Ending the vague use of “potential”

It’s well-documented that people from underrepresented backgrounds are promoted at lower rates than white, cisgender men. The Kapor Center, for example, has gathered research on the impact of bias on advancement opportunities in the tech industry and beyond. Today I want to zero in on one factor that contributes to this lower promotion rate: the vaguely defined concept of “potential.”

It’s very common for hiring and promotion decisions to be based on someone’s perceived potential to be good at that job, rather than on past indications of performance. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing! It gives people an opportunity to grow into a new role that they might not have otherwise had. But in order for those decisions to be equitable, you need to clearly define what “potential” means for any given role. As I’ve written elsewhere, if it’s not carefully defined, the word “potential” can be a not-so-subtle stand-in for “reminds me of myself at that point in my career,” and that leads to promoting mostly people whose identity is close to your own. This leads to homogeneous leadership teams that are limited in their ability to identify problems that your organization should be solving, holding back both talented individuals and your organization as a whole.

Defining potential for a job means looking at the skills required for the role and being open and flexible about the way those skills could be developed. In particular, think about the “conventional” ways that job skills are often thought about as developing – often through expensive higher education or industry-specific experience that requires personal connections to establish. For example, if your most recent job posting for a particular role says that you require a Bachelor’s degree, ask yourself:

  • What is the specific skill or experience that the Bachelor’s degree signifies that relates to someone being qualified for this job?
  • Is there another way that skill or experience could be attained?
  • In what ways am I using the idea of a Bachelor’s degree as a shortcut for asking for the skill or experience I want from someone starting out in this role?
  • Can I reasonably ask for the skill or experience instead of the Bachelor’s degree?

Additionally, defining “potential” means thinking about what you’re prepared to train someone on and what you need them to already know, or be skilled at, coming into the role. Often, we write a job description with an eye toward what someone who is already succeeding in the role will be able to do. How important is it that the person be able to succeed at those things right away? Questions to ask yourself include:

  • What resources exist internally to help someone learn to do this role?
  • What industry resources exist outside our organization to help someone develop these skill sets?
  • How much time and money can I budget for training?
  • What do other roles in my organization require that would help someone succeed in this role?
  • What do I expect from someone in this role on their first day?
  • What do I expect from someone in this role after three months?
  • What do I expect from someone in this role after a year?

Having the answers to these questions will not only enable you to fairly assess a wider range of candidates – it will help you establish clear expectations and enable the person hired to be more effective in the role.

One more note on this: As a manager, you probably have a high degree of control over these things on your own team. You also have the power to advocate for your team members’ advancement into roles that you don’t personally manage. When you’re advocating for a colleague from an underrepresented background to advance into a role that someone else manages, talk to that manager about what they see as potential. Asking them these questions can help them see your colleague as a possibility where they might have previously dismissed them, creating space for a more equitable team to thrive.

Check your attitude toward your customers.

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.

The one safe assumption is that you don’t know everything.

Prickly pear cactus, a common plant where I grew up, but in the Jardin des Plantes in Paris.
Desert plants growing in an unexpected place: the Jardin des Plantes in Paris

Content warning: this post contains a discussion of racially motivated violence and murder.

This week we’re continuing the series on anti-racist management practices and laying the groundwork for diverse, equitable teams. If you haven’t yet read the previous posts in this series, this one should still be actionable, but I do recommend going back and reading the previous two.

Assume you don’t know how your team is impacted by external events.

I’ve said it before on this blog, and I’m sure I’ll say it again: you don’t know the whole story behind your reports’ work or what they’re bringing to the table. Even in a close working relationship, there are going to be times when your report is affected by events in the news or in their own life that you aren’t aware of. Your job as a manager is to create the environment that makes it feel possible – if not comfortable – for them to tell you when those events are impacting their ability to work effectively.

I’ll take myself as an example. I’m generally seen as a cisgender white woman, with all the privileges that perceived identity entails. I’ve lived in New England for nearly my entire adult life. Very little of my visible circumstances would show you that I grew up in southern New Mexico, near the border, that I’m biracial, that issues of immigration centered on the Mexican border are deeply personal and immediate to me. I’m generally pretty vocal about issues that I care about, but immigrants’ rights feel so personal to me that I often don’t talk about them except with my closest friends and family. So, when there’s a vigilante shooting targeting Hispanic and Latinx people in El Paso, Texas, as there was in August of 2019, it might not seem obvious that I would feel personally impacted.

How does that connect to work? Well, a less aware manager than I had at the time (thanks, Michelle!) might have seen that I was distracted and assumed that it meant I was not dedicated to my job. Maybe they would have written me up for mistakes I made while trying to focus through grief. Maybe they would demand a note from my therapist or my doctor if I asked to take a mental health day to process and attend a local vigil, introducing logistical hurdles that would preclude the effectiveness of the time off. Over time, these things can add up to a serious impact on someone’s ability to maintain the working relationships required to keep and advance in a job.

