When you are the only one

In her new column, Korn Ferry’s Anya Weaver discusses the isolation underrepresented talent can feel and what leaders can do to close the loneliness gap.

Anya Weaver

Associate Principal, Leadership & Professional Development, Korn Ferry

When I was the only person of color in a classroom, I felt so isolated and very alone. Now that I am in the workplace, I still struggle with this reality.

In college, and then now at work, standing out this way affected and continues to affect how people react to me. For example, I am often the last person selected for group projects. This dynamic creates significant pressure on me to perform as the only member of an underrepresented group (URT), which pushed me into having to prove over and over that I belonged and deserved to be in the room based on my skillset, knowledge, and capability and that my presence was not because I was a member of an URT group.

I could never be late, I could never miss an assignment, I could never make a mistake. This meant I had to be extra prepared and deliver documents of higher quality than anyone else. And this is a common experience for URT: in Korn Ferry's 2019 report, The Black P&L Leader, 57% of the Black leaders we interviewed said they have to work twice as hard and need to accomplish twice as much as their peers to be viewed as on the same level. The standards were higher for me, and the opportunities for do-overs that were dispensed freely to others were never available to me. While I was experiencing success, this was exhausting. The pressure to perform was stressful and overwhelming. I knew that I would eventually make that mistake because perfection is not possible. I worried about what my colleagues would not only think of me, but also how this would negatively impact other URTs from gaining access into these spaces as well.

When we coach clients who are URTs, we hear stories that confirm this is still an issue for many of them.

Like me, they tend to be consumed by work at the expense of their personal lives, they struggle with feelings of imposter syndrome, inadequacy, and the perception of tokenism – that they are only there based on their race and not based on their credentials. Underrepresented leaders share similar stories: roughly 50% of the Black executives we interviewed for our Black P&L Leader report spoke explicitly about confronting microaggressions and unfair treatment. The most common experience: clients or business partners assuming they were the direct report of a white colleague, even though it was the other way around. All this leads to burn out and higher rates of turnover for URTs.

According to a Harvard Business Review study of first generation professionals, while loneliness in the workplace impacts people from all racial and ethnic backgrounds, it affects URTs at a higher rate: 37% of Hispanic workers and 30% of African American workers said they felt abandoned by coworkers when under pressure at work versus 25% of white workers who felt that way. Similarly, 39% of Hispanic workers and 30% of African American workers felt alienated from coworkers, compared to 26% for white workers. To close this disproportionate loneliness gap, there are steps both managers as well as URT groups can take.

What Managers Can Do

1.     Embrace beliefs that support inclusive behaviors.

a.     All are capable: Everyone has the capacity to learn, develop, and expand their contribution.

b.     Development is key: Development is critical to individual and organizational success AND it is a learnable process for everyone, including URT. Provide learning loops and stretch assignments that will showcase areas of expertise that connect with team member career aspirations. Indeed, 70% of CEOs we interviewed for our recent Women CEOs Speak Today report said more organizations need to provide women and URT with stretch opportunities and development programs to unlock their potential and help them grow in their careers.  

c.      People learn in different ways: Each person has different learning styles and different development needs, and managers must use a tailored approach.

2.     Positively position ALL employees. Provide effective support and feedback that focuses on quantitative and qualitative data, not opinion or bias. Focus on the quality of your interactions to impact the performance of each team member. If the quality of your interactions is negative and your level of support is low, then you are likely to see a negative disposition. However, if the quality of your interactions is positive, you will very likely see a positive disposition in response.

3.     Become a sponsor, a mentor, or an advocate. It is a game changer as it affords you the opportunity to deepen your understanding of differences and how to be of help. If you are a senior leader who can vouch for URT individuals, leverage your influence to create opportunities for exposure to other executives, career development, and advancement. In fact, nearly 33% of CEOs we interviewed for our Women CEOs Speak Today study said it's important for leaders to serve as mentors, sponsors, and role models to women and URT because not only can executives help shape their mindsets and show them career possibilities, but they can also place them in important developmental roles that will give them a chance to show how they lead, drive outcomes, transform the business, and deliver profits. While this requires a high level of commitment, there is also great reward personally, professionally, and organizationally in promoting the interest and furthering the growth and development of URT. It has been proven that diverse and inclusion organizations outperform the competition through access to capital, increased revenue, more innovation, and improved retention. 

What URTs Can Do

1.     Believe in yourself. Having the belief that you can achieve your goals and develop the skillsets is paramount to attain your dreams. It can be liberating and transformative. In fact, 82% of Black executives we interviewed for our Black P&L Leader report said they took risks because they know doing so was essential for professional development and career progression. They didn't let the fear of failure hold them back. This mindset sets one up for success and positions you in the right frame of mind to work with more power. How to do it? Take ownership of both your failures and successes by attributing them to your effective effort. Remain confident by believing that you can learn new skills and abilities. My first role as a facilitator, you could visibly see me shaking I was so nervous. It was embarrassing but I stayed the course and through iteration I developed comfort and confidence within me.

2.     Be diligent and patient with yourself. Expertise does not happen overnight; development is a journey. It requires time, effort, and patience. Be mindful that where you start is not where you finish! Embrace the reality that Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) were once novices but with deliberate focus and effective effort, they experienced exponential growth. Remember setbacks and failure are part of the process. Whenever I am going through a learning curve with a new role or task/capability, I am intentional about soliciting feedback. This does two things for me: 1) It prevents me from moving into a proving orientation and 2) the feedback helps me to improve and lets my colleagues know that I value their input, which fosters collaboration, teamwork, and increases my influence.

3.     Seek career efficacy coaching. Ask for a coach to support your development. And if the organizations won’t offer that, you are worth investing in yourself. This kind of coaching can significantly change the trajectory of your career. Through efficacy coaching, you deepen your understanding of who you are, the powerful choices at your disposal, and the cumulative effect of your value, influence, and impact. I’ve grown tremendously from coaching. Through coaching I’ve learned that I must give my work a voice and this is not the opposite of humility, which is a common value shared among URT groups. Leaders will not know your value contribution unless you tell them! Don’t say no to yourself, there will be plenty of people who will do that for you.

On of my favorite quotes is by Nelson Mandela who once said, “I never lose. I either win or I learn.” If you are a member of an URT group, remember this the next time you’re in a lonely space. Stay in a learning orientation, despite the place or space you find yourself in. You may feel lonely, but you are NOT alone.

Anya Weaver is an Associate Principal with Korn Ferry in our Leadership & Professional Development practice.