What most managers don’t know about leading diverse teams

Avoid cultural misses.
Avoid cultural misses.
Image: Jopwell.com
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Vernā Myers, vice president of inclusion strategy at Netflix, says the best thing about what has happened in the past few tragedy-marked months since the Black Lives Matter movement was reignited is that “the words ‘oppression’ and ‘structural racism’ and ‘systemic issues,’ these are part of the parlance, the regular vocabulary.”

“Now, let’s not let that go back into the closet,” she told Rosanna Durruthy, vice president of diversity, inclusion, and belonging at LinkedIn, during a LinkedIn Learning conversation early in September. “It’s a breath of fresh air, because we’re calling what is, what is, for the first time in a very long time.”

But if companies actually follow through on their commitments to do better, we shouldn’t necessarily expect a smooth transition for everyone—particularly experienced managers who find themselves leading diverse teams for the first time.

Myers, who is the author of two books on diversity at work and has an eponymous firm that provides diversity and inclusion training, says successful managers tend to suffer from overconfidence, believing past performance will predict more of the same in the future. “They think they were managing and leading, but really they weren’t,” Myers told Durruthy. “They were just hanging out with people who think exactly like them. You don’t need to really know much about management if everyone thinks the way you do.”

That may sound like a dismissal of a manager’s accomplishments, but it’s perfectly logical. The norms of business culture have been set by white leaders, and most team managers haven’t yet had the training or experience they need to be good at managing in a way that’s intentionally inclusive, says Myers. So why would managers suddenly have the skills, and how would they have practiced them?

After the LinkedIn talk, Quartz at Work caught up with Myers via email to ask her more about what inclusion experts call cultural competency, and about the idea that many managers, and particularly white managers, don’t know what they don’t know.

Quartz at Work: How do managers, when you’re training them, respond to the suggestion that what they were doing until they started managing diverse teams wasn’t truly managing? Is this something you tell people directly?

Vernā Myers: In every conversation or training, we emphasize the importance of managers creating inclusive environments where employees of every background feel expected, reflected, and respected. This doesn’t happen naturally when you are managing people who are different from you. Personality, unconscious bias for and against groups, time constraints, [and] discomfort with difference can all be barriers to inclusion and a sense of belonging.

A portrait of Vernā Myers in a red jacket
Vernā Myers, VP, head of inclusion strategy at Netflix.
Image: Courtesy Netflix

When we hold up the mirror in these trainings and allow for managers to see how their own background, perspectives, and biases taint the reality before their eyes, they often struggle to reckon with the fact that, to become a truly successful manager, one has to differently manage different people. So we talk to managers about inclusion requiring attention and intention: They have to pay close attention and intentionally take steps to create trusting relationships, afford equal opportunity, and counter the biases that can keep employees from performing at their highest level.

You mentioned in the LinkedIn talk that a common source of friction comes from managers not understanding employees that come from relational cultures, and how the workplace can feel transactional by comparison. So if someone has a family emergency, the manager might still ask: But when will the project be finished? How else does this difference show up at work? How could managers better handle such situations?

Families come in all different structures and sizes, and we all have some preconceived notions about what “real family” is “supposed” to be, which can lead to unconscious bias against different family structures. For example, an employee may come to a manager and say that they need to leave a little early to do something for an uncle, and the manager may ask, with frustration, if someone else can do it, or just decline the request. That manager may, that same day, grant another request in a family structure that is more familiar to the manager.

This tension has become even more magnified with Covid-19, as some managers now have a literal view into the home life of their employees who work remotely, and may be making judgments about that employee.

The key is to not pre-judge someone because of a difference, but to be curious and treat that employee with respect, and have a discussion with them about how to support their family and the work.

In what other ways might a Black or Latinx employee think differently than a white manager? 

The last several months have brought into sharp relief the ways that we often react differently to the daunting consequences of systemic issues—like police brutality and the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on Black, Latinx, and Native American people in the US—because of our closeness to or distance from them, and because of our contexts. Contexts matter. We “miss” each other when we fail to remember that.

Our racial and ethnic identities inform the ways that we interpret and interact with the world around us. And while there is no monolithic Black or Latinx experience, Black and Latinx and Afro Latinx people live in a world where anti-Black racism, white supremacy, and antagonism aimed at Latinx people are always present. And the presence of those systemic inequities do not start ghosting Black and Latinx people when they enter their workplaces. It is just as important, however, to acknowledge the ways that white people in the workplace bring their contexts with them as well.

Some companies have very distinct cultures that are expected to override everything else. From the outside, that appears to be true of Netflix. In those situations, what can a manager do if a company’s norms and employee expectations regularly clash?

All cultures are, by their nature, dynamic and adaptive, and that holds true for our company culture and the employees who we hire. It’s our responsibility as talent/inclusion practitioners to consistently work hard to understand the needs of our employees and simultaneously analyze our culture to understand where the potential points of tension are. And because we know cultures adapt and evolve, we partner with leaders and employees to amend aspects of our stated company culture that are no longer productive to the business and employees.

But we don’t believe that company cultures and employees’ needs have to be oppositional unless we allow them to [be].

Do people recognize that corporate culture in the US has mostly been shaped by white culture? As this awareness grows, what kinds of changes might we expect to see in the ways companies operate?

We are learning that even if you call yourself global, a company doesn’t become global overnight. We have norms about how to speak, how to demonstrate intelligence and confidence, how business should be conducted with third parties, what time meetings should be held, how to conduct an efficient meeting, even what’s considered beautiful.

However, these norms have been shaped, as in most US-formed companies, by racism, patriarchy, and western cultural ideas. The work for companies and managers is to be expansive of other ways of seeing the world, curious about one’s cultural background and how it shapes how one interprets and evaluates situations and people, policy, and practices.

As a company learns to be mutually adaptive, recognizing, understanding, and utilizing culture differences, it will shift how it thinks about leadership, promotion, products, social responsibility, customers’ needs, language, time—pretty much everything.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.