Sometimes differences in ethnicity can be an obstacle for minority ethnic professionals in their developmental relationships. Sharing ethnicity has been shown to have a positive influence on developmental relationships. However ethnicity isn’t the be all and end all in a developmental relationship, research shows that individual attitudes to diversity play an important role and can be more relevant than differences in ethnicity.
Ethnic Diversity can be a problem
A central problem for a minority ethnic professional looking for a mentor is homophily. This is an organising principle that argues that people are motivated to interact with others who they consider to be similar to themselves. This can be a problem for both the mentor and the protégé in the workplace.
In his study of African American protégés and their managers, Professor David A Thomas of Harvard Business School found that differences in ethnic identity was a potential obstacle for white mentors trying to identity positively with their African American protégés. Overcoming this obstacle required commitment and conscious work by the mentor.
The study also found that developmental relationships between individuals with different ethnicities provided significantly less psychosocial support than those where both parties were from the same ethnic group. Psychosocial support is required to have a mentor relationship. In contrast, sharing ethnicity in a developmental relationship served as a positive source of identification for both African Americans and whites in the study.
This paints a gloomy picture for minority ethnic professionals given the lack of ethnic diversity in senior management in Western European and North American organisations. But the study revealed an opportunity:
Attitudes Really Matter
In a later study Professor Thomas found that attitudes to diversity could be more important than the ethnic identity of a mentor or a protégé, he created a model that identified two strategies for addressing issues concerned with ethnicity in the workplace:
This is used to describe an individual that is willing and able to discuss ethnicity and who may acknowledge and value differences. They may have a commitment to work against inequalities in the workplace in order to do the best for themselves and their organisation. Alternatively, ethnicity may be an important aspect of their professional identity. In any case, think of a person with the Direct Engagement approach as being someone who is aware of the disadvantages that exist for minority ethnic professionals and is willing and able to discuss it.
Denial & Suppression
This is an alternative approach for those individuals who wish to avoid discussions about ethnicity.
This may be an explicit decision or it may be the result of a fear that discussions of this nature may harm workplace relationships. This is not an assumption that the individual denies the issues around the experiences of minority ethnic professionals. It is a preference about discussing these issues. There may be a belief that others may not be comfortable talking about it or capable of understanding it.
The Win Win Scenario
The study found that only when both parties in the relationship adopted the same strategy did the more supportive mentor relationship develop regardless of the ethnicity of the mentor or protégé. This is because each party was engaged in a relationship that addresses ethnic diversity in a manner consistent with his or her preference.
As a consequence, neither the mentor nor the protégé considered ethnicity to be a factor that could inhibit the development of the relationship or ability to provide/receive psychosocial support.
This is consistent with my own experiences at work; it’s also useful because it can be informative of the type of support that you are going to receive from individuals you work with.
What Didn’t Work
When the preferences were non complementary, i.e. when mentor and the protégé had different preferences, then the only possible outcome was a sponsor-protégé relationship, providing only career development support. This is in part because the individual who is not using their preferred strategy did not feel like developing the personal bond required for a mentor relationship.
Imagine if you want to openly discuss the potential impact of your ethnicity on your career outcomes and you get the impression that your line manager does not. You may have a great working relationship but it may be difficult for you to form the bond required for a mentor relationship.
The denial and suppression strategy was only consistent with the white sponsor’s preference in the study, however the African-American protégés willingly participated. This means that they mirrored the preference of their mentor. When they were asked why they didn’t test their assumptions about the mentor’s ability to directly engage ethnicity, a frequent response was that the costs of doing so outweighed the benefits. They didn’t want to lose the support that they were getting from these mentors.
Interestingly, Professor Thomas said that several of the white sponsors expressed a hope that the protégé would have felt comfortable to raise the point if their ethnicity was ever an issue.
It may be worth exploring your own preferences and those of your mentor/protégé. Is Direct Engagement or Denial & Suppression? There is not right or wrong, knowing your preferences and those of the people around you may lead you to be able to improve your relationships or change your expectations.
Are you a mentor for someone from a different ethnic background to you? Does your line manager come from a different ethnic group?
Do you agree with the study or are your experiences different? Let me know in the comments below