5 Ways to Not Be That Manager
Each week, Karen Catlin shares five simple actions to create a more inclusive workplace and be a better ally.
1. Don’t make assumptions on behalf of employees
Back when I was a VP of engineering, I remember talking with a man on my staff who needed to fill a senior role on his team. When I asked if he planned to promote his top employee into the role, he replied that she had young children at home and he felt sure that she wouldn’t want all the travel that would come with the promotion. I countered, saying that this was her decision to make, not his. (He decided to make her the offer, which she accepted. She went on to totally rock the role.)
Fast forward to today, and I’m reading about a parallel situation that could be playing out with Black employees. In this HBR article, Dr. Evelyn R. Carter, a Director at DEI consulting firm Paradigm, writes,
“Now, as many organizations look to give Black employees new flexibility and space to process trauma and take care of themselves, they need to be careful not to let those biases reemerge around who gets what assignment. Managers should not make unilateral decisions about which projects their Black employees should and should not do during this time, which would risk an entirely new lopsided situation where Black employees need to once again ‘prove’ their value or readiness in order to earn high-visibility opportunities. Instead, managers should collaborate with their Black employees, giving them a choice around how they want to be supported in the coming days and weeks.”
Folks, as we assign project work, stretch goals, or new organizational responsibilities, let’s not be that manager who makes decisions on someone’s behalf because we think we know what’s best for them. Instead, let’s discuss the opportunities.
2. Meet one-on-one with everyone on the team
During the 25 years I worked in the tech industry, my managers always held one-on-one meetings with me. Sometimes they were weekly, sometimes less frequent. Regardless, I relied on them to keep my manager informed, ask for advice, and get help removing roadblocks. I’m not sure how I could have effectively done my job without them.
You know what else? I would have been angry if my manager was meeting one-on-one with others on my team, but not me.
While that’s not something I have experienced, many have. In Being Black In Corporate America, the Center for Talent Innovation uncovered 14 specific microaggressions that Black employees experience at significantly higher rates than all other racial groups surveyed. One of them is “My manager has met one on one with others on my team, but not with me.”
Don’t be that manager.
3. Ramp up your informal interactions
In a recent post on LinkedIn, Rachel Schall Thomas, Co-founder & CEO of LeanIn.Org, shared a significant finding from their annual Women in the Workplace survey:
“Last year, almost 60 percent of Black women told us they’ve never — not once — had an informal interaction with a senior leader.”
This means senior leaders are NOT saying:
- “How was your weekend?” in an elevator
- “Good morning” by the coffee machine
- “What are you working on?” at a happy hour
- “Nice to see you” via chat in a virtual meeting
Without these casual interactions, I wonder how leaders can get to know the Black women who work in their departments. How they can build mutual trust. How they can learn about their work to sponsor them for new opportunities, promotions, or growth assignments.
Casual interactions seem like the perfect starting point.
Regardless of our seniority in an organization, we can each reflect on how to ramp up our informal interactions with people from underrepresented groups. We can each create that starting point.
4. Give feedback based on the business impact
A few years ago, I was leading a discussion with a group of women on the importance of talking about the impact of our work. Many people, especially those who are early in their careers, tend to identify a long list of accomplishments when writing annual self-appraisals or updating their resumes. A better approach, as pointed out in research by Stanford’s Clayman Institute, is to tie work to the business outcome by describing the impact of all these tasks. For example, instead of “fixed forty bugs,” an engineer might write, “fixed all bugs blocking renewal sales of $5M.”
For the women I was coaching that day, this approach was novel — and, frankly, hard. Many didn’t know why their manager prioritized certain tasks over others; many didn’t know the higher-level goals of their division. So I encouraged them to ask their managers before our next meeting.
When we spoke about a month later, four of the fifteen women shared some striking news. Their managers were not able to answer questions about the business impact of their projects. And get this: Because those women didn’t want to handicap their career growth, they immediately applied for an internal transfer. They wanted to work for managers who could be better allies by talking about the impact of their work and giving them feedback about how to have an even bigger impact.
When giving feedback, let’s focus on the business impact of an employee’s work. What should they keep doing because it’s moving the business forward? What skills should they learn to have an even bigger impact?
5. Don’t single people out for not turning on the camera
When someone doesn’t turn on their camera for a video meeting, I always joke, “Are you having a bad hair day?” It usually gets a laugh, followed by an explanation that their camera is on the fritz or they haven’t showered yet.
Now, after reading Working from Home While Black, I realize I shouldn’t be singling anyone out for not turning on their camera. As the authors Laura Morgan Roberts and Courtney L. McCluney wrote,
“Black workers often strategically engage in code-switching — adjusting their speech, appearance, and behaviors to optimize the comfort of others with the hopes of receiving fair treatment, quality service, and opportunities.” They go on to explain that with working from home, Black employees “are now literally broadcasting more of their identities from their personal living spaces.” Plus, “when barbershops and hair salons closed, Black workers were vulnerable to harsher judgements associated with natural (i.e., not chemically altered) hairstyles.”
In other words, they can no longer code-switch in the same way, and I shouldn’t call them out for wanting to keep their camera off.
That’s all for this week. Please note that because of the 4th of July holiday here in the U.S., there will be no newsletter next Friday. I’ll be back in your inboxes again on July 10. In the meantime, I wish you strength and safety as we all move forward,
— Karen Catlin, Founder and Author of Better Allies
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