Innovation doesn’t happen without risk. But if leaders aren’t paying close attention, biases based on race, gender, and other identity factors can adversely affect risk tolerance among both workers and those calling the shots.
Any time leaders presume everyone thinks the way they do, they set themselves up for failure. One of the persistent ways in which leaders make this mistake is at the intersection of risk and identity.
When dealing with these issues, it can be very difficult to see things about people who aren’t you. This isn’t tribalism or willful ignorance—it’s just that we tend to view the world based on our own experiences or perceptions. Basically, if you have never felt marginalized, it is unlikely you’ll see that feeling in others. Be it gender, race, or anything that diverges from the mainstream, it is difficult to understand things that don’t usually apply to you.
“Having spent a good portion of my career as the only African American executive in the room, I can assure you that race has an effect on how people engage with risk,” says Brian Tippens, a vice president and deputy general counsel at Hewlett Packard Enterprise. “I say frequently that privilege is invisible to those who have it.”
Less willingness, less tolerance
There’s a basic perception that there’s less risk tolerance for African Americans, for Hispanics, and for women, says Tippens. His experience suggests that when a member of a minority group fails, it’s likely to have greater repercussions.
“I think that risk aversion was ingrained in a lot of us growing up,” says Tippens. “Women also. I’ve talked to a lot of female professionals who have to be, in many cases, almost apologetic for their success. It’s a don’t-rock-the-boat-type mentality, and I think that that manifests itself in more risk aversion.”
So, as a corporate worker with leadership aspirations, you must take risks and you may take risks. But as a minority corporate worker taking those risks, you may be judged more harshly (and more stereotypically) if you take a wrong step.
This is, by and large, a very different mental space to navigate.
The new generation
How do you, as a minority worker, thrive in this sometimes thorny environment? Look at Harvey Coleman’s PIE theory, suggests Jambey Clinkscales, customer experience lead in HPE’s Synergy and BladeSystems business unit and head of the HPE Black Leadership Council. PIE stands for performance, image, and exposure.
“You do well in the job you perform and, as a result, create a powerful image of yourself,” says Clinkscales. “Once you’ve done that, you’ve got to get exposure to other leaders so they know who you are, the image you have, and what you can do. That exposure strengthens your networks, and opportunities come to you.”
Clinkscales continues, “I give young folks that advice, and then I always tell them, to ensure they understand, that they have a lot of talent and gifts inside and that they must constantly work on them. And, while working on yourself, be ready for opportunities when they come by being prepared. Success is when preparation meets opportunities.”
How do I succeed? How do I help my people succeed?
What if you’re not a minority worker? What if you are the shot caller? And, as per the numbers, you are most likely a middle-aged white guy? What specific actions can you take to include and leverage the sometimes hidden qualities of your risk-averse reports?
“I think one way is to pay attention to who’s not talking in a meeting and actually stop and ask them what they think about the issue under discussion,” says Virginia Tech professor Sylvester Johnson, founding director of the Virginia Tech Center for Humanities, assistant vice provost for the humanities at Virginia Tech, and executive director of the university’s Tech for Humanity initiative.
“It sounds really simple and pedestrian, but it actually is very effective at getting more voices to participate in the conversation,” Johnson says. “You have to pay attention to who’s being quiet, and our instincts are to pay attention to the people who are doing all the talking.”
And what if, regardless of your position in a company, you see the kind of racism or other prejudiced actions that hold you, your peers, or members of your team back?
“Well, first of all, you have to deal with it in your realm,” says Clinkscales. If you’re a leader of a team, for instance, you may be able to stamp down on that kind of behaviour yourself, immediately. Other times, you may need to escalate, reviewing the issue with your manager.
“If you look around your circle and you’re not seeing people that are helping you, you’re not in the circle—you’re in a cage,” says Clinkscales. “Conversely, if you see your people floundering or being attacked and you don’t step in, you’re not a leader—you’re a jailer.”
No simple answers
In a corporate environment, the most important thing is a success. Your actions are judged on whether they make your company more profitable, more resilient, and more influential. Business people like bottom lines, and like most of us, they like certainties more than uncertainties.
One of the building blocks of the contemporary corporate world is innovation and to be innovative is to take risks. You cannot reasonably make risk decisions without understanding where your unconscious biases lie.
This article isn’t likely to provide you with instant enlightenment. All it can do is provide a starting place. If you are a minority worker wrestling with the expectations of risk, some of these insights may assist you in making decisions about how to engage. If you’re a leader, the same voices may wake you up to the simple fact that other people may not think the same as you and some of those differences may come from racial, gender, cultural, or religious background and societal expectations. It’s up to you to give those voices a chance to be heard and to grant them an unencumbered consideration of their value.
By Curt Hopkins