For most of my career I have worked in corporate America and for most of my career there has been one constant…I have never permanently worked under or reported to a leader of color. I also have yet to be on a team where there were more than a handful of people of color within my immediate working circle. What’s the issue?
Everyone seems to love to talk about and tout diversity and inclusion efforts. But I wonder how much of that is pomp and circumstance as opposed to true effort and intentional execution of a meaningful strategy. From where I sit, there doesn’t seem to be a shortage of diverse talent within organizations. There is, however, a shortage of diverse leaders at the top of organizations.
Now before I go any further, I want to be clear. When I reference “diversity” or “people of color” I am not limiting my sentiments to African Americans. Diversity issues vary based on the industry or situation. Any number of people from protected classes can rightfully argue that they are not truly given a fair chance at having a seat at the top. So what do we do?
I have observed many of my peers choose to leave situations where the likelihood of promotion or success was slim to none in comparison to their counterparts. For some it has worked well and they have been able to rise to the levels of senior and executive management. But what about those who are left behind?
Talking about diversity in some ways is almost as taboo as talking about ones mental health status or sexual orientation. As a matter of fact, in some instances I think people would rather tackle those issues than the issue of diversity or lack thereof. If you’re impacted and have strong feelings about your position and potential in a seemingly non-diverse leadership environment, you dare not speak up for fear you will kill your career. The only option, it seems, is to remain visibly invisible.
HR knows you’re there. Executive leadership knows you’re there. You know you’re there. Everyone can see you clearly when you sit at certain levels in the organization. It’s when you aspire to achieve those high level leadership roles that you, your potential and opportunities for success become faded until it feels like you are invisible. When those roles or opportunities become available, it is as if no one sees you or wants to see. So what do you do?
In his book, Originals, Adam Grant talks about the four options for handling a dissatisfying situation: exit, voice, persistence and neglect (p.79). In the context of navigating while being visibly invisible, exit is the simplest remedy – you leave and go where you have a greater potential to achieve higher level roles. Voice is a little more challenging because it means “actively trying to improve the situation” (p.79), i.e. not only identifying the problem but coming to the table with potential solutions. Persistence is just dealing with it. In my mind this is synonymous with acceptance – it’s always been this way and it will never change but as long as I do my best, I can deal with it. Last but not least there is neglect which means you stick it out while slowly giving less and less. Whether there is a right or wrong response can be debated but when you are trying to effectuate change, the most effective one is voice.
Think about a ship at sea. As it sails through the fog, you may not see it but as it nears land or another vessel you will certainly hear the horn signaling its approach. The same can be true while navigating thru visible invisibility. You speak up. You clear the fog of bias and stereotypes and you voice your concerns. Easier said than done, I know, but not impossible. One thing you must do is never give up. As difficult as it is to imagine that, in 2016, people are still not being afforded equal opportunities, staying visibly invisible and silent won’t solve the problem, it only adds to it.
Grant, A. (2016). Originals: How Non-Comformists Move the World. New York: Penguin Random House.
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