflects more than functional expertise. The more you explore, the more you will discover what you like and what you don’t like. And you will show that you are a utility player.

Be proactive and assertive with your boss about your professional growth. Make it your responsibility, not your boss’, to identify what you need to learn and demonstrate to continue to add value and be noticed. Your boss is invested in you but won’t always have the time or attention to think about your career. But if you take the initiative s/he will be quite responsive. Set up a conversation to discuss your aspirations, get feedback from your boss about how realistic that is, what steps need to be taken, what resources are available to you to support your learning and what assignments your boss can provide. Set up regular check-ins and come prepared each time. You need to run the show.

Do your research. If you want to stay with your current company but wonder what it will take to move up, talk with HR or an internal mentor. Press for the whole truth and nothing but the truth. If you want to leave your company, do your job hunting while still in your current role. Read everything you can about companies that interest you, talk with friends, use LinkedIn to connect with folks for informational conversations and explore places that are not your usual suspects. Think of making a bold move to shake things up for yourself. If you have the chance to be interviewed, ask to speak with some staff so you can dig deeper about the culture and how things really work. Find people in your network who can answer your shitty questions. Look before you leap.

Think growth, not title. I know you are disappointed that you aren’t getting the promotion or salary bump you expected but don’t make that the end-all-be-all. That’s another corner you are painting. Take the long view and consider what skills, responsibilities and experiences you want to gain. Imagine yourself ten years from now. What capabilities do you want? What do you want your story to be? What will make you look back and feel satisfied? What will make you say “wow” or “I can’t believe I really did that”? If title and status is your primary aim, look forward to a lot of disappointment. First, consider the math. There are a small number of senior roles and many times more up and coming staff. The probabilities are not in your favor even if you are a star performer. But more importantly, you will become an insufferable asshole.

Lots of things are beyond your control when it comes to managing your career; company constraints, economic ups and downs, functional limitations. But the more you take control of those things that are within your reach, the better off you will be. I can’t promise that you will get everything you want but I can guarantee you will feel in charge of your own destiny.

If You Aren’t Learning You Are Getting Stale

Remember how you felt as an incoming college freshman? Not the “I just got out of the jail my parents call home and now I’m ready to cut loose” part of it. And not the “Oh my gosh, everyone here is so much smarter than I am even though I was number 3 in my high school graduating class”. Instead, do you remember the thrill of taking classes on subjects that you knew nothing about or more advanced classes on things you already had some experience with? Can you recall those moments of discovery that opened your mind to new ways of thinking that didn’t require the assistance of drugs?

Curiosity, exploration, making brain space for new topics or ideas, having more questions than answers and a sense of fascination are traits we don’t usually discuss when we think about leadership. We focus more on grown up characteristics like results oriented, decisive, team developer and accountability. We no longer look for or value more childlike or adolescent wonder that accompanies discovery. But we should.

As leaders (and colleagues) we could all use a heavy dose of that freshman feeling of a kid in the candy shop of learning. Or even less sophisticated, the four year’s relentless “why, why, why”. That insatiable quest to understand so many mysteries fades as we age and acquire experience with the world and our chosen professions. We are focused on mastery so we hone skills and thinking in specific areas which can limit our curiosity. This is a normal developmental stage and it is quite useful. But I believe that if we could keep some part of our brains supple enough to remain curious then we would be better leaders, more inventive, greater collaborators and our organizations would benefit.

When was the last time that you:

  • Asked someone from another department to explain in detail some aspect of his/her work?
  • Spoke with someone at length who comes from a completely different walk of life than you do?
  • Invited someone with a point of view that is the exact opposite of yours to describe how he/she arrived at this idea?
  • Wandered into an operational space of your company and asked for a tour or explanation of the services?
  • Spent time being trained by a staff person many levels below you?
  • Admitted to a colleague that you don’t fully understand some aspect of the work you share?
  • Raised a question in a team setting that you feared might make you sound stupid?

We all arrive at a point in our careers, roles or organizations when we believe we always must demonstrate mastery and that to do otherwise is a sign of weakness or ignorance. It is true that the most experienced among us are amazing resources. But it is also true that we envy people who are excited about something new they have learned about or uncovered. In that case, I recommend that we all try to develop both aspects. We will, in fact, keep accumulating experiences that will lead to excellence in our work. At the same time we can remain open to new: topics, ways of thinking, adventures and people.

