This week we’re continuing the series on anti-racist management practices. If you haven’t read the other posts in the series, this one stands alone, but I recommend going back and reading the others as well.
Pay attention to your shortcuts.
The ultimate test of your diversity and inclusion efforts is how you apply them to the people who aren’t in the room (whether that “room” is physical or virtual). If your organization is serving people of a particular underrepresented identity – whether by race, gender identity, age, ability, or any other identity axis – it can be easy to talk about those folks with shorthand that reflects negative stereotypes about who they are, rather than focusing on the challenges they face. Your team members will hear that and pick up on those stereotypes. They are likely to replicate them in ways you didn’t intend. They are likely to understand it to be an indication of your own bias in ways that undermine your ability to be effective as a manager. In some cases, they may correctly understand it as a racist or sexist action.
Here’s what I mean by this kind of shortcut, and how subtle it can feel. When interviewing candidates for a technical support role, I’ve often asked: “Tell me about a time when you needed to provide technical help to someone without a technical background.” The most common answers are along the lines of “I helped my mom set up her computer” or “I helped my grandmother figure out her phone” without contextualizing their relative’s background in any way other than their implied age and gender. (Much less frequently, they’ll use “dad” or “grandfather” as their example.) The best answers to that question focus on the background of the person they’re helping and relating the technology to the person’s area of expertise – the challenges that person faces and how to overcome them, rather than who the person is.
When you use that kind of shorthand, even if you know that what you mean is “I helped my grandmother, who has a really deep background in restaurant operations, figure out this new point-of-sale interface that was unlike anything she’d ever seen before, but which was similar to something I used at my last job,” what others will hear is “I helped a person of a particular age range and gender, who obviously needed help because of those factors.” That’s all the information you’ve given them. They’ll reasonably assume that what you’ve said out loud is the relevant information about that person, and that you’re not only extrapolating about that person’s technical ability based on their age and gender, but that you expect them to do the same extrapolation.
As a manager, the risk of the people around you making those assumptions is even more pronounced. At least until you give them reason to do otherwise, your reports will filter everything you say through the lens of “my manager said it, therefore it’s important.” They’ll remember even your offhand comments. If you’re using shortcut language (which by necessity is language laced with assumptions, if not outright stereotypes) to describe an identity that your reports share, they’ll come to reasonable conclusions about the way you think about them, whether you know they hold that identity or not. That can undermine your reports’ willingness to be candid with you, and that makes it much more difficult for you to be effective at achieving your mission.
Pay attention to your team’s language.
You also have to keep a critical ear toward the way your team members talk about your customers amongst themselves. You have to be ready to course-correct if you hear them using this kind of shortcut language, or if you hear them being extra-harsh about customers who are of a marginalized identity. You need to be ready to notice if they’re dismissing the expertise or competence of your Black customers while giving your non-Black customers the benefit of the doubt when something goes wrong.
Practice (like, really, practice in the mirror) saying things like “Help me understand why that’s relevant” when you hear shortcut language being used. (“Help me understand more about your grandmother’s nontechnical background.”) Practice saying things like “It sounds like you’re feeling extra frustrated about customer X compared to customer Y, who’s having similar challenges. What’s under that?” Don’t let the underlying assumptions go unquestioned.
Be as consistent about this as you know how to be (and keep learning).
Establishing a pattern of consistently bringing awareness to this behavior, and correcting it, will make your organization a more inclusive place to work, even if your current team is relatively homogenous: it means the next Black person you hire won’t have to be the one to bring up the behavior, and they’ll see that you have their back when you correct it as it arises.
Next week we’ll dive deeper into what it looks like to cultivate the empathy and curiosity that will help your team respond well to interrogating those shortcuts.