Fear (Of Not Fitting In, or Not Being Included or Accepted) Held Me Back
How creating a sense of belonging and psychological safety can help racialized employees thrive in their roles – and enhance retention
I vividly remember sitting in a meeting, my shoulders hunched forward, my eyes downcast, listening to the people around me, wanting so much to voice my perspective, but lacking the confidence to speak up. I had all this knowledge and all these ideas inside me, but I was paralyzed by the fear of how my ideas would be received, if I would be rejected and perceived less-than because I don’t look and sound the same, and because I come with a different set of experiences.
I was filled with negative self-talk and self-doubt because I felt, while I had done all this great work throughout my career, I was missing the cultural context. I didn’t go to the same schools or have the same stories as the people around me so I chose to believe my experience wasn’t good enough. I spent my time focused on what I thought I lacked and trying to fit in, rather than being myself and sharing all I had to offer. I kept doing more and more work, thinking that would lead to recognition and acceptance, but all it created was burn out.
Feeling like you have to change who you are to fit in
This is a common experience among members of immigrant and racialized communities. Not seeing yourself reflected in your peers and leadership, and feeling like you have to change who you are to fit in. It’s what causes so many talented, experienced individuals to either not feel qualified enough to put themselves forward for more senior roles, or leave organizations entirely where they could otherwise excel, contribute significantly, and thrive.
Individual coaching to regain confidence as a BIPOC leader
Two things helped me work through those early struggles: talking to amazing mentors and coaches, and being intentional about replacing my self-doubt and limiting beliefs with empowering and inspiring perspectives. And this is also how I support other BIPOC leaders in working with them as part of a coaching engagement. I help them see they belong just as they are, understand their beliefs can be rewritten, find the confidence to trust in their knowledge and work experiences, and bring their voices in to share all they have to offer.
Creating inclusivity for racialized team members as a non-racialized leader
Personalized coaching from someone with a similar background who understands what they’re going through can help them identify and work through their self-limiting beliefs. It can provide perspective, help them leverage their resources, and bring intentionality to showing up with confidence. Coaching can also help them become champions of change by helping others in similar situations. Additionally, working with a BIPOC coach as a non-racialized leader can be equally empowering to develop confidence to create an inclusive and psychologically safe environment for others.
Group coaching cohorts build community, enhance retention
Setting up a group coaching cohort for racialized employees is another client approach we’ve used with great success. It helps cohort members hear the challenges of others with similar backgrounds and the strategies they used to overcome them. It not only builds community, but creates a peer learning environment that lives long after the actual coaching program is over.
We worked with a group of 11 BIPOC associates at a law firm recently, meeting once per month for four group coaching sessions and a couple of one-on-one assessment meetings. The cohort became a support system for each member, where it was easy to reach out to another member to say, “Hey, this is what I’m struggling with today, what have you done in this situation?” When people feel they have others in the organization who understand them and whom they can turn to for support and feedback, it helps them feel more connected to the company. And the fact that the organization invested in creating this space for connection and exploration also contributed to enhanced retention.
By the end of the cohort sessions, the BIPOC associates we worked with felt a greater sense of belonging, learned from their fellow cohort members’ experiences including new ways to help show up as their best selves, and they gained a sense of assurance that the firm wanted to help them address their challenges and see them succeed. It also provided access to a new and valuable network of individuals the associates could call on and connect with throughout the rest of their careers.
Racialized employees and leaders have much to contribute. And while self-limiting beliefs and self-doubts can make members of the BIPOC community feel disconnected and create a barrier to contributing all they can to the organization, having great mentors, coaches, and a network of peers with similar experiences can help them transform these narratives. Allies and inclusive leaders also help by creating space for intentional self-exploration and evolution, and ensuring racialized employees feel seen and heard, understood, and accepted for who they are, and confident they belong. Just as they are.