Who Has Potential? For Many White Men, It’s Often Other White Men

Many well-meaning companies want to diversify their workforces but face an all-too-common problem: They take great pains to hire more women and people of color, only to find that these employees don’t stick around long.

At one midsize consulting firm, so many talented people were walking out that the partners worried the high turnover was damaging the firm’s competitive edge, according to research by Robin Ely, the Diane Doerge Wilson Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, who studies race and gender relations and works with businesses to break down barriers to workplace equality.

The partners took a hard look at the firm’s internal culture, and what they discovered was a roadblock to equity that trips up many companies: When challenging assignments for important clients cropped up, the all-white, mostly male partners regularly turned to their go-to people—other white men. Meanwhile, white women and people of color who were recruited from the same competitive MBA pool received more mundane work, including tasks they had already mastered. This disparity in development had long-term career consequences; when women, for example, did make partner, they waited an average of two years longer than men.

The firm may have welcomed traditionally underrepresented groups, but its workplace practices systematically, if inadvertently, undermined them—a familiar scenario that plays out at a lot of companies.

“Merely increasing the number of employees from underrepresented groups and trying to be inclusive isn’t enough,” Ely says. “Instead, companies that are intent on diversifying should consider whether their internal culture gives all workers equal opportunities to thrive and succeed.”

Breaking the sameness cycle
One troubling pattern Ely has observed in many organizations struggling to retain white women and employees of color: They tend to have an “assessment” culture, which assumes a person’s talent is fixed rather than developed. In assessment-oriented cultures, managers act as if employees’ talents are set in stone, and they make snap judgments about who on the team has talent and who doesn’t.

“When they talk about what it takes to be successful, managers will often say, ‘I know it when I see it,’” Ely says. “What they’re really saying is, ‘I recognize the qualities I value, which just so happen to be the qualities I have.’”

The organization’s norms, processes, and interactions are structured to give those who “have it” opportunities to demonstrate their talents and advance accordingly.

But leaders in such cultures typically aren’t thinking about how to identify talent in people who look different from themselves. When a company’s talent arbiters are white men, research shows, they tend to more easily recognize the talents of other white men. And so, the cycle continues: These employees get the challenging assignments that help them learn new skills. With more opportunities to shine, they rise through the ranks faster, preserving the status quo.

Assessment-oriented cultures are difficult for everyone, since people in these settings feel compelled to prove their worth, hide failures and mistakes, and avoid taking risks. But they are especially challenging for white women and people of color, whose talents are often overlooked or underestimated because they are less likely to fit the firm’s image of a star performer.

“Missteps can be perilous for these employees,” Ely says, “because managers see their slip-ups as reason to write them off.”

Meanwhile, those deemed stars are given the benefit of the doubt, even when they make mistakes. Ultimately, employees who don’t make the “talent” cut early on are left to find their own way; they flounder and eventually leave, reinforcing the judgment that they weren’t worth investing in, she says.

Adopting the development mindset
To foster more equity, firms need to move away from an assessment culture and instead cultivate a “development” culture, which entails adopting the mindset that all employees have the potential to grow their talents while making sure that opportunities for that growth are distributed fairly, Ely says. In these cultures, white women and people of color would get an equal shot at plum assignments, for example, and receive the coaching and support needed to help them succeed.

“People may respond to a company survey and say they feel included, but ‘inclusion’ too often translates to the equivalent of having a taco day at work to acknowledge someone’s culture,” Ely says. “What people really want is to be given the chance to grow and have an impact and to have that impact recognized and rewarded.”

Breaking the inequity cycle requires leaders to see talent as something that’s cultivated through hard work, stretch assignments, and investing in each employee’s success, Ely says. These organizations are structured so that all employees get the opportunities they need to grow and advance. In turn, by cultivating a broad array of talent, developmental organizations are not only more equitable but are also more agile, innovative, and, ultimately, competitive, she says.

Unlike assessment cultures, development-oriented firms:

Encourage candor and risk-taking. Employees feel safe to share what they know and don’t know. They’re not afraid to offer new ideas and perspectives; in fact, leaders value their perspectives as opportunities to learn how the organization could do its core work better.
Monitor and recalibrate their development efforts. Businesses track indicators of whether people are thriving—like promotion and retention rates and employees’ self-reports on annual company surveys—so they can address patterns of advantage or disadvantage that may arise across groups and ensure that development and advancement opportunities are broadly available.
Provide honest feedback. At the heart of the development mindset is managers being willing and able to give candid, actionable feedback to all employees, including those from traditionally underrepresented groups, so that all can reach their full potential.
“It’s critical when giving feedback to hold the belief that the person has the capacity to learn and grow,” Ely says. “If a manager delivering feedback has already written the employee off, the employee is likely to sense that.”

Embracing the tough work—and reaping the rewards
That’s why it’s crucial for leaders who are adopting a development mindset to carefully examine how they deliver feedback to their employees about their work, Ely says. Are they making people feel supported by offering guidance when they slip up? Or are they tearing people down by nit-picking over every misstep?

Ely recalls one manager’s efforts to become a better supervisor to a Black female employee who was smart and hard-working, but made a lot of mistakes. His typical reaction, he noted, was to point out each error, instruct her to fix it, and tell her not to do it again.

“But as he reflected on his behavior, he realized that his approach was probably demoralizing, especially to someone who may already have felt marginal in the firm,” Ely says.

In contrast, the manager recalled, when he had made a colossal mistake with a client early in his career, his supervisor reassured him, telling him, “Don’t sweat it. It will be fine.” His supervisor then helped him see how he could fix the problem and brought him to the client meeting so that he could do so. “His mistake became an opportunity to learn,” Ely says.

That recollection helped this manager reframe his interactions with his employee, leading him to initiate a more direct conversation to help her think about specific ways she could improve.

“Some people are forgiven their mistakes; others are not,” Ely says. “Some are given useful feedback that feels supportive and gives them the opportunity to grow, while the feedback others are getting is soul-destroying.”

Any company that commits to fostering a development culture could not only achieve greater equity by retaining and promoting a more diverse array of employees but also gain a competitive edge over assessment-oriented firms, which fail to harness all of their talent, Ely says.

“Cultivating a development culture would provide an amazing competitive advantage because such a culture is not easily replicated,” she says. “Other firms can’t just jump on the bandwagon. They would have to do the hard work of culture change themselves.”


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