Managing a Black Woman? Here's How to Become Her Success Partner and Ally.
Diversifying the workplace is a top priority for many companies these days, but some haven't figured out how to retain, support and promote the Black women they already have.
Diversifying the workplace is a top priority for many companies these days. While some companies pride themselves on increasing the presence of Black women and other minority groups in the workplace, they still haven’t figured out how to retain, support and promote the Black women they have.
Although the presence of Black women in corporate America has increased, still only 1.4% of them hold executive positions. Despite the lack of representation and support, Black women continue to push the envelope and pave the way for diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) to flourish in the workplace. However, they can’t succeed at the expense of their mental, physical and spiritual wellbeing.
That’s what Minda Harts, author of Right Within: How to Heal Racial Trauma in the Workplace, thinks, too. Right Within, which I have been raving about for weeks, is a call to action for women of color to speak up during racialized moments in the workplace and for managers to form meaningful connections and become partners (not roadblocks) in their success.
As more Black women enter the workforce, it’s likely they will be managed by folks who don’t share their identities. It’s important for managers to be able to effectively lead, support and help navigate Black women through corporate spaces. If you manage a Black woman in your company, here’s how you can work towards being her success partner and ally.
Build trust and maintain it
The first and most important step in supporting Black women is to build trust. Trust is earned, not given. It’s essential to show the Black women in your company that their manager is there for them through thick and thin.
Managers can begin to build trust by modeling vulnerability and transparency. If the manager makes a mistake, like making a racialized comment or not speaking up when something hurtful was said, they should own it, lean in and apologize.
Black women are bombarded with microaggressions and racialization in the workplace. Oftentimes, they’re looking for someone to notice and affirm to them that something harmful really did happen. Managers can build trust with Black employees by acknowledging microaggressions in these moments and offer compassion to the person harmed.
Feeling scared and traumatized in the workplace without an ally to lean on erodes trust for many Black women. Managers have a responsibility to not only carry out the company’s core functions but also assuring the people they manage that they are looking out for them.
Trust is a two-way street. When employees humanize their managers in return, both people can feel confident connecting and sharing honest feelings about issues in the workplace.
Speak up when you see or hear something
Supporting Black women in corporate spaces requires managers to speak up when they hear or see something that may be hurtful.
When a racialized act happens in the workplace, many Black women are in shock. Sometimes, they’re not sure what they experienced was a microaggression or some a part of their imagination. They can internally question themselves and even gaslight their own experiences. The doubt that goes through a Black woman’s mind in times of harm can keep her from speaking up when it’s most important.
This is where managers can come in and practice allyship. Managers have the power to insert themselves into conversations where they observe other employees or executives saying harmful things. They can circle back with the person harmed and affirm that what they experienced was not in their head. At the same time, they can ask the perpetrators to reflect on their words and actions.
The opposite reaction can be devastating. Managers who say or do nothing in times of harm and injustice contribute to a hostile and unsafe environment for Black women and other minority groups. The trust, as mentioned in the previous section, can be severely damaged as a result of saying nothing when injustice rears its ugly head.
It’s important for managers to lead with courageous communication. When you’re in meetings with people who are expressing bias and touching lines of racism, it’s crucial to show up and speak up. That’s a huge part of supporting Black women and building a psychologically safe workplace.
Build a psychologically safe workplace
Psychological safety has become a buzzword in the DEI space. I’ve talked about it extensively before, but I’ll break it down here, too. Psychological safety, by definition, is the ability to speak about one’s ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes without the fear of punishment or humiliation. In other words, psychological safety allows people to express concerns about racism, bias and prejudicial treatment to those in power without the fear of losing their job, being gaslit or having their concerns ignored.
Managers play a huge role in building psychological safety for Black women in the workspace. If not them, then who? Managers are there to guide, lead and bring out the best in the people they manage. This also means removing the barriers to safety for their employees, particularly black women.
If managers wish to build a psychologically safer workspace for the Black women in their companies, they can start by asking the employee:
- What do you need to feel supported or safe?
- What can I do to help the workplace feel safer for you?
- What norms would you like to see in the company?
On the topic of norms, creating a set of rules that govern respect and kindness in the office can be a powerful way to build psychological safety. Norms are important because they educate folks on what psychological safety looks like, hold people accountable when harm has occurred, and set the foundation for the non-negotiable ways of being that make the organization inclusive.
Be a success partner
In Harts' book, she mentions a relationship she had with an older, white man (she was a younger Black woman) who later became her success partner. This man, who she identifies as “Charles,” would have lunches with her to discuss her resume, speak positively about her to people of influence, and he was invested in her professional development.
The Black women in your organization could use a success partner, like Charles, to help them grow and climb in the organization. Being a success partner to a Black woman on your team requires you to build a relationship with her that’s not shallow, but truly genuine. It requires you to get to know her goals, desires, fears and growth trajectory.
Although many managers are good at being success partners with people who they can relate to, it’s not always easy to offer the same energy into someone who doesn't look like them or share their identity. Because women of color can’t promote themselves, they need a success partner to see their potential, contributions and advocate for their upward mobility.
Managers who wish to be a success partner should ask themselves, “How can someone be a beneficiary of my courage?”
In other words, how can I use my influence, power and position in this company to bring someone up in my organization up?
Take the manager’s pledge
A powerful takeaway from Harts' book was the manager’s pledge. At the end of the book, she asks each manager to pledge to support the Black women in their companies in meaningful ways. Here is the pledge that every manager should print out and reflect on:
“I will acknowledge that I have biases that I need to understand and reconcile. I will commit to engaging in courageous conversations. They might sometimes be difficult, but I know they are necessary to create an inclusive workplace. I will challenge myself to hold other colleagues accountable when I hear or observe racialized tones, behaviors, and actions. I will learn to humanize the experience of all of my colleagues to understand and listen to their perspectives and lived experiences, particularly when they differ from my own. I will share my experiences and educational journey to help other managers create restorative justice practices. Even if I make a mistake, I commit to the daily practice of being a better manager, who is committed to equity for all."
Sign this, print it out and put it somewhere visible.
Harts' book inspired so many managers and Black women to practice courageous communication in the workplace. It brings to light the essential need for Black women to feel actualized, confident and safe in the workplace. For that to happen, it requires managers to hear, validate, support and uplift the Black women in their companies.
It’s up to managers to draw a line in the sand and hold themselves accountable to their commitments. It’s imperative to use their voices to bring awareness to issues that hurt, not help, the psychological safety in the organization.
When all of the components mentioned in this article are practiced, the healing, growth and retention of Black women in the workplace can occur. With the help of managers who are courageous and dedicated to the success of Black women, the entire organization can reach a greater state of progress, inclusivity and development.
Entrepreneur Leadership Network Contributor