Sunday 13 December 2015

Five Lessons For Business From One Thing Black Parents Teach Their Children

Almost every black parent has “that” conversation with their children when they intone words to the effect “You've got to work ten times harder than the others to get ahead.” I first heard that from mine around age 13. I didn't really pay attention. Add a public school environment to my age and I felt more or less invincible.  I was very wrong because the science proves that there is much wisdom in this advice, and while minority ethnic families have freely bandied it about for generations, your business can take 5 lessons from it that will make your staff more productive, your customers more satisfied, and your reputation much stronger; all effects that flow straight to your bottom line.


The first lesson is that people form in-groups in any community including companies. Members of our in-group are those we identify with and support. They are chosen for the likelihood of their giving us positive feedback about ourselves. In-group members are a kind of fan club who help us maintain a positive self-image and are therefore welcome. We view them as individuals, are able to overlook their quirks and even see these sometimes as the very things that make them unique and attractive. In meetings we refer to them by name, quote their contributions, make eye contact are relaxed around them and so cause them to feel more confident to contribute, take punts at flying edgy ideas, which even if not accepted are still applauded as creative attempts. We evaluate their work and output higher, and are sympathetic when in-group members fail or stumble.


The second lesson is that there are others in our communities who we place in the category of out-group members. They are people we don’t identify with and typically won’t look for or expect positive feedback from. Despite being co-workers, they are definitely the “away” team and though afforded basic courtesies get no positive passion from us. We see out-group members as a homogenized group and are unable to see their quirks as endearing or indicative of a unique personality. Their ways are more likely to be seen as deviations from the “norm” (of our in-group) and further proof that they really are not part of us. In meetings we don’t quote them, refer to their points, mention them less by name, and won’t be as open to their creative punts, more likely seeing them as of little merit or unworkable. It is very easy in a group of say 5 people for the 3 people who form part of our in-group to shut out the two who are seen as  members of the out-group, without noticing that this is what we are doing. Complaints from members of the out-group are unsympathetically heard and often attributed to the stereotype we have prior formed about “such people” – stereotypes such as being anti-social, disengaged, defensive, uncreative, of less merit and the like. Of course the behaviour of the in-group will by its very nature enable and increase the manifestation of these stereotyped behaviours which then become self-fulfilling prophecies. “See?  I always suspected that’s how he or she (out-group member) is,” an in-grouper would then think.  

Informal Networks

The third lesson is that creating in and out groups will naturally exclude out-group members from the informal networks that every organization needs to promote its work. These networks are the places where social engagement gives access to decision makers, influencers, opinion formers, and sometimes the nuanced information required to do a job well. New opportunities for career development while passing through the formal networks are often best accessed through these informal networks. Exclusion from informal networks mean out-group members will very likely not do their jobs as well,  gain access to the privileged information they need or progress as quickly up the career ladder. This of course will be seen as further evidence to in-group members of out-group members belonging in the out-group because they’re “just not as good!”

Mentoring and Grooming

The fourth lesson for companies derives from the third. It is by having access to the informal networks that individuals are mentored and groomed for career development. There are hard skills and soft skills in any job, so while two candidates may be equally qualified in the hard skills, the “softer” nuances of the job which really differentiate the rookie from the rock star will not be made available to out-group members. This is simply because they were excluded from the sources and exposure that provide those insights. Mentors have a percentage in those they foster and nurture. They tend to look for opportunities to guide their wards onward and upwards too, an arrangement that works always to the advantage of those accepted into the informal networks. People always pass the ball to members of their own team.

Living In Denial

The final lesson for companies is that they will likely live in denial of the 4 effects outlined so far, and blame them on the inherent nature or behaviour of out-group members. This is what social psychologists call a  classic attribution error where individual nature is seen as the cause of an event without realising that the environment is exerting heavy pressure to shape the outcome of events and behaviour.  While attribution errors by in-group members may look intentional to members of the out-group, in-group members are in fact often completely unconscious of these errors. The simple truth is that people like people like us!

Membership of in and out-groups may be formed along lines of race, gender, sexual orientation, age, class, in fact any significant cultural or demographic trait that marks one individual as VISIBLY or behaviourally different to others. These exclusions hurt the company, its profits and may damage its reputation. They can limit access to markets, ruin group harmony, significantly reduce the productivity of staff, and destroy the creative spark in a company because creativity is found at the confluence of multiple or different viewpoints. The insights above derive from the work of social psychologists including Henri Tajfel and John Turner in the 1970’s and is founded in the science behind Social Identity Theory.  So while black parents may not have understood the science behind their statements, there was much wisdom in what they have passed down. If you’re a member of the out-group, you have your work cut out for you, and smart companies will work hard to understand and manage the negative impacts of social interactions at work. Leave your comments on your experience of these lessons here, they are very welcome.

I have coached senior management teams on managing diversity in large and small organisations. My clients have included L’Oréal in 5 Countries (UK, Holland, Switzerland, Hungary, Czech Republic) The British Army, Logica (CGI), The European Commission in 4 countries (Spain, Iceland, Germany, Slovenia), British Aerospace (Warships Div.) in the UK, The Cabinet Office and a host of SMEs in the UK. Email for further information on how I could help your organisation or start-up.

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