Re-engage yourself as a learner and try some of these things:

  • Read books that are not the usual suspects; outside your discipline, recommended by an outlier, just because
  • Visit parts of your organization that you don’t know much about or that you always think of as the slow down in the system and ask for a walk through and explanation of the processes
  • Ask only questions in some meetings to gain a deeper understanding of people’s thought processes and assumptions
  • Have a conversation with someone you struggle with. Just try to get to know him/her as a person
  • Take a class on a more right-brain topic
  • Probe your own assumptions more deeply. Ask yourself if something you believe is too rigid or out of date. Explore the latest thinking on the topic and then give yourself permission to change your mind
  • Take the role of devil’s advocate to challenge the team’s business-as-usual solutions
  • Use art forms (visual, music, writing etc) to switch brain gears to shake up well-grooved thought patterns
  • Find a worthy contrarian in your sphere who you can spar with routinely

I never liked that Bible passage about “when I was a child I thought as a child but when I became a man I put all those childish ways behind me”. It always struck me as terribly sad and unfortunate. We need to preserve and nurture aspects of childish thinking. We need to remain curious, to ask why, to see wonder all around and to greet new things and people with enthusiasm. Without that sense of awe we lull ourselves into thinking there is nothing left to learn. Once we stop learning we become rusty or arrogant or predictable or boring. Those traits make us less valuable to our colleagues and the organizations we serve.

So think back to your best college professor or class. Remember how exciting it was to have your mind blown. Remember that learning is exhilarating. I hope you were as lucky as I was in college to find a professor or two who taught me how to learn. In retrospect I realize that was the most valuable subject I encountered.


We Know That You Are Smart; Now Try Showing Us That You Are Human

You’ve done it, I’ve done it, everyone we know has done it. You are running a meeting or making a presentation or leading a team and the one unspoken goal is: Be smart; be smarter than anyone else in the room. This is a huge motivator and a huge Achilles heel. All the while we are trying to show how very, very smart we are, we have transformed into an automaton. We become a veritable Google search of all the relevant research on a certain topic so that we can answer any possible question. We over prepare, we create more spreadsheets and we sweat every little detail.

You know that you are overly focused on being perceived as smart (but wishing for reverence) if you do/say any of these things:

  • Spend way too many hours writing (and rewriting) slide decks or papers. In Upside Down World there is a belief that the more words and pages, the more brilliant the thinking. In our heads we know the reverse is the truth: the more succinctly we can express ourselves, the more easily we are understood.
  • Whip out blue ribbon credentials. Look, I know you went to Yale and worked at McKinsey and won an innovation award. That’s why you got hired, in part. But all you accomplish by routinely reminding me of these autobiographical details is how friggin’ insecure you are.
  • Bury yourself in data. Data is great. I’m a big fan. But when you spend too much time in the weeds you have lost the big picture and what the conversation is all about. Data is another one of those things that we have equated with sounding smart. I don’t think that correlation holds up.
  • Speak louder and more frequently than anyone else. Cutting people off, not listening and dominating discussions screams “Pay attention to only Me!” The anxieties and fears that someone else might say something that sounds smarter than you do causes motor mouth.

The saddest part of this phenomenon is that the more we engage in these types of behaviors, the more likely it is that we are turning people off. They are not sitting there thinking how smart we are. Instead they are thinking “get me outta here.” We have become insufferable and being smart is quite beside the point.

I suggest we all go down a very different path to gain respect from those we lead and work with. If we invested more attention and energy in letting our humanity shine through, we would be granted “she sure is smart” as a byproduct.

What do I mean by being more human? Display different moods, admit that you don’t know something, ask for help, be quiet, invite others to take charge, offer praise, exhibit thoughtfulness, be curious, laugh, tell more stories, express compassion. In other words, be more in the rest of your body and less only in your head.

Being smart is the price of admission. Trying to prove how smart we are everyday helps us keep our jobs. But making that the one and loudest note we play can backfire. And when you put 3 or 10 or 35 of us in a room together, proving who is the smartest becomes blood sport. Our insecurities cause us to fall into habits that are boorish or boring. We are inside our own shit so heavily that we have lost meaningful connections to those around us. When we do that we are less effective as leaders and colleagues.

Short of getting yourself into therapy (which isn’t a terrible idea!), you need to have a serious sit-down with yourself. Figure out the source of these self doubts, see if you can wrestle these demons out of your system, find healthier ways to reassure yourself that you are just fine without having to publicly beat your chest and let your guard down so that you can be perceived as a multi-dimensional human being complete with anxieties.

We assume our leaders are smart but that is not why we follow them or are inspired by them (with a few exceptions). We don’t need them to be perfect or to know all the answers. We want to see some reflection of ourselves in our leaders. We need to relate to them just enough so that we can emulate, respect and trust them. Being smart only goes so far.

