Sincerely, Leaders of Color: POCs are expected to be exceptional at everything. That’s literally impossible.

Leaders of color are dealing with a double standard.

Leaders of color are dealing with a double standard: To be considered successful, you must be twice as good. To be a genuine leader, you must show people you aren’t perfect, and have things you’re working on, setting an impossible bar to more achievable heights.

About this series: Sincerely, Leaders of Color is written for everyone in the journalism industry who cares about creating a more supportive environment for journalists of color to do their best work. Have a question for the team? Drop it here and watch for it in a future column.

We don’t have to be exceptional. In fact, we can’t all be exceptional.

I’ve been thinking about this for a long time, and attempting to find a constructive way to phrase this particular conundrum within inclusive, empathetic leadership.

Many people of color, myself included, have internalized the “twice as good” mentality - the idea that you must be twice as good to even be considered successful. The overall impact of that is a whole different column, but we’re exploring one aspect today.

(A note here that “twice as good to get half as far” is much, much more true for anyone in the Black community, and there is science to back that.)

What if, even when you are working twice as hard at something, you aren’t exceptional? Everyone has strengths and weaknesses and as much as we may try, vulnerability is important in leadership (and other parts of work).

This conundrum is multi-layered: We are supposed to be vulnerable and break that mirage of exceptionalism, and show emotional intelligence in order to be better leaders. But as people of color, we have been taught we must be better than our best white counterparts in order to be considered “good enough.”

Another factor: In rooms where we are the true minority, one of us is the representative for *all* of us, in the most unfair way.

On top of that, it’s impossible to be exceptional at everything. Advice for being a good leader doesn’t match what we have learned as a person of color: Know where you have to grow, but don’t show weakness or you’ll be preyed upon. It’ll be used against you. Be kind, but tough. This balance is exhausting.

One more complicating factor: As a manager, your job is to help people grow and achieve their goals, and that often means telling them when they aren’t meeting expectations. The defense mechanisms of an oppressed person are always at the ready, so giving someone criticism can sometimes lead to assumptions of intent.

He is being racist. I did a great job at the presentation.”

How do I tell her that she cannot wear low cut blouses like that and not have it be awkward or taken a mysogynist as a straight, cis white man?”

I have been given criticism that is based on racist and sexist norms. I have also been given criticism on completely valid areas of growth. Once, I was told as a leader that I cannot so visibly express my panic and displeasure at a decision made by my bosses.

  • What they meant: Because the staff looks up to you, if you express panic, then they get worried and that may make the situation worse.
  • What I heard: Act like a lady, you can’t stomp around when you’re mad like that. Be more graceful.

I cannot even recall the exact words that were used, I only remember what I thought I heard. Later, after I sat with the criticism, I understood what they meant. But it took time, and only after discussions with friends and mentors did I find, understand, and internalize the actual intent.

We make assumptions of intent every day. People are just honestly bad at understanding each other, no matter how smart or attuned you may be. People of color are hyper-aware of their lack of a safety net when they fall, so many of us are downright scared of not just falling, but never being able to get back up again. Because of that, criticism hits differently.

What do we do?

How do we create workplaces where people are allowed to be just OK at some aspect of their job? What does a workplace where someone feels safe and supported in their growth actually look like?

One thing I think everyone can help with.

Give space, but don’t avoid. When a person of color is processing true constructive criticism, they may need space. In the situation above, I needed to talk to my personal board of directors, who are White and not, about what to do with the new knowledge that I have no poker face. That took a day or so.

If you are giving criticism or have pointed out a weakness you think someone has, do not rub it in. By that, I mean the obvious, but if a person gets quiet or doesn’t respond, then just let it lie. They heard you, most likely, they just need to process. Return to the conversation later, or follow up otherwise and ask how you can help with the situation moving forward. A weakness for one person impacts a team so everyone often needs to adjust.

