Open any popular business magazine and you’ll find at least one article lamenting the lack of diversity in the workplace. The statistics are hard to take in and quite sad: Research compiled by American Progress and Catalyst suggests that women of color occupy only 5% of managerial and professional positions in the workforce.
On the other hand, you will also find promising statistics such as Black students attending college at an incredible rate. So where will all of these promising carefree Black graduates find employment? Most likely in business settings where they will be one of few people of color in that organization.
When thrust in a homogenous workplace with little care and concern for diversity issues, some find their optimism and energetic souls fade into self-doubt. As someone who has recruited and managed HR departments for 18 years, I have seen this happen once too many. Oftentimes it is hard for me to recognize the outgoing, eager candidate that I just hired a few short months ago.
After years of watching this phenomenon, the list of challenges for people of color in homogenous workplaces read like symptoms that deserve recognition on WebMD:
- Feeling that your presence is merely tolerated, and if you left the next day, no would notice or care.
- Feeling that no one really listens to what you have to say. Usually appears after first contact with a white colleague who expresses the same idea you shared moments earlier, but with a different flair. Worsens when they’re given the encouraging nod from a team lead or manager you didn’t receive.
- A sense that others don’t appreciate your contributions, as if the work you delivered could have been done by anyone, while others can do less intensive work and receive tremendous praise and kudos.
- Feeling overlooked for projects, which can lead to anxiety about your abilities and exasperation.
- Constant distrust of colleagues and managers. You’re never really sure where you stand with them, so you’re always working harder to be seen. You live in constant fear of making a mistake that will blackball you forever.
- Plagued with imposter syndrome, feeling like a fraud, and wondering if you really belong there.
All of the above can take a tremendous hit to your self-confidence and hurt your career aspirations in the long run. But all is not lost. I’ve seen amazing people of color burst ceilings and refuse to be boxed out. You can build your confidence, too. Remember confidence can be learned and acquired. Here are a few things to help you bolster your confidence and help minimize some of the challenges described above:
Speak early and often in meetings
Have you ever had a great idea, but were too afraid to share it in a group setting? Then that confident guy in marketing speaks up and says exactly what you were thinking and everyone bows down to his two minutes of greatness? There’s a lesson there: Speak up early and say your idea confidently so you won’t have to kick yourself for not speaking up sooner.
Overestimate your abilities
We tend to underestimate our abilities because we think our skills are no big deal. Some of us didn’t grow up in households where our talents were constantly praised, so we grow up thinking our awesome sauce is not much to report on. You have to act like your skills are unique and like you are the only one that can bring them to the company to be recognized.
Sell yourself often
Volunteer for assignments outside of your team. If your team isn’t giving you love, see if you can apply your skills to other projects. Do well on those projects and watch other team members begin to sell your skills to others on your behalf.
Go against the grain
Don’t try to fly under the radar and don’t let your office’s environment erode your confidence. Be bold and comfortable in your skin—only then will others be comfortable with you. An added bonus is that you will stop wrestling with thoughts of inadequacy.
Read books on the culture created by your ancestors
I cannot stress enough the power and sense of self-worth that comes from learning about your history. It allows you to harness confidence that may have alluded you for years if you weren’t encouraged to reflect on your history and be proud.
Knowing who you are allows you stand against those who try to tell you what you are not! Hold on to your truth.
Own your accomplishments
When working on a project and presenting, use I statements: “I created the… I worked with the client to…” Yes, you did that! It is true that “there’s no I in team” but the deck isn’t exactly all equal, right? So use the word “I” in healthy doses.
I’m sure you will find some of these recommendations scary to pull off. But you can. Confidence takes courage and while these tips may seem difficult, courage is not the absence of fear but the ability to go forward in spite of the fear.
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