Jim Morris, Senior Consultant

Diverse Teams Help Us Better Understand The World

I was on the way to a sales call with a colleague, a woman of color. I respected her work and approach very much. I knew our chances of having the meeting go well were increased with her presence and knowledge. But I was not prepared which was unlike me. But I didn’t want to hide it or act as if I was more prepared than I was, so I put it out there.

“I’ve been really busy the past few weeks and I don’t feel as prepared as I should be for this meeting. It will be okay, though. I’ve done meetings like this hundreds of times and know how to fake it to make it.”

Her response seemed to have an edge to it. I was surprised. “I can’t believe how cavalier you appear to be about going into this meeting unprepared. I would be really nervous about it. In fact, if I were in your shoes, I might even consider postponing the meeting.”

I mistakenly thought that the appropriate response to her comments was to offer reassurance. Even though I was unprepared, I was confident the meeting would go fine. I said, “No need to worry. I often have to wing it for these types of meetings. Prepping for them just takes so much time, and I find that if I can establish some rapport with the client early, it all works out.” There was no mistaking her edginess now: “It sounds like you are used to coming into meetings less prepared because you know your privilege will make up for your preparedness.” Her comment stung. In protest, I responded, “Not at all! Look, I have a lot more experience with this sort of thing than you do, and my experience is not a privilege. I earned it through years of work!”

Our exchange had grown heated or at least I had. My colleague took a step back and calmly said, “My mistake. Sorry for questioning you.” But her tone and body language suggested disappointment and resignation rather than acknowledgment.

As we drove to the client’s office, I realized I was offended by her observation. I thought that being honest about not being prepared would have scored me some points. I wanted to show this colleague I was one of the good guys: a (white) man who was willing to admit to his weaknesses and shortcomings instead of posturing or faking it.

Instead of getting credit for having done so, I was being challenged for relying on privilege too heavily. This wasn’t working out at all! Of course, what happened is a common phenomenon with work partnerships between men and women: the group that holds the privilege card (in this case, me as a member of the white male group) becomes completely oblivious to the fact that they have permission, access, and latitude that members of other groups don’t have. Successfully navigating these types of situations makes a huge difference in building solid partnerships with others. Being oblivious, on the other hand, perpetuates the stereotype that men, especially white men, don’t get it. “Getting it” doesn’t mean we need to change the world, but we may need to change the way we act and react, and that’s almost as hard.

Here are a few things I’ve learned about being mindful of my privilege in work partnerships, especially when my partner isn’t a white guy.

  • Start with humility.
  • Preparation beats privilege.
  • Be empathetic, not apologetic.
  • View challenges by non-dominant group members as acts of vulnerability, not character attacks.
  • Be an ally, not a caretaker.
  • I support my colleagues without acting like their caretaker.

Jonathan Swift wrote, “It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he was never reasoned into.”

Privilege is not something white men were reasoned into. We just grew up with it. One of the beauties of diverse partnerships is the opportunity to better understand the world and, by doing so, ourselves.

Jim is also a Principal at Moementum, a leadership consultancy. ENTIRE BLOG