How Inclusive Is Your Leadership?
Many managers are ill-equipped to lead and connect with Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) employees. Until white leaders become skilled at bridging (connecting with people different from them) and BIPOC leaders become skilled at bonding (connecting with people similar to them), BIPOC employees will not experience workplace inclusion. Hundreds of socially conscious CEOs have engaged in CEO activism and pledged their commitment to advance racial equity and inclusion. But many leaders (white and BIPOC) don’t know the explicit behaviors needed to implement the desired change. The author presents a research-based, multi-use performance, assessment, and training tool that provides behavioral descriptors to identify and measure a manager’s skill level at inclusively leading and authentically connecting with people from marginalized and underrepresented groups.
America is housing a racially traumatized workforce. Many managers are ill-equipped to lead and connect with Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) employees. The physical traits, values, behaviors, and workplace identities of BIPOC employees continue to be compromised, minimized, and excluded. The reality is that professionalism has become the pseudonym for assimilation. Until white leaders become skilled at bridging (connecting with people different from them) and BIPOC leaders become skilled at bonding (connecting with people similar to them), BIPOC employees will not experience workplace inclusion.
During my research and work with over 100 mid- and senior-level BIPOC employees across multiple industries, a workplace impression-management strategy called “mirroring” emerged. Mirroring is a uniquely intrapersonal process that these employees undergo as they grapple with reflecting, mimicking, constructing, understanding, and portraying “professional” workplace identities that simultaneously signal allegiance to their managers, defy negative stereotypes, respect the ethos of their cultures, and propel their careers.
The Need for Bridging and Bonding
Mirroring is a form of self-scrutiny that centers around the BIPOC’s metaperceptions of their white manager. It’s an internal and iterative practice where BIPOC employees question and evaluate their white manager’s perceptions of their values, behaviors, gestures, and appearance. They compare their own traits to their white manager’s and decide if change is needed in order to be positively perceived and rewarded by them.
Employees who mirror are seeking to belong. They imitate their white manager’s traits to gain acceptance. Their workplace identities are like a distorted mirror that waffles between an authentic reflection and a shrinking and amalgamated expression of their metaperceptions. As a Black male senior leader from a Fortune 500 company told me, “People are scared of Black men with beards.” To appear less threatening and gain a sense of belonging, he shaved his beard to reflect the appearance of the white CEO and senior leaders at his company. Further investigation showed that 100% of this company’s Black and white male senior leaders did not have beards.
Mirroring challenges a fundamental value of Black employees — to be authentic and real. BIPOC employees want equitable opportunities to advance their careers without the implicit pressures of assimilating, creating facades, selling out, or being tokenized. They mirror to navigate corporate America’s inequitable structures and inept leaders. Many possess positional power but are actually disempowered in important ways — they own budgets and accountability for decisions but lack true autonomy to lead their teams. They’re often misunderstood, micromanaged, and rarely share an authentic connection with their managers.
My work assessing the cultural competence (ability to bridge) of over 100 white leaders (manager level and above) showed that more than 89% severely lacked the ability to bridge and authentically connect with people who were different from them. These white leaders failed at building trusting relationships with BIPOC employees and were not skilled at leading inclusively, which requires acknowledging and valuing authentic demographic uniqueness and facilitating positive interactions that give equity and a sense of belonging. Since white men represent more than 85% of Fortune 500 CEOs, they’re integral to creating and dismantling institutional and personally mediated racism.
Alongside these white leaders are the seldom-discussed destructive and inequitable behaviors of some senior-level BIPOC leaders. These BIPOC leaders do not authentically bond with other BIPOC employees, who see them as assimilated identities who were handpicked and tokenized to merely to assuage the sensibilities of white people. The DEI advocacy of these BIPOC leaders is fleeting, and their behaviors perpetuate workplace inequities that employees from disfavored groups experience. Even though BIPOC employees label them as “sellouts” in private, there is an implicit practice to publicly protect these leaders’ reputation and image — despite the harmful impacts of their poor leadership.
