Kim is a promising young African-American executive ascending the ranks at a Fortune 500 company. Despite her success she regularly encounters situations where colleagues or clients assume she is a junior-level employee. They often express visible surprise upon meeting Kim for the first time. Kim is sure the reaction is because she is African-American.
“The situation is always awkward and embarrassing for both parties,” says Kim. “I can’t help feeling angry and disappointed to be on the receiving end of obvious racial stereotyping by otherwise intelligent and worldly people. I am tired of feeling like I have to justify my presence in the room every time I meet somebody in the course of doing business.”
• What can I do at the outset to preclude these judgments?
• Do I have a responsibility to address these reactions? How can I do so without appearing “reactive”?
• How can I recover my equilibrium and steer the relationship in the right direction?
Patricia Hayling Price: Kim, you’re not alone. Among African-American women surveyed in 2004 by Catalyst – a non-profit research and advisory firm that works to advance women in business – 56% reported encountered persistent, “race-based” stereotyping and a third felt that their authority and credibility had been called into question.
On your way up, managing preconceptions of you as an African-American woman can be critical to your success but, as you acknowledge, the way you manage them is just as critical, both to your career and your personal well-being. You can make the situation worse by reacting in an angry manner, or you can use your knowledge and gifts to put it to rest in an elegant way.
Orlando Ashford: It really comes down to one question: “Does this person have any influence over my ability to achieve my goals?” My dad gave me some very good advice when I was in college: If the person who has misjudged you or questioned your worth is someone who can significantly influence your life – a professor who is going to give you a grade, a boss who is going to evaluate your performance and determine your compensation– then you need to figure out how to correct them, in the smartest way possible. I find that you usually have three choices: Ignore it, laugh at it, or make it a “teachable moment”.
On the other hand, if the person who misjudged you doesn’t have influence in your life—and most people don’t have any influence, unless you give them that influence—then you need to figure out how to let it go. Otherwise, it will chip away at you.
Patricia: Think about someone like President Obama. Think of how many times in his life he probably found himself in situations similar to yours. Obviously, he didn’t let the preconceptions of others keep him from achieving his goals. You are in good company. Relate your experience to something positive. Otherwise your frustrations may mount and blow up on you one day.
Orlando: So what kind of practical advice can we give Kim?
Patricia: A simple and practical way to avoid awkwardness is to immediately introduce yourself so there is no mistaking your position at the firm. Also, humor may be hard to muster but it can often serve a dual purpose: diffusing the situation and providing a subtle nudge.
Orlando: I agree. As you move up in your career, positively positioning yourself and building good relationships is key; it’s important to categorize these experiences and select the appropriate response. And it’s really important to gauge intent. For example, a brief look of surprise is much different than, say, a person being dismissive or condescending.
Patricia: Always be prepared, elegantly confident and so not bothered by their reactions that any awkwardness becomes their issue. When you develop that state of mind, the situation becomes amusing and highly manageable as opposed to corrosive.
Coaches Corner brings together two experienced executive coaches for their take on issues in the workplace. Patricia Hayling Price is president of LIVEWORKSTRATEGIZE LLC, an executive coaching, image and leadership development consulting firm. Orlando Ashford is senior vice president and chief HR officer for Marsh & McLennan Companies, a premiere global professional services firm.