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.

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.

Receiving difficult feedback from your team

Looking up at a pair of joshua trees

Last week we looked at a framework for delivering feedback with clarity and equity. Now let’s examine the other side of the coin and talk about one of the toughest kinds of work conversation: when a report needs to tell you about something you’re doing (or not doing) that’s having a negative impact on the team.

When your team members tell you candidly about things that you need to improve personally, it’s important for you to model the way you want constructive feedback to be received. Often, the first time a team member gives you this kind of feedback, they’re feeling pretty vulnerable; they might trust you generally, but don’t know how you’re going to react to this, so being candid about what needs to change can feel like a professional or personal risk. You want them to feel supported in that vulnerability, and for them to understand that this was a risk worth taking.

My own mantra about this is “don’t take it personally; do take it seriously.” I even repeat this to myself before responding to criticism. This is easy to say, but it’s very difficult not to take feedback about your work personally. As I’ve talked about before on this blog, we live in a work culture where our personal – even moral – value is often equated with how much we work, and how hard we work. This is harmful for a number of reasons. For one, it makes it difficult to separate your fundamental worth as a person from your need to improve at some particular task or your need to pay more attention to some particular thing. That may sound overstated, but in many cases it’s what it feels like to receive negative feedback at work.

To help keep those feelings from getting the best of you during the conversation, I find it useful to return to start thinking about it in terms of the feedback structure we talked about in the last post. When you’re on the receiving end of critical feedback from your direct reports, you have an opportunity to reinforce your feedback structure, and to use it to help establish the parameters for how this difficult conversation proceeds. Just as you would try to do when delivering difficult feedback, you want your report to describe what the behavior they’ve seen is, tell you what the impact of the behavior is on them/their teammates, and if they’re clear on what they’d like to have happen in order to resolve the issue, make a request.

If you don’t fully understand the behavior they’re describing, its impact, and the request that’s being made of you, ask clarifying questions once your report seems done sharing what they’ve had to say. Practice approaching your questions from a place of curiosity instead of defensiveness. Framing them with “help me understand…” or “can you say more about…” can remind you of the tone you want to set and help you focus on the end goal of the conversation, which is identifying the areas in which you need to improve. Asking these questions before offering any reasons or justifications for your actions can also help reduce real or perceived feelings of defensiveness. If it feels appropriate, go ahead and offer context when you’ve demonstrated that you understand the impact of your actions, particularly if your report is asking you to change behavior that needs to remain in place for a specific reason.

Receiving difficult feedback about someone else

If you have more than one direct report, it’s also important to encourage candid communication among your team members, and to understand when it’s important for you to step in during a potential conflict. If Colleague A comes to you with a concern about the behavior or work of Colleague B, there are a couple of questions for you to consider:

• Are you the right person to deliver this feedback to Colleague B? Sometimes, receiving difficult feedback from a third party can trigger feelings of defensiveness – the person receiving the feedback ends up focusing on “why didn’t A just tell me themselves?” rather than on the behavior they need to adjust.

• Is this feedback really for Colleague B, or is it for you? It may be the case that your team members don’t have accurate expectations around each other’s job responsibilities, and it’s your job to help make that clear.

If you think the feedback is something that Colleague B needs to hear, and that Colleague A could reasonably/safely approach B about it directly, go ahead and ask: “is that something you’d feel comfortable talking to B about directly?” Often, the answer will be yes, and the report may have come to you because they were unsure about protocol or worried about overstepping boundaries. Make it clear that even though you’re encouraging them to have that conversation, it’s good that they brought the concern to you, because sometimes that feedback really is for you and not the other person.

In many cases, Colleague A may just need to hear a little encouragement and permission to provide that direct feedback to Colleague B. Remind them of your feedback structure as a way to guide them through the conversation; if they haven’t brought the concern to you already formulated in terms of behavior-impact-question/request, work though the structure with them to make sure they can do that before sending them off to talk to Colleague B.

If the person reporting the behavior wouldn’t feel comfortable talking about it directly with their colleague, you’ve got a little more digging to do. In this kind of situation, the person reporting the issue to you is not responsible for coming up with a specific request for how the issue gets addressed. You need them to tell you about the behavior and its impact; following the rest of the feedback process is your responsibility.

If the issue is more along the lines of a serious concern about the individual’s job performance, you’re likely the right person to handle the feedback conversation. If at all possible, keep the name/role of the person who reported the behavior confidential; if you can’t reasonably provide the feedback while maintaining confidentiality with Colleague A, make sure to tell A that before you talk with Colleague B.

Maintaining your curiosity and your commitment to using consistent, structured feedback when you’re on the receiving end will help build trust with your team. You’ll need that trust to get through the current moment of uncertainty, and it will serve you well as the world continues to change in unexpected and unpredictable ways.

Note: In situations where the behavior being reported is harassment, or potentially illegal, you may need to rope in human resources, your board, or another oversight authority (up to and including your organization’s legal counsel, your local or state employment commission, or if you’re in the U.S., the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, depending on the severity of the issue) to identify next steps. If you’re not sure about your situation or what the right course of action is, WorkplaceFairness.org may be a good place to start learning more.

