Getting Commitment From Black Managers

Despite diversity efforts by progressive firms over the last decade, African Americans still only hold just under 10% of management positions in corporate firms. And for many managers of color on the fast track there remain obstacles to advancement that include tokenism, presumed incompetence, and isolation that results in frustration and sometimes departures.

“Once a black manager comes aboard, oftentimes he does not stay,” says Martin N. Davidson, professor of business administration at the University of Virginia’s Darden Graduate School of Business. In fact, research has shown a 40% higher turnover rate for black executives than for others. “U.S. corporations are fundamentally designed to exclude people of color, people who are different, who don’t fit, who don’t fall in rank and fall in line,” he says. It is clear that diversity initiatives cannot just focus on recruitment, but systems that support the existence of diverse candidates in a corporation.

“It demands that there be space for individuality and creativity for people who are different,” Davidson explains. “What happens when we step into the room is that we immediately make that challenge present. We are so different that it’s undeniable and that creates a real tension.”

This is especially true for companies that don’t understand how to leverage the differences a diverse workforce offers. Evidence of this was found in a survey of 473 managers of color (all graduates from the top 25 M.B.A. schools) conducted by Davidson and the Consortium for Graduate Study in Management. The study, Keeping Color in Corporate America: What Generates Organizational Commitment for Managers of Color, was based on a variety of statements, using a five-point scale, where the researchers were able to draw a correlation between different career-related variables and the managers’ commitment to that particular organization.

Opportunity for development or “stretch” assignments The opportunity to join a task force or take on a challenging project is important to advance a manager’s career because it gives him or her the opportunity to demonstrate skills, possibly opening the door for greater responsibility. Survey results demonstrated that the availability of these developmental opportunities resulted in a higher level of commitment from the managers. “Managers of color are saying, ‘The organization doesn’t necessarily have to promote me, but I absolutely need a fair chance to show what I have,'” says Davidson.

Accurate job performance feedback Davidson found that white managers often opted to be conservative with feedback, concerned that any criticisms would be misinterpreted as a personal affront. Managers of color who were surveyed, however, say they want effective, accurate, and timely feedback processes–whether it’s good or bad. “One of the things that happens in an environment where there is concern and/or fear about compliance and affirmative action is that people will not tell managers of color when they are doing things badly. So what happens for people of color in these organizations is that there’s a real scarcity of helpful feedback and that diminishes people’s capacity to be successful.”

Compensation Increased levels of compensation also increased commitment. Yet, black managers and executives