Recently, a close friend of mine was recounting a personal story to me. She’s shared it before countless times, but only because the sting of discrimination she felt rings true to this day.
My friend, who is Latina, was working in an organization, and she had built a particularly strong relationship with a big potential client. When it came down to delivering an important pitch, however, the senior leadership decided to take the account away from her and give it to her subordinate co-worker, who was a younger white male. There was no reasonable justification for this reassignment other than issues of identity, it seemed to her. The blow left her feeling overlooked, underestimated, and disrespected.
During the presentation, she happened to be on the call in the background. Someone from the client’s team saw her name, and messaged her that it was so good to see her and hear her perspective, even if it was coming from someone else. That moment made her feel validated, and she was proud to receive an ounce of credit for the legwork she put in that someone else was now taking credit for. In the end, her organization booked the client because of her underrecognized relationship with them, and in spite of the leadership team’s narrowmindedness. Though she didn’t meet their traditional (and outdated) image of what an authoritative leader looks like, her hard work ultimately paid off in significant dividends.
Her story isn’t unlike other ones I’ve heard from corporate America. In essence, this debacle boils down to equity. What are you doing as an organization to ensure your underrepresented—or in this case, underestimated—talent has equal access to opportunities as their majority counterparts? How are you showing them that you recognize their value and their voice, and how are you doing so publicly?
One way you can do this is to entrust them with big projects and big clients, and demonstrate your trust through fair judgment and intentional delegation. Another way you can do this is to protect them from microaggressions. In the words of Columbia University professor Derald Wing Sue, microaggressions are:
“The everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership. In many cases, these hidden messages may invalidate the group identity or experiential reality of target persons, demean them on a personal or group level, communicate they are lesser human beings, suggest they do not belong with the majority group, threaten and intimidate, or relegate them to inferior status and treatment.”
My friend’s story is a perfect example of a microaggression demeaning her sense of self-worth and professional capacities. If you aim to lead with equity in mind—as we all should—you should prioritize creating safe spaces where microaggressions aren’t tolerated. If your team members see you calling out microaggressions and suggesting ways to make amends, they’ll see that you have their psychological safety and best interests at heart.
If there’s one thing I want you to do after reading this article, it’s to reconsider how you’re leveraging your best talent. To whom are you assigning big projects, with whom are you entrusting the most responsibility, and what does that say about whose voice you value? Caring leaders recognize bias in themselves, and take actions that counteract it. So if you call yourself a caring leader, are you ready to do this? That’s the big picture question.