Delivering feedback with clarity and equity

I don’t think I need to lecture you on why clarity is important here in May of 2020; we’re all starved for it and are looking for it in whatever corners of our lives we can. What I want to do is call out a couple of ways that you can use an everyday manager process – providing feedback – in a way that improves clarity and helps your team operate more equitably.

Provide structured feedback

Providing corrective feedback is one of the skills that’s most important to develop as a manager, and it’s also one of the scariest for a lot of people, because it can feel like initiating conflict. It’s easy to convince ourselves that we don’t really need to tell people explicitly when they’ve done something that isn’t right or has caused problems; we may think “oh, I’m sure they know what went wrong and it won’t happen again.” We may think “I don’t have the full picture here, so I’ll just keep quiet rather than jump in where I don’t belong.” We may worry that the recipient will take the feedback personally. If we’re a member of a privileged identity group relative to the direct report, such as a white person providing feedback to a person of color, we may think “I don’t want them to think that I’m holding them to a different standard because of their race, so I won’t say anything.” Any of these thoughts can hold us back from doing the right thing.

One of the reasons corrective feedback is so scary is that we often aren’t sure how to say it in such a way that it will have the intended effect: allowing the person receiving the feedback to improve their work, while maintaining a sense of proportion about the impact of the mistake or errant approach. As author and management coach Lara Hogan puts it in her book Resilient Management, “[the] best feedback is specific, actionable, and delivered in a way that ensures the receiver can actually absorb it.” That last bit – ensuring the receiver can actually absorb it – can involve a number of different factors, including how quickly you deliver the feedback relative to the occurrence of the behavior, how emotional you feel about the behavior, the severity and scope of the behavior’s impact, and the broader context of your report’s general standing in relation to their job – if they’re new or already having trouble at work, a more minor mistake might feel like a big deal.

Having a consistent structure for delivering feedback, and providing feedback regularly, helps to avoid the pitfalls of conflict avoidance and unequitable approaches to criticism at work. I try to use a method that combines the one Hogan outlines in her book with the one outlined in Managing to Change the World by Alison Green and Jerry Hauser. By the way, this works for positive feedback too:

  • Decide on the timing for the feedback. Is it urgent enough that your colleague needs to be made aware of it immediately? If so, reach out to them via chat or email first to say “Hi, let’s talk about X, because we need to make a plan – can you meet me in a video chat at Y time?” If it doesn’t require immediate attention to fix, could it wait until your next scheduled one-on-one so that you can integrate it into a consistent pattern of providing feedback? If so, add it to your shared agenda (which you’ve got, right?) so that they know to expect the conversation.
  • Describe the behavior – stick to what you’ve seen occur, and avoid making assumptions or conjectures about why the behavior is happening. If you’re giving feedback about a pattern of behavior, have concrete examples of recent instances to refer to.
  • Share the impact of the behavior – wherever possible, tying the impact to the goals that you’ve already set with the team and the individual, if not back to the mission of your organization as a whole.
  • Request/recommendation and/or question – if there’s a specific action that you need to happen in order to rectify the issue, ask for it. Regardless, ask open-ended questions to make sure that you understand the context around what happened. Sometimes it’s appropriate to let your direct report come up with the next best action, but the question part is critical to establishing trust with them. Assume that you don’t have the full picture (you don’t!), and that there may be factors that you weren’t aware of causing the behavior or preventing the report from fulfilling the request that you’re making.

In addition to considering the best way to deliver the feedback so that the recipient is prepared to receive it, you may also need to think about how you’ll prepare to receive their response. If you’re feeling especially emotional – particularly if you’re feeling angry or frustrated – it may be worth giving yourself a bit of time to distance yourself from the immediacy of the event before discussing it with your direct report, so that you can be prepared to take their perspective into account and so that the meeting can stay focused on identifying what your report needs to produce the desired outcome, not on their fear of your feelings.

Use the feedback structure for everyone

I mentioned earlier that managers who are of privileged identity groups relative to their reports can sometimes be wary of providing feedback because of a fear of being seen as racist, sexist, etc. This fear harms both parties.

Not only does withholding feedback prevent your team from improving at its ability to achieve your mission, failing to give your underrepresented colleagues feedback that can help them grow and develop is a surefire way to keep them from achieving their growth potential and perpetuate the cycle that keeps underrepresented people out of positions of leadership and power. Withholding critical feedback sabotages their growth, and it is incumbent on you, their manager, not to do that.

Conversely, you might be a member of an underrepresented group relative to your direct report, such as a woman of color giving feedback to a white, cisgender man. In that case, you may be concerned about how to deliver the feedback in such a way as to ensure that you’ll be taken seriously. Holding to a consistent feedback structure like the one outlined above – maybe even making it a written company policy – can help you ground that feedback conversation in the impact to the organization, making it less “about you” and how seriously anyone takes you personally, and more about the team as a whole.

By keeping your feedback about the behavior, not the person, by using the same structure for corrective and positive feedback, and by making both part of a routine that everyone who reports to you can come to expect, you’ll be able to impart a little corner of clarity into your colleagues’ lives, and to do it in a way that supports equitable development across the team.