Being known as a giant in your field means more than having executive presence. Voters see tall politicians as more natural leaders, and psychologists suggest that it is rooted in an evolved preference for physically dominant leaders who could fight off dangers thousands of years ago.
The facts around height in society and the workplace speak for themselves:
- Only 15 percent of adult males are taller than six feet.
- Seven of the last 10 US presidential elections have been won by someone at least six feet tall. (George W. Bush and Joseph Biden came in just under at five feet, 11 inches tall.)
- Fifty-eight percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are taller than 6 feet.
Tall leaders seem to be aware of this clear, unfair height advantage and won’t mind saying, “I’m glad to be tall,” or “I’m so thankful my parents were tall. It’s been an advantage all my life.”
But not all cases of bias are as willingly acknowledged. Recognizing advantages or privileges creates uneasiness in people. Because of that discomfort, some will deny an unlevel playing field exists at all. We want to believe we’ve earned everything and that hard work is the only root cause of our success. Consistent research shows us otherwise. Many people are held back by bias, and some have advanced partly because of unearned advantages.
I am one of those people. As a white, middle-aged female I have moved through life receiving strong signals that I belonged. This started early and continued. As a child, the books I read showed pictures that looked like me. When I reached for a crayon, the flesh crayon was pink just like my own skin. Some might argue those are tiny examples, but that is the point. Each day we receive thousands of tiny messages that signal to us whether we belong. Those signals seep into our unconscious and guide our sense of security and entitlement. Of course, I worked hard too, just as anyone reading this has worked hard. But the feelings of affirmation as well as the attention and praise I received from those around me was also boosted because of my skin color in the same way tall people have been embraced to a different degree.
While it can be uncomfortable, recognizing any unearned advantage is an important step. It’s also just the beginning.
Using Advantage for GoodThere are lots of ways to leverage your sense of belongingness to support others and to drive better outcomes for your organization. As we work to navigate this new hybrid world of work, look for ways to speak out to address exclusion and bias when you see it happening to individuals and embedded within systems.
Reverse mentorship. Make time to form new connections with people who have identities that are different from you. Leverage their strengths and share yours so that you can all progress in your careers. If you are a leader, help form a reverse mentorship initiative to match senior leaders with individual contributors who have different identities and lived experiences.
Join an employee resource group. Look for a group that shares identities that are different from yours. Attend meetings. Listen to conversations. Make new connections and use these new insights to help you better interrupt exclusion when you see it happen in your daily life.
Interrupt exclusion. Taking action to stop bias in the moment can feel daunting to some. Here’s an approach that can help:
1) Pause the action, saying something like, “Can we take a quick time out?” or “Let’s pause for a moment to make sure we are approaching things in the best way.”
2) Let people know what’s happening but assume good intent. “I don’t think anyone intended this to be hurtful but …” or “You may not have realized but …”
3) Clearly state what you observed. Focus on observable moments. “I observed that you kept cutting off our new employee when she asked questions in the meeting.”
4) Keep moving forward. Any feedback conversation is better when the focus is on how to make things better in the future.
Look at systems and processes. Support your organization by examining larger challenges impacted by bias. For example, if you are working to hire a more diverse workforce take a fresh look at how the role is advertised. What channels are used? How is the role description worded to encourage people of underrepresented identities to apply? To have more diverse hires, it’s important that the candidate pool has greater diversity.
Those of us with unearned advantages have an important and long-overdue role to play in interrupting bias and exclusion in the workplace. I invite you to try these tactics to ignite change in your workplace.