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The lessons we can learn from leaders of colour

With diversity and inclusion, organisations too often focus only on cosmetic change. ‘Interview bias training alone is not enough’, says Distinguished Professor Judi Mesman. She interviewed 40 people of colour in leadership positions. What can we learn from them?

Why did you decide to do this research?

‘It began with observations in my immediate surroundings of people of colour in leadership positions. It is wonderful to see more and more leaders of colour, but I can also see that it is not always easy once you get there. Colour still plays a role in what you do or do not manage to achieve and whether you feel at home in an organisation and are given the space you need. To be taken seriously, you have to fit in with the mainstream. Otherwise, you come up against too many obstacles and too much misunderstanding.’

Forty interviews with people of colour from the public and semi-public sector

Judi Mesman, Distinguished Professor of Social Responsibility and Impact, interviewed 40 people of colour appointed since May 2020 to leadership roles in the public and semi-public sectors, such as culture, education, healthcare, and local and central government.

Although the interviews show they faced challenges and struggles, most participants enjoy and are dedicated to their jobs. But their experiences are sometimes painful and confronting. But says Mesman, they were generally optimistic and shared these experiences because they wanted to make a difference.

A common theme in all the interviews is how interviewees often conform to the dominant group, in this case, white culture. Why is that?

‘This happens from an early age because people notice they are viewed differently and want to belong. Most of the people I spoke to said that in their experience they had to conform to the dominant group if they wanted to get things done. For example, by speaking standard Dutch and not speaking with an accent. Although on paper and in theory, people are open to diverse perspectives and other cultures, in practice it’s rather different.

‘The interviewees were also critical of the mainstream. They are people who have always tried to make their environment more inclusive and to give more room to people who are not mainstream. Conforming often had a strategic goal too: you get into positions where you can change things. That was a tension I often saw: conforming and being critical.’

Five recommendations from the report

  • Ask yourself as an organisation if you are ready for ‘colour’ at the top. Is there sufficient acceptance, support from above and motivation to question things that are taken for granted?
  • Be realistic: diversity and inclusion problems in an organisation will not be solved by having one person of colour in a leadership role.
  • Take the experiences, concerns and suggestions of staff and leaders of colour about limiting norms and racism in the organisation seriously.
  • Shift the focus from individuals and interpersonal behaviour to structures and the work culture to make your organisation more inclusive.
  • Avoid focusing on the marginalised group as the source of problems or lack of success. Shift the focus to the whole organisation to ensure that action and connection come from all sides rather than depending on the ability of people of colour to conform.

The report’s recommendations sound very logical. Why is it important that people read the whole report?

‘Organisations often focus too easily on cosmetic change. They do not realise that they have to look deeper or do not dare to do so. You are not there yet with one person of colour in a leadership role or by doing interview bias training. It takes much deeper reflection on what you do, why you do it and with whom. You have to challenge the things that are taken for granted within the organisation. And obviously, that is not easy. But things that are not easy are sometimes very much worth their while.

‘With diversity and inclusion, you create space for people, perspectives and decisions for which there currently is no space. And a lot of organisations miss out on this. But it is also about social justice, especially for public and semi-public organisations that serve society. Then you have to ensure there is space in your organisation for the diversity in society.’

Are we on the right track in the Netherlands or do we still have a long way to go?

‘Both. Ten years ago we weren’t even talking about racism within organisations in the Netherlands. And we are having that conversation now. And all organisations are at least aware of things such as implicit bias. That provides openings to discuss it even more. The only thing is that it’s all so slow.’

Read the full report (in Dutch) Leiderschap in kleur.

Text: Dagmar Aarts

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