Repost: Everyday is Groundhog’s Day for Professionals of Color

Note: In light of the election results and many people’s anxiety, fear and rage with the results, I want to repost this blog entry from this past February. I have been hearing from many good white men who just don’t understand why women, people of color, Jews, Muslims and LGBTQ folks are so worried. Those of us who fall in these categories are so used to putting on armor and being on high alert that we don’t discuss it. It just is. But now that sentiments that were once held back have now been given cultural permission to be spoken and acted upon, it is important to legitimize this fear. We must talk about it. We must help white men understand it. We must insist our companies take this more seriously. We must stop letting it just be “the way things are.”


You wake up each morning in the comfort of your home feeling relaxed and fully yourself. You go to your closet and select the appropriate armor for your day ahead at the office. As you drive to work you expertly tuck away big chunks of yourself. You walk into the building.

You smile and greet each person so that you appear friendly but not too friendly. You make certain that you give attention, even deference, to your white colleagues and keep some distance from other minorities. You sit in the meeting and offer your views being sure that your voice isn’t too loud or aggressive. You suck it up all day when colleagues overtly and covertly question your competence and right to be in your position. You play the part of the non-threatening person of color and express too much appreciation for every opportunity you are given. You disregard all the moments in the day that you are ignored, discounted or disrespected. You leave the office, get in your car, blast the music to drown out your ranting and walk into your home to become your full self again.

Every day people of color have to start at square one to prove themselves worthy of their jobs. They are not afforded the automatic respect and trust that white people do. It doesn’t matter that they are well educated, experienced and very good at what they do. The thin line they must walk every day is something white people cannot relate to or ever need to think about. It takes very little for a person of color to be labeled an angry black person, bitch, too expressive, affirmative action recipient, diversity quota hire, less than, not professional enough, too flamboyant, uppity, always bringing up the minority view. In other words, professionals of color must find that narrow space that makes white people comfortable. Even that is no guarantee that they will ultimately earn respect and status.

(There is no equivalency to this daily submersion of self except for women of all colors. As a white woman, though, I can tell you that I don’t have to watch my back nearly as closely as a woman of color. But I can understand a bit of what people of color experience.)

This self-shrinking raises an obvious question. What is it about white establishment men that makes them so threatened by people who are different? Why is it okay for white men to be expressive (sic. loud, frustrated, pissed off) and take up air and physical space when the same traits are judged so harshly for people of color? Sure, the obvious answers have to do with wanting power and control and the old ways are changing and safety with your own type and on and on. But I’m not satisfied with these tired responses.

Other makes all of us uncomfortable. That can set off automatic fight or flight responses. This is evident in the workplace. There is polite avoidance or hostility (often displayed as rejection or dismissal). Both choices maintain or widen the gap between groups. To choose to confront one’s own discomfort and bridge the distance by connecting with people who are different takes self awareness and courage. Sadly, there just isn’t enough of that in our companies. This goes way beyond even the best inclusion activities. I’m speaking here about forming meaningful relationships that are professionally satisfying. It’s not about going for drinks after work. It’s about seeking out the expertise, collaboration and camaraderie of people who are other during work hours.

I’m writing this because corporations usually lead movements that create social change. But companies are woefully behind on this score. Sure, there are good intentions and inclusion officers and recruiting campaigns. But the needle isn’t moving. As someone who used to be one of those officers I can tell you what the bottom line is. All the best convictions and programs don’t scratch the surface of the culture that brown professionals walk into. It would be great if there was a critical mass of minorities but they are used to being in the white world. They are adept at being chameleons. It is the lack of respect that is so pervasive is the ultimate killer of even good efforts.

I wish I could wave a magic wand and make every white professional feel what a person of color feels every day at the office. I want them to feel slighted and less than. I want them to feel the pain. I want them to feel that all their hard work and blue chip educations don’t count just because their pigmentation is all that is seen. I want them to put their personalities and emotions into a tiny box for 10 hours every day. I want them to take on a persona that works for the people around them while they shrivel up inside. I want them to feel the exhaustion at the end of every day from putting up with all the crap.

I’ve got nothing clever to say about this phenomenon. Just a sincere and passionate plea to all my fellow melanin challenged colleagues. Pay attention to your less conscious judgments about people who are different than you. Fight to neutralize these learned and automatic reactions. Change your assumptions. Greet each person of color with the same respect you are granted every day for just showing up. Assume (at least) equal status, competence and capacity. Drop the unearned skepticism and open your mind. Extend your hand to get to know someone who is different than you. Be curious about his/her story. Share your own story. Form a professional bond.

And once you’ve done that with one person, don’t stop there. Because if it is only one or two people of color that you connect with you are apt to think that they are the exceptions to the rule.

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