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From the January, 1996 issue of
Managing Diversity

Incorrect Assumptions That Sabotage Your Diversity Promotion Efforts

By Lee Gardenswartz and Anita Rowe

To paraphrase the poet Robert Burns, "The best laid plans of mice and men often go astray." This is especially true of organizations that claim a strong desire to hire, promote, and retain a more diverse workforce. The rhetoric often belies the reality within the organization itself. It begs the question: Are people purposefully deceitful when their words are louder than their actions? We don't think so. Rather, we believe the culprit is often unconscious assumptions that inhibit people's ability to see individuals without stereotyping.

What makes assumptions dangerous is not only that they are limiting, but also that they are unconsciously absorbed through osmosis. How can we correct what we don't know exists? Assumptions are part of the air you breathe and just as hard to get hold of. Yet they can exert a powerful influence. Think about the following four assumptions. Do you hold any of these yourself? Identify those which are operative at your company, because until they are acknowledged, their negative impact can't be minimized, and efforts toward building a truly diverse management team will be impeded.

1. Women and people of color, gays and lesbians, or any people who come under the classification of affirmative action are not promoted because of job performance.

People of color frequently tell us that they are seen as token appointments because they were non-dominant group members. It is rarely assumed that someone who is not white and male could be promoted on sheer performance and ability alone. The blanket but false assumption exists that a diverse promotion is a less qualified promotion. In truth, individuals of every race, religion, or nationality are qualified in some areas and not in others. The determiner of qualification is a coalescing of many factors... experience, innate talent, a passion to do the job, intelligence, developed skills and competencies, raw potential, etc. Diversity related promotions can be as good a fit, and as right - or as bad a fit and as wrong - as any other promotions.

The best way to get beyond this obstacle is to pick people with excellent track records who are ready for increased responsibility and who have been coached. Furthermore, the organization only does part of its job when it picks a diverse candidate for the upward climb. The other part is to offer continued support, technically and emotionally. In that way, new managers can be set up for success, not be left hanging out to dry.

2. Merit and competence in certain areas are the only salient qualifications.

Sometimes only certain job skills are emphasized as necessary, when in fact the role requires multifaceted skills. For example, lifeguards have traditionally been selected on the basis of athletic performance. While no one disputes the importance of being a superb swimmer in order to rescue people, the job also necessitates being able to resolve conflict, solve problems, and communicate with the diverse public that utilizes the beaches. Swimming competence is only one part of the job. In some circumstances, resolving conflict and dealing effectively with different people may be more critical. These skills also need to be factored into the job description and given some weight.

3. A diverse management team is a weaker team than an all white male group.

No intelligent person would admit to this theory, but the battles for equity are fought and won in the deep recesses of our minds, not out in the open. Homogeneity may be comfortable, but it is no longer reality in the United States. It is also no guarantee of an effective team . Both homogeneous and heterogeneous teams can be effective and ineffective, depending on management's ability to tap skills and commitment of the group as well as the innate talent on board. The obstacle arises when white males who have the power to open up the management team buy into this assumption. The time is right for the leadership to realize that talent and tenacity come in both genders plus a variety of sizes, shapes, and colors.

4. Women, people of color, the differently abled, or any person of the non-dominant culture must sell out in order to make it.

The perception exists that the elevator to the top floor leaves a good part of a person's integrity behind as he or she travels upward. Questions abound. "Did this individual sell out in order to make it? Can he or she be an authentic self and survive?" The questions raised by these assumptions incorrectly put the burden for adaptation on the individual, when in truth adaptation is a shared responsibility. Both the organization and the individual should change a little through their interaction.

One woman executive recently told us a story that illustrates this simultaneous and evolutionary change. She was at a meeting with her executive management team when her secretary came in and announced that she needed to take a phone call right then from her child's school. She took the call in the meeting. As she recounted this story, one of our colleagues asked her why she didn't take the call elsewhere. Her response was both quick and clear. It was important to her that her colleagues redefine their image of an executive to include being a nurturer. She is unwilling to deny that part of her and feels strongly that her male colleagues need to come to terms with both her maternal role outside of work as well as her executive role at the office. Meeting these issues head on is the only way society will change. What's more, in that way she can be her authentic self, not someone else's picture of who she should be.