Similarly, if you are not feeling personally affected, it might not seem that news of a Black person being killed by police in another state would impact your Black employees personally. But these news stories add up, and they add up to personal grief and an understanding that the physical distance doesn’t protect you or your loved ones from a similar encounter. In situations like we’re in now in the U.S., where the main focus of the news cycle and social media discussions is on systematized racial violence, it is worth understanding that your organization’s mission may not be able to stay at the top of your employees’ attention in that moment.

So how do you make room for understanding the impact of external events on your team members, and for giving them space while maintaining (or, dare I say, improving) the overall effectiveness of your team? A few places to get started:

  • Make a “focus check” a regular part of your routine one-on-one meetings with your direct reports, ideally weekly. It can be as simple as asking for a “red/yellow/green” status, where red is “major difficulty focusing,” yellow is “generally okay but there are significant distractions,” and green is “good to go.” They don’t need to provide details or tell you why if any one week is yellow, but if you see three or more weeks of yellow or they’re giving you red, that’s a signal to ask if they need help meeting a significant deadline or to take some time away from their desk. Importantly, make sure they know that the focus check is informational only: they aren’t going to get in trouble for having a red or yellow status, but there may be conversations about helping them get the resources they need if their work is being impacted.
  • Ensure that your policy for taking mental health days and the mental health resources your company offers are clear, easily accessible, and easy to execute when an employee needs them most: which is to say, when they are in crisis mode and can’t spare the focus or energy to go through a lot of logistical processes.
  • Be really clear on what kinds of deadlines are “must meet” and what the impact is of unmet deadlines. That helps you understand whether you need to re-delegate work (or take it on yourself) if an impacted team member needs to take time away, or whether they can reasonably set it aside and pick it back up when they’ve re-energized.
  • Ensure that no critical tasks are the sole responsibility of any one individual. Make it possible (if not easy) for another team member to take on a critical task if its usual owner can’t complete it.
  • Be on the lookout for “that’s not my job” attitudes when someone is asked to pick up a task for an impacted team member. Practice what you’ll say in response. Look for ways to share these expectations when you’re training new employees.

While I’m focused here on the example of the stress and distraction of racial injustice, any employee can find themselves under unusual stress at any moment, for any number of reasons. You don’t have to be a therapist for your reports in difficult moments (nor should you try), but creating systematic approaches like these to help identify and mitigate the impacts of that stress at work – where you, the manager, have power to do that – will improve the resilience and effectiveness of your team as a whole in the long run.

Laying the groundwork for diverse, equitable teams

A stone staircase leading up and away from the viewer in a garden

I talk to a lot of folks who aren’t sure where to start when it comes to making their teams more inclusive and equitable. Some treat it as a question to be tackled later, when their teams are more diverse. (Spoiler: Don’t put this off. If you create an inclusive environment, you will have a much better shot at achieving and sustaining diversity in the long term.)

Regardless of the current makeup of your team, you can start laying the groundwork to make your environment more inclusive and equitable, and more resilient in times of crisis. For my next several posts I’m going to be focused on different elements of that groundwork, starting with the “why”: the end goal of a thriving, diverse team.

Get clear on what diversity means and why it matters.

You’re probably familiar with the business case for diversity. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you also probably have a deep sense that diversity matters for ethical reasons, whether or not you’ve articulated what those reasons are. But if you’re a white person, a cisgender person, a man, able-bodied, or any/all of the above, those reasons may feel abstract to you, difficult to put into words or practice. Let’s dig in a bit more.

A quick search for “diversity and problem solving” will yield dozens of articles about how diverse teams perform better because they bring different approaches to solving the same problem. But – and I owe this framing to Nicole Sanchez, founder of Vaya Consulting the real benefit of diverse teams is that they can identify more problems worth solving, because they experience different kinds of problems.

This distinction is important: When the focus is on solving problems you’ve already identified, people who are timid about racial diversity will sometimes take “different approaches to problems” to mean “I just need people with different approaches to problem-solving, it doesn’t matter if they’re all white.” People who are timid about gender diversity will take it to mean “I just need different approaches to problem-solving; it doesn’t matter if they’re all cisgender men.” And so on. This is where the insidious tendency to focus on “diversity of thought” creeps in. You won’t see that phrase again in this blog.

In last week’s post I talked about getting to understand the impact of a given situation on your reports, and about the fact that we often are aware of the existence of the situation, but we may not see it as a problem if it doesn’t impact us in the same way that it impacts our reports. A diverse team in an equitable environment gives us a better chance to understand different impacts of familiar situations, making us more effective at achieving our mission. For that reason, when I talk about the value of diverse teams on this blog, here’s what I mean:

Racial diversity matters in the workplace because we live in a world where people experience different problems because of their race and particularly their skin color, and those problems disproportionately impact people’s ability to access professional and educational opportunities.

Gender diversity matters in the workplace because we live in a world where people experience different problems because of their gender, transgender or gender-nonconforming identity, and gender presentation, and those problems disproportionately impact people’s ability to access professional and educational opportunities. (Sensing a pattern?)

