3 Effective Approaches to Managing Across Racial Differences

More and more, companies and organizations are hiring Chief Diversity Officers, building out their strategies to retain diverse talent, and acknowledging the importance of developing teams that are comprised of individuals from different backgrounds. In fact, it’s gotten to the point where scrolling through the headshots of the leadership team on a company’s website and realizing that they’re all white men actually makes you scratch your head and wonder how they missed the boat. But it’s not enough to prioritize diversity hiring efforts. Truthfully, diversity efforts without well thought out and executed inclusion efforts can cause more harm than good to minority employees who end up feeling tokenized and isolated.

Managing across lines of racial difference isn’t just about white managers overseeing their minority direct reports, though. It’s also about the increasing number of Black managers who lead teams of white employees. Without either party developing a true understanding and comfort level with nuanced cultural differences, preferences and norms, employees on both ends can feel like they’re not being developed, supported or invested in the ways that they need to be, leaving no one happy. Here are a few tips for building stronger manager relationships  with this in mind:

1. Acknowledge that identity differences are there, and that they don’t have to be avoided. Similarly to the way ‘colorblindness’ actually contributes to racism more than it helps to deconstruct it, pretending like racial differences don’t exist in your manager/direct report relationship can be harmful to its development. For the person of color, it creates an unspoken expectation that we should conceal our differences by assimilating into the dominant culture. Being silent about our differences fuels the implicit belief that success and professionalism can only look one way – which is exactly what the construct of race and whiteness was created to do. For the white person, it relinquishes any personal responsibility for them to see things from another vantage point or perspective. It allows them to remain complicit in the status quo of white culture “the dominant, unquestioned standards of behavior and ways of functioning embodied by the vast majority of institutions in our country” (Gita Gulati-Partee). By explicitly naming and addressing differences, you create a window of opportunity to see people for who they are–not who society tells them they have to be. You are able to establish a level of honesty and transparency that is impossible to achieve otherwise. You create a safe space to address and understand the different experiences and encounters that may only impact a person of color, but should not be dealt with in isolation. If your organization values (or claims to value) diversity, it should also value the practice of learning, understanding, and addressing differences.

2. Avoid operating under the assumption that all approaches will yield the same results. Our workplaces are still institutions that operate within a system that is inherently racist. Systemic racism has defined so many of our norms that we barely notice its intricate functionality. That’s why, when we try to disrupt it, it creates tension and hesitation. As Black professionals, we have to navigate the characterizations, stereotypes and implicit biases that are associated with our race in general, all while managing the same work, relationships and responsibilities that our white counterparts have. As a result, it’s important for white managers to understand that their approaches to career development and conflict resolution will not yield the same results when executed by their Black direct reports, just as it’s important for Black managers to understand that their white direct reports may have an easier or quicker time climbing the ladder than they did. If you are managing direct reports whose racial identities differ from your own, understand that it is irresponsible to base all of your advice and recommendations to your direct reports off of your own experiences. In doing so, you risk being misleading, and steering them into a direction where maybe you might be successful, but they won’t.

3. Accept the fact that you may not be able to be the point person for everything your direct report needs. When managing across lines of racial difference, it’s okay to recognize that your direct reports may need external coaching and guidance that you aren’t positioned to provide. In fact, acknowledging this reality actually makes you a stronger manager, because you proactively operate with acute awareness of the inevitable limitations that exist as a function of your racial differences. As a manger, you are responsible for overseeing both the personal and professional development of your teams. As you get to know your direct reports whose identities differ from your own, begin to think about individuals in leadership or influential positions who share their racial identity, and be intentional about clearing the pathway to connect them. It’s important to know when you can lead effectively yourself, and when you can lead effectively by deferring to someone else.

// What do manager relationships across lines of racial difference look like in your workplace? Is there intentionality in acknowledging differences, avoiding assumptions, and building identity-based connections? Share your thoughts, hesitations, and recommendations in the comments below!


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