A critical beginning step in making room at the top for diverse talent is to realize how the subconscious thinking of dominant and non-dominant groups alike sabotages the diversity promotion efforts and results. When assessing your company's progress at mid-level and above, some important questions need to be asked. What elements influence promotion decisions? How subtle or overt are the selection criteria? Which ones can be measured and verified? Once you address these questions, there are four unconscious decision factors that strongly influence promotion decisions. Each is simply another variable that sways candidate selection. They deserve some thought and attention as they rattle around your unconscious, because they are influential by virtue of their being unrecognized or unarticulated. As you read these unconscious factors, note any that influence promotional outcomes in your organization.

Unconscious Factors That Influence Promotion

1. The Clone Effect

It is predictable and natural for human beings to value and appreciate those people who are most like them. When promotion time rolls around, appointing a carbon copy might feel like the most natural thing to do if you don't force yourself to think about the pros and cons of appointing your double. In countries with homogeneous populations, the issue of racial or ethnic clones is less of an issue than in our immigrant nation. With Euro-American males holding the power positions in American businesses, most promotions have traditionally gone to other white males, and without some emphasis on the need to build a kaleidoscopic management team, nothing will change. When promoting people, be aware of the pitfalls of appointing someone just like you, not only in appearance and background, but values and thinking styles as well. There is strength in differences. Steve Bottcher, vice president of operations for Pepsi-Cola, said after a three and a half day diversity training course, "A year ago, I might have automatically hired somebody who thought like me. Now I am much more likely to hire someone with a different point of view." As you deal with the natural tendency to hire clones, consider looking for similarities between you and potential promoters in less obvious ways than that of skin color and ethnic background.

2. Expectations and Socialization

One of the most harmful saboteurs of equal opportunity promotion has to do with our unconscious expectations and the prejudices we have about other groups of people. Most of us became acquainted with the self-fulfilling prophecy, or the "Pygmalion Effect," years ago in some college classroom. It is the idea that we live up to or down to the expectations others have for us. But in reality, we have lived its effects all our lives from the teachings of the parents who reared us, the schools that educated us, and the communities that enculturated us. Over a lifetime, our brains have collected pictures and ideas about the capabilities of various groups and individuals. Through print and other media, these ideas have been reinforced. The end result?

Labeling individuals from various groups based on these ideas. The labeling often occurs in subtle ways which can be helpful or harmful, depending on the level of expectations we set for others. The good news is that we can unlearn our harmful thoughts.

3. Double Standard

Gloria Steinem once said that we'll know women have made progress in our society when they can be as mediocre as men. The idea that women, or other members of the non-dominant culture, have to perform stunningly to pass muster when those in the dominant group can get by doing less has not gone unnoticed. You can look at most organizations in this country and find an example of a woman or person of color who has to jump through more hoops, win more battles, prove themselves in more arenas than those in power to even be considered for a promotion.

Deborah Tannen, Ph.D., speaks both eloquently and humorously about the double standard and miscommunication between men and women. She cites the example of women speaking up in mixed-sex groups being harshly described as "overbearing" or "hard-edged." On the other hand, when women are not aggressive in presenting their ideas, they are viewed as "pushovers." Tannen makes the point about women's double bind: "If they speak in ways expected of women, they are seen as inadequate leaders. If they speak in ways expected of leaders, then they are seen as inadequate women. The road to authority is tough for women, and once they get there it's a bed of thorns." In a different but equally relevant arena, Latinos and African-Americans are often considered passive if they don't speak up, but militant if they do.

On more occasions than we care to recount, even when the objective performance is stellar, due to factors like the clone effect and comfort level, diverse employees frequently lose out, or worse still, are simply ignored. Their behaviors and performances are interpreted or defined differently from those of white males. By becoming increasingly aware of these unconscious factors, and by paying attention to unconscious assumptions that can undermine recruiting efforts, your organization really can improve its recruiting efforts, and in the process, attract "the best and the brightest."

Gardenswartz and Rowe are diversity consultants/trainers and authors of several books including MANAGING DIVERSITY: A COMPLETE DESK REFERENCE AND PLANNING GUIDE and DIVERSE TEAMS AT WORK. They are also the authors of diversity training materials such as THE DIVERSITY TOOL KIT and the new video series DIVERSE TEAMS AT WORK: CAPITALIZING ON THE POWER OF DIVERSITY. They can be reached at 12658 W. Washington Blvd., Ste. 105, Los Angeles, CA 90066; (310) 823-2466.

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