What’s the Problem?
I am a woman of color who has been climbing the ladder in corporate America for the last 20 years. When I first became a manager, a mentor told me that, given my race and gender, I need to make myself visible in every room I’m in. I should take my place at the table and speak up so my voice is heard in every single meeting.
In my latest role at a new company, however, I’m receiving feedback that I talk too much and weigh in on things that are seemingly tangential and take the conversation off-topic.
My tendency is to dismiss this type of feedback, as I feel it’s just a reflection of deep-rooted sexism and racism; however… since I’m also getting these comments from female bosses and other people of color, it gives me pause. Have they just drunk the Kool-Aid, or am I the one missing something?
Speaking Up to Survive
What Do We Think?
Dear Speaking Up to Survive,
Clearly, both racism and sexism are very real and very pernicious problems. Bias plagues organizational life, and we’ve seen the toll it takes, derailing careers, blocking progress, and creating emotional burnout. We also know, however, that assuming everything is driven by or connected to bias can backfire, becoming disempowering and counterproductive. So, let’s unpack this very delicate, nuanced issue.
First, your question tells us that:
- You believe that other people’s biases guide the negative feedback you’re getting about how you are showing up in meetings.
- You took your mentor’s feedback to heart, carrying it with you to the present moment and applying it in every context, regardless of who the players are, what the topic is, or what your goals are.
So, exactly how is your problem a power problem? A few thoughts:
- The filter of bias you’re using is painting you in a one-down role relative to others.
- The focus of bias is also inadvertently putting more emphasis on your social identity than on your expertise, capacity, insight into the issues, or experience.
- Applying the same behavior to every context means you lack choice; it’s a prescriptive approach to leadership and ultimately leads to a lack of flexibility, which is a power leak.
What’s the Solution?
To be able to respond, we’d encourage you to take a more nuanced approach to your mentor’s suggestion. If you feel pressure to speak up in every room regardless of the situation, you won’t always have access to your best thinking or your deeply considered ideas and perspectives. Think about:
- Which contexts is your mentor’s feedback good for? And which not? Can you open up to the possibility that it may have some limitations or not be applicable in every context?
- How do you evaluate feedback from others? You seem to be using race and gender as a way to evaluate the veracity of feedback, but is there a more nuanced and/or useful way to get to a deeper truth?
A good first step is to ask yourself how you feel when you’re speaking up in meetings. Do you feel congruent? Be honest with yourself and consider if you feel that you’re really bringing forth useful contributions or if you’re just talking to express yourself or for talking’s sake.
Instead of doing the same behavior in every meeting, stop for a moment and reflect on each meeting you get invited to:
- What are the goals of the meeting?
- What is your specific role asking of you in the room?
- Putting the goals of the meeting and of your role first, what is the most appropriate and useful way for you to show up?
At the end of the day, your mentor’s advice is right—women and minorities do often have to work harder and talk louder to get ahead—but consider it on a case-by-case basis: in some contexts, there might be a more thoughtful way to contribute that will both solve your negative feedback situation and ensure your smart perspectives are heard and appreciated.