Being Judged in Diversity Work

Anxiety is a familiar feeling people experience when preparing to receive results or feedback from a report, test, or other kind of individual evaluation. There are so many situations where we are encumbered with worry and dread related to work performance reviews, college exam scores, car diagnostic tests, and an assortment of preventive exams and medical tests from pre- and post-natal through to childhood and the venerable golden years.

We did not come into this world with this anxiety. I recall sitting with my first born in the doctor’s office as they prepared me to help administer the first of several immunizations. My daughter laid in my lap, nearly bald and toothless, having no idea what was about to come her way. She eagerly awaited the start of the doctor’s visit.

In contrast, I was personally very anxious because it was my first time and I dreaded the immunization shots as an overly protective first-time father. Earlier while waiting in the exam room, I overheard twins in the room adjacent screaming bloody murder as nurses scurried from the same room vanishing out of sight around a corner.

Moments later, the pediatrician shot out of the same room with the screaming twins yelling this curdling deep shriek from within. The doctor cried, “Can someone help me in here?” As the door closed behind the nurses re-entering the room, I saw what I presumed to be the mother trying to manhandle her two toddlers as they whooped and hollered, arms flailing about with bright, beet-red faces.

Thankfully, my ordeal was nothing like the twins’ experience as my daughter smiled like the Mona Lisa until the nurse poked her in the arm three different times. Each time, my daughter looked into my soul as if to say, “How could you do this to me? I thought we were friends, man.”

Years later en route to another doctor’s visit, I would talk to my pre-schooler daughter to help reassure her if only for a moment until she asked more questions or nervously fidgeted in her car seat. At the doctor’s office, our new pediatrician would distract her, allow me to hold her closely, speaking kindly and gently to her as each needle poked her little arms. Her face would be so sad, tears coming down her cheeks, and little arms holding her papi’s neck, aggressively.

A whole field of study focuses on test anxiety because of how it hinders an individual’s ability to do well. Test anxiety is when an individual experiences extreme stress and has feelings of dread and worry, negative thinking, physiological tension, and discomfort during testing situations. Another aspect includes test result anxiety. The New York Times did a story focusing on the anxiety people experience waiting for medical results.

Test Result Anxiety in Diversity Work

In cultural competency work, a valid and reliable assessment is the cornerstone to build confidence in the results and develop strategic priorities. However, there is plenty of anxiety and other feelings to go around. In particular, when conducting a feedback session, I have found there can be an assortment of real life concerns. One of the most common feelings is fear of judgment.

In a competitive society, being negatively judged by others where someone is perceived as not up to par or is not exceptional in some fashion can be difficult because it can expose a person’s vulnerability. Perceived failure on an assessment, even if it cannot be failed and there are no right or wrong answers, can still be disappointing for many, however, irrational it seems.

Who wants to walk away feeling they are a racist or sexist? In many societies and communities, racism, sexism, and other forms of bias go against the social code of egalitarian values. Most do not pride themselves as bigots. So, any hint that it might be true is quite a big blow to their ego. Although professionals do not use a cultural competency assessment to determine whether a person is a bigot, the negative judgment is a latent but apparent fear people consider when contemplating their results.

Unlike infants and toddlers, who seem fearless in the face of the unknown, adults develop a sophisticated network of fears about all kinds of real and imagined experiences. For some, the reality is that feedback from a cultural competency assessment can be a bit intimating tapping into feelings of guilt, shame, fear, and an array of uncomfortable, much better if avoided, emotions.

There are those who feel more confident in their cultural competency because they value fairness and equality. They have high expectations of themselves, as well, because of their extensive multicultural experience. Anything indicating they are not as advanced, as they believed, can be a shock to the system. Although they, oftentimes, present themselves as cool, calm, and collected, I learned that self-doubt can lead to feelings of embarrassment and ambiguity that pick at them.

For people with extensive multicultural experience, they are not always prepared to know what to do with the fact they are not as prepared to manage intercultural situations as effectively as they aspired to be. They may have learned to put on a good face during difficult exchanges, which led to them being less culturally savvy hampered by challenges from a collection of problematic encounters.

After receiving their personalized cultural competency profile, it may stir up emotions ranging from open optimism to a touch of anger and maybe indignation. Commonly, many experience ambivalence needing time to allow the information to percolate in their minds as they attempt to make the information personally resonate for them. For another group, they feel an immediate sense of clarity and excitement to start the work. Regardless, each can find a way to receive the feedback constructively in their time.

Still, others will question the reliability and validity of the results attempting to point to poorly worded, vague, or confusing items. Whether they believed it prior to assessment or not, questions of the assessment may transition to devaluing diversity and inclusion. As a result, they dismiss their results and feel resolute to treat everyone the same from a humanist ideal.

Where Do We Go From Here?

It is important to recognize any and all of these aforementioned responses are real, requiring attention and careful consideration. It can ruin a feedback session if I respond with a dismissive attitude toward a client’s experience. As a consultant and coach, I provide results and information, which I must feel confident, reflects the best indication of where a person’s strengths are toward creating a plan to develop their cultural competency moving forward.

For my clients, I know they are not children to be coddled. However, reassurance can go a long way with many people as we discuss in depth what the results mean and how people commonly overestimate their cultural competency. I have also reviewed with clients their areas of strength and growth, setting goals for how they achieve greater cultural competency, and review their action plan.

The intention here is to make the experience in a feedback session as realistic as possible, setting up a picture that takes out some of the mystery that will allow more focus on achieving the goals set forth. It is important to set realistic expectations and bring the experience back down to Earth. By recognizing and appreciating the fears, doubts, and anxiety that commonly emerge, people can manage feedback sessions well, allowing them to prepare themselves and avoiding the feeling of being overexposed and needlessly vulnerable.

In spite of these feelings, I find that people are willing to take measured risks, conjuring whatever courage or blind trust they need to be present, if needed, and move forward at the appropriate time. They may continue to experience anxiety, fear, doubt, ambivalence, and disappointment. These feelings are also pared down enough to permit them to tap into their innate reservoirs of courage. As Ambrose Redmoon once wrote: “Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important than fear.”


Originally published at Jelani Consulting.

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