Can’t We All Just Get Along?

A hush fell over the room as one by one, nine out of the 10 men raised their hands. The moment was both ludicrous and incredibly real as the men, all of whom were African American and participants in the Center for Creative Leadership’s (CCL) African American Leadership Program, admitted they gave job appraisals to their white, female direct reports only with the door ajar. They said they weren’t willing to take any chances their behaviors would be misread — either by the women or by others passing the office.

We have found this phenomenon to be a common one. One of the stereotypes that haunts African American leaders is the perception of black men as sexual predators. Johnson McDaniel, a manager at a major chemical company, says one of the burdens that a black man carries is the perception that “I’m a black male, and gee whiz, I love every white woman.”

Because race and gender are unchangeable aspects of one’s identity, their impact on work experiences depends to a great degree on the perceptions and reactions of others. They affect African Americans’ opportunities to develop strong corporate relationships and to receive equity in the workplace.

Cultivate your trust. Do things that establish and build trust between and among groups — whether racial, gender, or both. This includes establishing open and honest dialogue with others, respecting each other’s private areas, and offering the benefit of the doubt. We admit, though, that this dialogue has to be seasoned with wisdom. Fear, or the lack of being in a safe haven, has been one of the reasons African Americans are reticent to share their private world. To create deeply trusting relationships, people need to go slowly, respecting each other’s private areas until each person involved is willing to open them.

An important component of building trust is being willing to give others the benefit of the doubt. We suggest, that you be willing to trust or to believe that which is positive until you are proved wrong. This can affect how you interpret people’s behaviors and thus how you respond to them.

Demand equitable treatment and enforce it for others. We suggest that you look at the work patterns in your department and notice whether any particular group, in this case any racial or gender group, is being treated in a systematically different way from the majority group. For example, are qualified black people being overlooked for particular assignments in favor of those less qualified? Are female peers consistently asked to take notes at meetings when administrative assistants are not present? If this is the case, stand up for yourself and others and demand equitable treatment.

Understand how your behaviors are perceived. An example of such an understanding might be the decision by some black men to close their doors but open their internal office blinds (if available) when they provide women with performance appraisals.

Although you may not be able to manage every perception, by understanding how others interpret particular behaviors you