By Stephen Young and Barbara Hockfield
In the world of diversity and inclusion there are the good, the bad, and the invisible. More often, the good and the bad are easily observable and managed. The invisible behaviors tend to not present themselves in such clear and tangible form. Exposure to these, like invisible radiation, can be exceptionally damaging. They often go undetected, doing harm with no knowledge of how the damage occurred.
In a strange twist to the D&I formula, normally focused on behaviors perpetrated upon others, in the case of invisible behaviors, we unwittingly become both predator and prey. The messages are often well intended, but can belie a harmful and disrespectful undercurrent. Learning how to swim above and around this powerful undertow can profoundly influence one’s leadership success.
Over the years, our flagship program, MicroInequities: Managing Unconscious Bias, has given people the skills and tools to identify MicroInequities and MicroAdvantages in the workplace. Here, we will take a slightly different turn and look at a third category of micromessaging that sits quietly at “invisible central”— MicroDeceptions.
While most D&I training focuses on awareness and the impact exclusion has on the disenfranchised, the focus of this article is entirely about the pernicious messages sent by subordinates to their superiors that limit and encumber the performance of both parties.
One doesn’t typically think of the boss as a victim. Yet, MicroDeceptions can be quite powerful and ubiquitous, even at the C-Suite level.
I recall presenting our program to the executive vice president and his senior management team at a large multinational company. During the break, he asked, “Steve, do you think I ever get any MicroInequities at my level?”
My response was a resounding, “No. At your level people don’t typically receive MicroInequities. It’s more likely you receive MicroDeceptions.”
I could see the wheels spinning and the expression on his face said it all. He could sense where this was going, and his antennae had tuned to full alert. He reeled back asking, “What exactly are MicroDeceptions and why would I be getting them?”
Speaking directly to his concern, I explained that with MicroDeceptions, “You never know when you’re hearing the truth.”
In your role, as the center of power, when people communicate with you or respond to your comments or just listen to you speak, much of what they send back are responses often filtered through caution and not necessarily truth. This brought him to a full stop.
It is not necessarily done with malicious intent. The phenomenon occurs for one of two reasons:
- Blind admiration
People are cautious about offending those who control their destiny and job security. (Don’t poke the bear.) Or, they are influenced by the boss’s stature and assumed wisdom. This is sometimes known as the “Halo Effect.”
The “Halo Effect” operates in the realm of the invisible. It’s a common aphorism that people laugh at the boss’s joke, even when it’s not funny. I’m sure everyone has sat in a meeting where the boss said something intended to be humorous and the entire conference room cackles, as if he or she were headlining at Caroline’s Comedy Club in Times Square.
On the other hand, if someone else were to utter the very same remark, it would be likely received with a sigh, a roll of the eyes, and head shake of dismissal. Funny thing—under the Halo Effect, people actually deceive themselves into genuinely believing that the boss’s joke was the height of humor.
It suddenly became clear to that EVP that he was likely not hearing the truth, and likely not getting his team’s best thinking, perspectives, insights, and contributions.
“But wait a minute,” he responded defensively. “I always ask my people to tell me what they really think. Isn’t that enough?”
That question became the impetus for a two-hour executive coaching session following the meeting. Here is a highlight:
Asking people to tell you what they think is well-intended but weak in outcome. Merely inviting challenge doesn’t offer people a safe haven to do so. So, don’t just invite people to challenge your perspective, make it a requirement.
I shared with him a technique I first employed early in my career as a middle manager on Wall Street. I kicked off one my staff meetings by saying, “There are ten of us on this team, nine of you and one me. Since we already have my opinion, to the degree that you agree with me lessens your value to the team. If your perspective always agrees with mine, then we don’t need you, except to complete busy work and tasks.”
I went on to explain, “You were hired for your thinking capacity. I expect to tap into that and have you bringing different perspectives and viewpoints to everything we do. It doesn’t mean that I will always agree with and accept those perspectives, but I do require them from you.”
To ensure my comments would go from request to requirement, I informed the team that their performance appraisals, as well as my endorsement for future opportunities, would hinge largely on their ability and willingness to share their innovative thinking as a cornerstone of making our team more effective.
A secondary and equally critical step leaders must take is to never be defensive or dismissive of any challenge offered. It is essential that you explore perspectives thoroughly and express appreciation for team members’ contributions.
This process resonated deeply for that EVP. He was quite forthcoming in acknowledging that he had always been more comfortable with compliance and confirmation of his thinking than the vulnerability of not having the answers.
Several months later he reached out to me and confessed that, although these concepts and skills had not been in his comfort zone, he did see their value. Most important, when he applied them, he saw a clear and measurable difference in the way his team operated. The skills and techniques for managing this technique became a fundamental part of how he and his organization’s managers virtually extinguished the ill effects of MicroDeceptions within their workplace culture.
Stephen Young is the Senior Partner of Insight Education Systems, a management consulting firm specializing in leadership and organizational development services. As a recognized leader and foremost expert in this field, Mr. Young frequently consults with senior executives and management teams of Fortune 500 companies.
Barbara Hockfield is the Executive Managing Director at Insight Education Systems.