Leaders unskilled in creating equity cause BIPOC employees to mirror for survival. A Black female vice president shared, “I never wanted to become one of those Black people who walks in the boardroom and closes the door behind me.” She strongly valued DEI but was fearful of displaying diversity-valuing behaviors since her white boss did not view it as a business imperative. She disengaged from DEI initiatives and created a façade to mirror his colorblind perspective. Mirroring profoundly challenged her fundamental beliefs about DEI.
Mirroring in Response to Managerial Interference
Like this vice president, many mid- and senior-level BIPOC leaders struggle to gain contextual understanding of themselves in America’s workplaces. Along with feelings of disengagement and exclusion, they face tensions where their values are in conflict with their perceptions of the leaders’ expectations. Unlike the simple code-switching tactics of adjusting vernacular to blend in during brief interracial exchanges, mirroring is a more pervasive strategy that sometimes requires the abandonment of core values.
I’ve met countless BIPOC managers who have suffered from their boss’s forceful insertion into how they lead and assess their teams — especially the women and BIPOC employees on their teams.
In one case, a Black female senior manager was forced by her white male manager to decrease the performance rating of a woman and increase the performance rating of a white male on her team, despite her disapproval and without clear justification. The Black leader thought it was inequitable favoritism and asserted to me, “Going forward, I will give my employees what I believe they deserve and not cave into outside influences.”
In a similar incident, a white manager instructed a Latinx male manager to decrease the performance rating of a Black woman and rewrite the review with more harmful examples to “hit the negative aspects.” The Latinx manager struggled internally. He did not agree with his white leader, but he desperately wanted the leader’s approval — so he mirrored. Woefully, he acknowledged the negative intrapersonal impact of following his white manager’s instructions. He lamented, “There’s no way in my values, my core values, is that what I’m about. I would never do that again to someone…Separating people out and whatnot.” Equally revealing, an apprehensive Black female manager was pressured by her white male manager to unfairly fire a woman on her team. The Black manager vehemently yet quietly disagreed. She admitted that the pressure to fire the woman was heavy, but confessed to me, “If I don’t do what he (white male manager) asks, you know, then I’m going to be deemed as not confident enough.”
These cases highlight the importance of developing inclusive leaders who understand how to authentically co-create positive and equitable interactions and processes for BIPOC employees. Inclusive leaders build inclusive teams where all employees (white and BIPOC) feel empowered and valued for their authentic uniqueness. They enable BIPOC managers to lead and assess their teams (without interference) and ensure employees at all levels feel a sense of belonging.
There are hundreds of socially conscious CEOs, like PwC’s Tim Ryan, who’ve engaged in CEO activism and pledged their commitment to advance racial equity and inclusion. But many leaders (white and BIPOC) don’t know the explicit behaviors needed to implement the desired change. The multi-use performance, assessment, and training tool below provides behavioral descriptors to identify and measure a manager’s skill level at inclusively leading and authentically connecting with people from marginalized and underrepresented groups.
This tool is grounded in years of research and work. To understand the construct and behaviors of inclusive leadership, I conducted hundreds of surveys and interviews, facilitated nearly two dozen Appreciative Inquiry focus groups (with employees at all hierarchical levels), did rigorous academic research, and tested findings on workers. After many iterations, I designed a strength-based approach where employees can identify their behavioral strengths in order to create a unique roadmap to becoming a more inclusive leader.
To become more inclusive, leaders should first reflect on their behaviors. Their strengths (high ability) should be augmented, and opportunity gaps (low ability) should be narrowed. Leaders with low ability to be inclusive should reflect on how their behaviors could negatively impact BIPOC employees, then work to upskill. Leaders with average ability to be inclusive should strive to achieve a higher level of competence, as some of their behaviors will inevitably have a negative impact on BIPOC employees. And leaders with high ability to be inclusive must accept that diversity, equity, and inclusion work is never-ending and requires continued growth and efforts — and be encouraged to keep at it.
Regardless of demographic background, we all share a basic need to belong, to be accepted, and to avoid rejection. Managers should use this tool to engage in self-reflection. Employ it to facilitate courageous conversations about BIPOC employees’ feelings and experiences. Apply it to help white managers bridge and BIPOC managers bond with BIPOC employees. And reference it to create more leaders who lead inclusively and authentically connect with Black, Indigenous, and people of color in America’s workplaces.