Workplace diversity: Managers must build a culture of belonging

Jacqueline Adams
·5 min read

In my first #TeamUp column, I wrote about often being the only person of my race or gender in professional situations. That experience isn’t unique to me.

My co-author, Bonita Stewart, and I found in our 2019 survey of four races and four generations of American female “desk workers” that 47% of Black women said they were frequently or always “onlys.” By contrast, 73% of white women said they were rarely “onlys.”

We wondered whether we would see significant progress a year later, after George Floyd’s horrific, on-camera murder, the subsequent racial and social justice protests, and the scores of corporate declarations of support for increased diversity and inclusion activities. Demographics alone demanded improvement, we thought. After all, the census predicts that by 2027 the majority of 18- to 29-year-olds in the U.S. workforce will be people of color. Change is inevitable and imminent.

However, the “only” number barely moved in our second survey, our 2020 Women of Color in Business: Cross-Generational Survey©. In the final month of a turbulent year, 46% of Black women said they remained always or frequently the “only.” And 72% of white women said they were rarely “onlys,” a shift of just one point for both groups. For Latina women, there was a slight improvement – from 41% to 36%. For Asian women, the “only” number ticked up slightly – from 39% to 40%.

Yes, the results were disappointing, but in this survey we compared responses from female “desk workers” with those of 150 white male managers. Aha, we thought. They will tell us how and why the numbers changed so little. And they did.

Stretch assignments and mentors

Our top findings about the career-defining assignments people are given and the feedback they receive were revealing:

  • 62% of white male managers said they have received a stretch assignment, a challenging work assignment that pushes one out of one’s comfort zone, within the last 12 months. Only 44% of Black, 36% of Latina, 37% of Asian, and 35% of white female managers reported receiving similar stretch assignments.

  • 75% of white male managers said they were receiving helpful feedback, while the female managers reported lower percentages. Latina female managers topped this category with 51%, followed by Black women at 48%. Obviously, there’s still room for feedback parity.

When we asked about mentoring, we found all female managers were more likely than the white men in our survey to help others, regardless of race or gender. Women ranged from 56%-65% versus the men at just 34%.

White male managers said they were more comfortable with other white men:

  • The majority, 51%, reported that they help white men, and 61% said they seek career advice from other white men. Asked why, they chose, “Because I feel that I can better identify with them.”

The result, of course, is that, with white male managers outnumbering managers of color and primarily giving feedback to and receiving feedback from white men, women of color are missing out on mentoring.

Moving toward a more inclusive workplace

Great managers matter. My co-author and I have benefited from positive working relationships with white male allies and mentors. In fact, an entire chapter of our book is for and about them. One of our most urgent suggestions is for corporate leaders to work overtime to find and reward talent among people who do not look like them. We urge them to hire well-educated, ambitious, tech-forward women of color in multiples! The era of tokenism is over.

Fortunately, majorities of both Black and white managers in our recent survey recognize the harm that a lack of diversity has caused in the workplace:

  • 70% of Black female managers agreed that systemic racism has hurt the U.S. economy a great deal, and a majority of white male managers, 53%, concurred.

But that recognition won’t automatically bring change. Our 2020 findings illuminate the fear and discomfort that some white male managers may be feeling and the need to create psychologically safe places for them to embrace inclusivity and radical empathy.

As Harvard Business School Professor Amy Edmondson explains, a psychologically safe workplace does not mean that standards are relaxed or expectations are low. “It is not about becoming ‘comfortable’ at work,” she has written. “Psychological safety is the belief that the environment is safe for interpersonal risk taking. People feel able to speak up ... without being shut down in a gratuitous way. Psychological safety is present when colleagues trust and respect each other and feel able, even obligated, to be candid.”

So how do we get there? My co-author and I recommend more training – and retraining – of managers to increase the number of “transformational” leaders.

What does one look like? One leader who earned a perfect score from his team has “open office hours” once a week. Anyone who signs up gets 15 minutes to pitch a new idea, ask for assistance with a project, or just bond. Another leader was challenged by his “introverts,” who told him not everyone is comfortable speaking up in a meeting. The leader responded by suggesting some extracurricular reading; then, together, the staff came up with ways to make sure everyone was comfortable sharing ideas.

Transformational leaders are easy to spot because they are attracting innovative, high-performing, satisfied, and profitable teams. They look for potential not perfection, and they’re courageous. They also display several well-known skill sets: IQ (basic intelligence), EQ (emotional intelligence), and most importantly CQ (cultural intelligence), an awareness and appreciation of racial, gender, generational, and all kinds of differences. In short, transformational leaders create a genuine sense of belonging.

Companies need to recognize and reward their most transformational leaders, who create a culture where all workers – including a growing number of women of color – can thrive.

Jacqueline Adams is co-author of “A Blessing: Women of Color Teaming Up to Lead, Empower and Thrive.”

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