Early in her career at a law firm, Robbie Narcisse was invited to a social outing at a country club with the firm’s partners. Believing the gathering was optional, Narcisse didn’t attend.
Days later, two of the firm’s partners told her they noticed her absence and encouraged her to attend future events. Though neither of them explicitly said her attendance was mandatory, Narcisse felt uncomfortable about their approach and spoke to a senior associate to help her decipher their real message. “What I was missing was the fact that because I was African American and there were so few of us, my absence was very noticeable and the event was not truly optional,” recalls Narcisse, now vice president of Global Ethics and Business Practices at Pitney Bowes Inc. in Stamford, Connecticut.
A number of top managers engage in indirect communication or even deliver messages by third parties. Lois Frankel, author of Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office: 101 Unconscious Mistakes Women Make That Sabotage Their Careers (Warner Business Books; $19.95), says, “A lot of bosses manage by hinting around.”
Your inability to interpret corporate cues, however, can potentially derail your career. “Many people fail to get direct feedback, depending on the organization,” explains Martin N. Davidson, associate professor of leadership and organizational behavior at the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia. “They’ll just get subtle signals. But it’s even more pronounced for women and people of color and for African American women in particular.”
Important communication is often even more restricted when directed to black women. “Research tells us that it is typically challenging for African American women to get direct feedback because their peers are worried about being offensive,” Davidson says. “A lot of times African American women are left to decode what they ought to be doing or what they ought to be paying attention to.”
Getting the proper feedback from a senior — level manager, as Narcisse did, can help you decode important cues. “I understood from that point on that I should take those types of activities very seriously and consider them part of my working environment,” Narcisse relates. “I never missed another [event].”
Subtle messages can also be buried in evaluations, and criticism can come in a bushel of praise. Your boss may tell you you’re doing a fantastic job but add that there’s “one little thing” you could work on. “Whatever follows that statement is often the signal,” Davidson asserts. “The mistake that professionals make is that they think it really is a little thing, but in fact it is a significant issue, and he or she simply doesn’t feel comfortable saying it directly.”
Andrea Briscoe, a New York — based executive coach with Sage Consulting Inc., knows of a female manager at a large corporation who noticed a decline in her workload but never questioned it. Two months later, her position was eliminated. It was only in hindsight that the executive realized the light workload was a negative sign. “There are certain intuitive feelings that folks have,”