Disability matters in the workplace because we live in a world where people experience different problems because of mobility difficulty, sensory impairments, mental health, and learning disabilities, and those problems disproportionately impact people’s ability to access professional and educational opportunities. (Yup, it’s a pattern.)

A truly diverse, equitable team is one that is representative of these different experiences and understands that these problems exist, understands how they impact the people your organization exists to serve, and works to solve them.

It doesn’t matter if you have the smartest people in the world on your team; they won’t solve a problem if they don’t know it exists. You need to understand what the relevant problems are before you can address them. Learn from the people who are sharing their experiences within your team, online, in books, on podcasts. And if you don’t currently have visible diversity, don’t let the homogeneity of your current team stop you from understanding what it will take to support and benefit from a diverse team later on – more on that over the next few weeks.

On anti-racist management practices

What do I mean by anti-racist?

Anti-racism is the active opposition of the structures and actions that support and reflect racial inequities. On an individual level, that can mean using bystander intervention techniques when you see something happening that isn’t right or voting for candidates and policies that will address those inequities. It can mean talking to your family and friends – especially kids –about the racial inequities that exist around you and how to address them.

It also means examining all the systems that you’re part of and understanding how those systems’ processes have negatively impacted the most historically marginalized groups – in the US, that’s folks who are BIPOC (Black/Indigenous/People of Color). It means working to change those processes to counteract that negative impact.

Why is it a manager’s responsibility to be anti-racist?

First of all, because it’s everyone’s responsibility. More to the point, as a manager you hold structural power. This is especially true if you’re a senior leader in your company and can influence or create company policy, but it applies to anyone who’s in charge of hiring decisions, performance evaluations, giving feedback, and generally helping their team to be maximally effective at achieving their mission.

Holding structural power means you have an opportunity – and therefore the responsibility – to make sure that those structures are supporting your current and future employees equitably. (Remember: that is not the same as supporting all your employees equally.)

Anti-racism needs to be built into your everyday processes.

Moments like this one, where there’s a very high concentration of news and emotion about racial injustice, demand particular responses the way any crisis at work demands a particular response: leaders need to provide direct communication, clear expectations, and clearly outlined resources. For a jumpstart on that action, read Dr. Erin L. Thomas, head of Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging at Upwork, on immediate actions to take; also read Lara Hogan, management coach with Wherewithall, on leading through a crisis for more on what that response can and should look like.

Having a ready crisis response is important, but it’s not enough to send an all-staff email or a social media post affirming that Black Lives Matter when those lives are at the highest points of risk. You are in a position to do more to mitigate that risk.

Over the next several weeks, the focus of this blog’s posts will be on laying the groundwork for an inclusive team. This is long term, sustained work that requires attention to equity issues to be part of your process, not just something that comes up occasionally when it feels like there’s time. And it’s worth it for more than just the feeling of doing the right thing: your team will be better and more effective, and you’ll be able to have more impact toward your mission. (More on that in next week’s post)

Start with self-reflection: identify your own gaps.

Whether you’re relatively new to understanding these challenges or you consider yourself a seasoned activist, there are likely to be gaps in your awareness that could inadvertently be impacting someone on your team.

There are a number of resources available to help you identify these gaps. One of my favorites is in Karen Catlin’s Better Allies: Everyday Actions to Create Inclusive, Engaging Workplaces: in the first chapter, Catlin provides a list of fifty potential workplace privileges designed to help leaders think about obstacles that others face that they may not have considered. She encourages readers to think carefully about the privilege statements that surprise them, or that they haven’t considered before.

Once you’ve identified those gaps, it’s time to do a little homework. Within your gap areas, research who is directly impacted and advocating for the needs of those groups (individuals and organizations). Follow them on social media, read their blogs and books, listen to their podcasts – whatever makes sense for you to raise your awareness of what their main challenges are and what changes they advocate. One particular recommendation for understanding the challenges faced by Black women in the workplace is The Memo by Minda Harts (she also has a podcast if that’s your jam).

Think about how these challenges manifest in your work environment, and consider which changes you can implement to mitigate those challenges without your underrepresented team members needing to be the ones to raise the issues (often a vulnerable and risky conversation for them).

This can be an overwhelming process, especially if you’re new to identity-related issues. Don’t be scared of it! You’re not required to be an expert on every possible issue your reports could encounter, and you won’t always know what identity-related challenges they face, but you are required to continually learn and improve.

Also, remember that the path of learning about identity issues is an ongoing cycle, one that you’ll revisit constantly throughout your career. Jennifer Brown describes this cycle in detail in her book How to Be an Inclusive Leader, which I recommend if you’re looking for a way to contextualize your place along the path to better inclusivity.

Stick with it.

You’re here because you understand that structural change takes real work. Don’t give up on it. If it helps to keep you on track, subscribe to these posts via email using the widget on the right side of the page (on a desktop) or below this post (on mobile) so that you get a weekly reminder of what you can do to keep up the momentum and effect long-lasting change.