Part of Kathy Caprino’s series “Today’s True Leadership”
Much has been studied and written recently about the need for diversity, inclusion and equity in our workplaces and organizations, and leaders are beginning to understand in a deeper, more concrete way how increasing diversity and inclusion positively impacts key measurements of organizational growth, innovation and success. In fact, according to Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., President and Chief Executive Officer of SHRM, the Society for Human Resource Management, “the biggest challenges organizations encounter today aren’t necessarily technology, innovation, or leadership. It’s actually the process of finding, hiring, and engaging with the right talent that will ultimately thrive at your organization now and in the future.”
A continuing struggle, however, is in leadership understanding the right steps to take to build truly diverse and inclusive work cultures. Many of the DEI programs in place don’t go the distance or worse, bring about unintended negative outcomes, and research is revealing that much of today’s efforts are falling short. But allyship is emerging as a key to unlocking the power of diversity.
To learn more about allyship versus other types of workplace support, I caught up this month with Karen Catlin. After spending 25 years building software products and serving as a vice president of engineering at Macromedia and Adobe, Catlin witnessed a sharp decline in the number of women working in tech. Frustrated but galvanized, she knew it was time to switch gears.
Today, Catlin is a leadership coach and an acclaimed author and speaker on inclusive workplaces. She is the author of three books: Better Allies: Everyday Actions to Create Inclusive, Engaging Workplaces, The Better Allies Approach to Hiring, and Present! A Techie’s Guide to Public Speaking. Her latest book, Better Allies, now in its 2nd edition, serves as a practical guide for how to be an ally in the workplace.
Here’s what Catlin shares about how to be an effective ally in business, why that’s essential for organizational growth, and how to avoid five big blunders in offering feedback:
Kathy Caprino: Karen, your key focus is on creating more inclusive workplaces through allyship. What is allyship, and why is it so critical?
Karen Catlin: Simply stated, allyship is all about taking action to create a more inclusive workplace where everyone can do their best work and thrive. Allies speak up when they see non-inclusive behavior, use their clout to open career doors, and advocate for systemic change to status-quo processes to be more equitable.
Allyship is a crucial strategy for success in today’s business landscape. Study after study shows that more diverse teams are more innovative, better at solving complex problems, and deliver better business results. Plus, with the global talent shortfall, organizations need to cast a wider net to find workers and take steps to set them up for success once they’re hired.
While top-down mandates for improving the diversity of an employee base and tying executive bonuses to meeting those goals can be helpful, allies take action where the day-to-day work is done. Allies play a critical role in ensuring a workplace culture is inclusive for everyone, regardless of their age, disabilities, gender, sexual orientation or identity, and race.
Caprino: How can improving performance feedback lead to more diverse and inclusive workplaces?
Catlin: Let’s face it. Constructive feedback is essential to growing your career. Being told what to keep doing because it’s working, how to improve, and what new skills to learn all contribute to helping you get ahead.
Yet, people from underrepresented groups may not receive this career-growing feedback. Stanford University researchers found that women are less likely to receive specific feedback tied to business outcomes than men. This vague feedback can prevent them from moving into leadership roles. By contrast, men are offered a clearer picture of what they’re doing well, how their performance impacts the business, and what they need to do to get promoted.
Research by McKinsey and LeanIn also found that women are less likely to get difficult feedback than men. They point to the discomfort we may feel giving such feedback to someone different from us. We might soften our message so that they don’t think we’re biased or prejudiced against them.
Perhaps not surprising, race also plays a role. A Boston University study revealed that Black workers receive extra scrutiny from their supervisors, leading to less favorable or constructive performance reviews, lower wages, and even job loss.
So many organizations say they support diversity, yet as you move up the management ranks, their workforces become maler and paler. Unfortunately, this lack of career-growing constructive feedback is holding back many people from underrepresented groups.
Caprino: What are the biggest errors you’re seeing in how managers and others provide feedback, and what should allies do instead?
Catlin: My experience coaching hundreds of women, coupled with the insight provided by the research mentioned above, points to these top mistakes:
Mistake #1: Missing or inconsistent criteria for advancement
I’ve worked with women who don’t know what they need to demonstrate before they’ll be considered for promotion. The criteria isn’t documented, and their managers can’t provide specific guidance. It often feels like a “We’ll know it when we see it” game, and it leaves a wide opening for bias to creep in.
What to do instead? Identify the criteria you’ll use to evaluate employees at each level and apply those criteria consistently.
Mistake #2: Not tying feedback to outcomes
My clients have shared all too many examples of vague feedback they receive. For example, “Improve your executive presence,” or “Become more influential,” or “Be more strategic.” This kind of feedback is often not actionable nor helpful.
What to do instead? When giving feedback, discuss how they could have a more significant impact on the business. For example, instead of just “Become a more strategic leader,” you could say, “Become a more strategic leader by better understanding our competition and making recommendations to gain market share.”
Mistake #3: Gatekeeping
My clients have told me about the biased feedback they’ve received that kept them from pursuing opportunities. “I know you have young children at home and don’t have time to rehearse your presentations.” Or, “Negotiations are really stressful; Bob can handle this one for you.”
What to do instead? Ask yourself, “Would I give the same feedback to someone of a different identity or background?” This “flip it to test it” approach to identifying bias was popularized by Kristen Pressner, a global HR executive, in her 2016 TEDx talk.
Mistake #4: Holding back to avoid seeming prejudiced
As the McKinsey and LeanIn study explains, we might worry that someone will think we’re prejudiced or biased if we give them constructive feedback.
What to do instead? Please don’t make it about yourself. Focus on telling them about the expertise you see in them and how to develop more job-related skills.
Mistake #5: Providing less feedback to women
The Stanford research uncovered a simple truth. As they analyzed thousands of annual performance reviews, they found that women’s reviews tended to be shorter than men’s. The impact is that women were getting less feedback they could act on.
What to do instead? Write reviews of similar lengths so that you give roughly the same level of detailed feedback to all employees.
Caprino: Is this something just for managers to pay attention to, or does it also apply when we give feedback to peers?
Catlin: Providing equitable and effective feedback is something everyone should pay attention to. While feedback can be tricky to give, it truly is a gift to receive, whether from a supervisor or a team member.
Caprino: Any last words on allyship?
Catlin: Giving feedback is just one aspect of allyship. There are many other everyday actions we all can take to create more inclusive workplaces.
To level up your ally skills, check out 5 Simple Ways To Be A Better Ally At Work. I also have a weekly newsletter, 5 Ally Actions, where I share ideas curated from the week’s news and my interactions with clients, audience members, and Twitter users from around the world. I’m on a mission to be a better ally, and I learn new approaches all the time. My goal is to share my learnings and to bring others along with me through this newsletter.
Being an ally is a journey, and you don’t have to do it all at once. Start with a single act. While it may seem small, you can make a difference.
For more information, visit www.betterallies.com.
Kathy Caprino, M.A. is a career and leadership coach, speaker, educator, and author of The Most Powerful You: 7 Bravery-Boosting Paths to Career Bliss. She helps professionals build rewarding careers of significance through her Career & Leadership programs, courses, and monthly newsletter.