Think for a moment about the people in your organization who influence you the most — the ones whose views you listen to most carefully; the ones who can most easily get you to change your mind on, say, a hiring or promotion decision, a reorganization, a resource allocation, or even a new idea. If you are like most leaders, there are a handful a people you trust. When they come to you with information that is counter to what you have been thinking, you listen — and you take their views seriously.
It’s likely these messengers share traits that specifically appeal to you. They may have the same beliefs, have attended the same types of schools, or share the same interests outside of work. This is a common phenomenon, and it could be holding your organization back. Conversely, you might have colleagues who are markedly different from you, colleagues you don’t hear simply because you are not predisposed to connect with them and therefore to trust them.
Author and behavioral scientist Stephen Martin spent decades studying influence. In his latest book, coauthored with Joseph Marks, Messengers: Who We Listen To, Who We Don’t, and Why, Martin calls attention to just how intertwined an effective message is with its messenger. People who have important contributions to make but don’t fit your preferred messenger model are overlooked, and those who aren’t especially talented but fit your mold will have undue influence. And according to psychologist Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic’s latest work — featured in his Ted Talk and his book Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders? — traits trump competence almost every time.
Now think about the implications for people who are not part of the dominant culture in your organization’s leadership ranks. These might include women, people of color, or introverted types. These underrepresented groups find it hard to get their view across. They are often told that what is holding them back is something about their style, such as their executive presence, their ambition, or how they show confidence. But that’s often not the case.
Leaders who want the best out of their people need to get more comfortable with different messengers not only because it’s best for the organization, but it levels the playing field for employees, too.
Building trust networks
Shared interests and common styles are how we generate trust. When we connect with another person over genuinely shared interests, we tend to have a higher degree of comfort and trust than would occur otherwise. This presents a challenge for people who are different from the norm when they try to build the trust networks that are important for their career growth.
There may be people in your organization who are markedly different from you who you don’t hear simply because you are not predisposed to connect with them and therefore to trust them.
When employees can see themselves in a leader, even just a bit, it is much easier for them to start a conversation. Underrepresented groups can struggle to find ways to connect and build a strong network, and not for lack of interest or ambition. This can hold them back unfairly. If a female manager, for example, is uncomfortable joining the men who go running with the CEO, she misses out on a networking opportunity.
If companies are serious about diversity and inclusion, then it’s up to the leaders to ensure that all messengers get heard. Here are some practical steps that leaders can take.
Pay attention to the types of signals that matter most to you and the team. Note them, say them out loud, and call everyone’s attention to potential preferences — shedding light on the unstated signals so everyone knows what is important.
Make an intentional effort to listen to the perspective of someone who is not like you. Ask questions, explain why you are asking, don’t dismiss the ideas immediately, and don’t let the team silence someone who communicates differently. Draw attention to what the person said, repeat it, ask questions, and show interest in the message. The team will soon follow your lead.
Look at the outcomes you want someone to achieve, and then be open to how that person might achieve those results. If you believe that a certain style or approach is essential to success, be transparent about your expectations. Give feedback, and explain why this approach matters. And don’t say anything that sounds like “Be more like me.”
Be aware that your own interests will affect the way you perceive others. Maybe you usually connect with people over sports or family interests. In that case, try to broaden your interests or at least your curiosity. And leverage your connections to help underrepresented groups create stronger networks. Talk about style and common interests with people from underrepresented groups so they will be able to make connections more easily with new contacts.
Recognize that many underrepresented groups tend to get stuck in key roles, particularly if they are experts and great executors. Ask about the reasons why people haven’t moved on, and listen to the positive qualities their answers imply. Don’t let a lack of movement signal a lack of ambition.
If you truly want different perspectives, backgrounds, and personalities on your team and in your organization, then you have to change how you listen and who you listen to.