This is the second in a series of four articles about taking steps to build audacity. Read my first article, The Unfiltered Life, in which I described how women of color filter out their difference in unsafe company cultures.
High Achievement in Unsafe Spaces
This is not an article about physical work hazards, but about the equally threatening and damaging psychological hazards of working in an unsafe company culture.
Laws exist to ensure our buildings and facilities free of danger, but no such obligations or oversight help to ensure safe company cultures, accountability practices, or basic daily interactions.
I’m not talking about overt discrimination or harassment. I’m talking about silent, hidden, and insidious assumptions, negations, and inequalities that women of color battle in order to gain entry and maintain their place in the corporate world.
For professional women of color, safety is a fraught issue. Our difference is highly visible, which translates into high visibility for our mistakes, but ironically not our achievements. To be a professional woman of color, you are, by default, a high achiever. You did not attain success by being mediocre. In fact, you know that mediocre for you would count as exceptional for many others.
In an unsafe company culture, women of color’s high achievement still results in impeded growth and obstructions to advancement.
In an unsafe company culture, you fly without a net. You watch others take risks and make mistakes, with job security and encouragement to catch them when they fall. You doubt that this net would be offered to you in the same way.
The other part of your unsafe acrobatics involves spending a great deal of energy working to make others feel safe with you, just to get the work done. If you are not safe to present your whole self for others to work with, you are forced to work on their terms, negotiating and maneuvering around their preferences and biases, studying and managing their values and comfort zones to get what you need done.
When your difference isn’t accepted, let alone embraced in your company’s culture, how can you possibly do your best work?
Real Growth and Real Safety
Professional growth—the real kind that stretches, develops, and truly changes you—only happens when you take bold risks, when you do something completely new or different. But as a person of color, all your hard-earned credibility and acceptance are often on the line and can feel like too high a price to pay for any failure.
So, you’re in a catch-22. Avoid risks and stagnate or risk everything for the chance to grow.
Whether or not they admit it, your company needs you to risk and grow. Your asset is in your innovation, creativity, and outside-the-box approach. The question you must ask is, can you find a company culture that encourages risks as a sign of its commitment to your professional growth and development?
Here’s what we need to admit: real opportunity is not gained by hard work alone. Opportunity is created with others, from mutual recognition and value, and ideally within a safe company culture.
Six Tenets of a Safe Company Culture
Have you been working in unsafe spaces for so long that you have a hard time identifying what safety would even look like?
Put simply, a safe company culture has six features that allow leaders and employees to engage, listen, accept, disagree, commit, and move forward. It is where everyone risks vulnerability, not just the few who are already and inescapably vulnerable.
Tenet One: Everyone is held to the same high standards. Equally, across the board, mediocrity is not tolerated. When the standards aren’t higher for women of color, there will be work culture safety.
Tenet Two: Failures are valued, not just tolerated. To be clear, I’m not talking about lowering professional standards or losing accountability. I’m talking about seeing failures as a function of daring and novelty, as part of the normal course and price of real innovation. If companies want truly different and fresh approaches, they will see failures as a sign of audacity.
Tenet Three: Our work has a future orientation. When you know that your job is secure, that you belong and are valued, you feel free to take risks. According to Daniel Coyle’s The Culture Code, in a future-oriented company culture, we approach each other with the mindset that, mistakes or not, we will assuredly continue to work together. Risks are encouraged because you have commitment and security in your value, your position, and your belonging.
Tenet Four: The work speaks for itself. When your work stands on its own, it’s not viewed in the shadow of your difference, other people’s discomfort or expectations. The value of your work should not require explanation nor be contingent upon your background, status, or compliance with unsafe acrobatics.
In a safe culture, you are given due credit for your work and expertise, and not compelled to explain yourself or ask for permission to do your job to the best of your ability.
Tenet Five: You show your whole self. Different perspectives, opinions, and approaches are all given equal space and consideration, including yours. Moreover, you know what makes you stand out and what you bring to the table that no one else can—and you can present your full self without apprehension of people’s discomfort. You do not feel forced to fit in or filter out your unique and rich perspective, and your company culture is willing to adapt to your needs and priorities.
Tenet Six: You are an investment. Your company’s commitment to your professional development and growth is provided through interesting work, challenging projects, training, education, sponsorships, sabbaticals, memberships, conferences, publications, partnerships, engagements, or other opportunities. You are not simply compensated for your work, you are invested in as an evolving company asset.
Safety Granted for Some, Out of Reach for Others
How long have you been living without one or more of these tenants of work culture safety? How much has it cost you in terms of time, energy, advancement, and opportunity? Too often, our own conditioning to expect and accept less inhibits our growth. Can you begin to imagine your own paradigm shift away from resignation and into a space for you—all of you—and your best work?
We know others don’t think like this, and we see them reaping the benefits of their company’s investment, mentorship, guidance, and encouragement. We see these affordances bestowed without even asking. We wonder why we are seen only for our demonstrable achievement and not for our potential?
Is it because too often potential is mistaken for sameness?
Building Safe Work Cultures Begins with Knowing Your Value
When you identify the tenets of a safe work culture, your impulse will be to step up and ask for what you’re missing. Take a step back with me for a moment before you (rightly and understandably) make that move.
Do you know the true value of your difference and what makes you stand out? Do you know what you bring to your company, how you contribute to their bottom line, and the full scope of your experience and expertise? Can you articulate what you do that they cannot live without, and how it is they and not you who are lucky you’re in this job?
A safe work culture is created mutually, when you know and can assert your value. So, stop working harder in the belief that your high achievement alone will result in safety. Stop the acrobatics that only serve to obscure who you are.
If your company culture is not safe, then it’s not worthy of you.
In my next article, I’ll help you begin to articulate answers to the above questions. The language you use will be as important as your assets themselves. When you know your value, you’ll know your boundaries and you’ll be clear about what your company stands to lose if they lose you. A safe company culture isn’t just something you ask for, it’s something that enables you to actually leverage your difference.
Jennifer McClanahan-Flint is an Executive Career Strategist and the founder and CEO of Leverage to Lead. She helps women and people of color build careers with audacity and authenticity.