Space, however, is not avoidance. Space is intentional and it should be clear that the conversation isn’t over, nor is any resulting support. Avoidance is dropping a knowledge bomb and walking away to never acknowledge it again, until it benefits someone else. Space can be awkward for the leader. Avoidance is awkward for everyone.

Avoidance is also particularly damaging for white leaders. White leaders don’t want to calmly deal with the defense mechanism of twice as good, they aren’t often equipped for it. White leaders sometimes will ask another POC to help give the feedback. That’s unfair. Your job is to have difficult conversations. As a leader of color, I know that criticizing other people of color in front of a white person can set off a terrible chain of potentially racist events. So yeah, me criticizing other people of color…is an incredibly difficult thing to do.

For leaders

Understand intent vs. assumptions, and have empathy for it. There is what you intended, and what you assumed. There is also what the other person assumed you intended. There is also the optics of all of the above in reference to whatever else is going on in your workplace. Any and all of these things can go wrong, so as a leader you need to rise and see above it all with empathy. You need to prioritize seeing all points of view, and then making communication between those groups better. That includes yourself.

Communicate the same message in multiple ways. Some people need to read to digest. Some folks prefer to hear it while gauging body language. You should know how your staff likes to receive feedback.

If you are white, you cannot give advice from your point of view. You are steeped in privilege. In many ways, how you would handle something, or how you overcame a similar obstacle is not helpful, unless that viewpoint is requested. In my worst moments, I have taken “this is how I fixed that” as “this is how you act more mainstream white.”

Be clear about expectations. Be clear about values. Be clear about consequences. You need a level playing ground for everyone. This needs to be consistent for all people, no matter who they are. This clarity is one of the key requirements of a good leader.

Culturally, make what is different about everyone as important as what you have in common.This HBR article explains it really well: “We often anticipate that those who are similar will understand us and those who are not similar will not. So, we withhold and are careful not to reveal differences that coincide with racial identity, such as weekend activities, parenting assumptions, and extended family obligations. Actively withholding comes with emotional and cognitive costs, distracting attention from the task at hand and thwarting close relationships among teammates.”

For employees

Start by assuming best intent. For anyone you need to have a working relationship with, it is best to assume they mean well, but their actions played out poorly (for you). Even if someone has a history of being racist, classist, or sexist, they may *mean* well. You need to decide whether you have the energy to explain to them why their actions aren’t matching their intent.

If you believe criticism is rooted in racist/sexist norms, sit with it, and bring it up later. Or have an ally help. Don’t ignore it, but make sure you give yourself time to digest.

Know where your soft spots are. Over time you have to be aware of your current weaknesses so you can self-identify where you need to grow. If you don’t know, ask for the feedback and take it. You can spot your fight-or-flight mechanism better if you know what puts you on edge. In a world that constantly tells people of color they’re less than, you must find a way to internalize your strengths. Simultaneously, you must find a way to digest and process which criticisms can actually help you grow. Don’t clapback so hard at imposter syndrome that you can’t see valid criticism when it happens.

Know what it looks like when you are being defensive. If you catch yourself, explain why. Often, I am defensive because of a past hurt, and it helps my relationship with the other person if I explain that in the past, someone has said the same thing in a hurtful way, or used the same phrasing so it brings up trauma. This vulnerability helps a person understand why you’re reacting so strongly.

P. Kim Bui
Leader of Color

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  • P. Kim Bui

    P. Kim Bui is the director of product and audience innovation at the Arizona Republic. She’s focused her career on leading real-time news initiatives and creating storytelling forms for digital, print and broadcast companies catering to local, national and global audiences. Prior, she was editor-at-large for NowThis News, focusing on original, social reporting and breaking news. She was also deputy managing editor for reported.ly, a digital media startup specializing in social journalism. She’s been a speaker, trainer and teacher on leadership and digital journalism at universities, conferences and gatherings worldwide. She writes a newsletter for emerging leaders and managers, The Middles: themiddl.es


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