By: Hugo Balta.
Hugo is a Multimedia Executive, Diversity & Inclusion Consultant. For more articles like these visit his blog Straight Talk
As soon as I walk into a meeting, I start counting. How many people of color are present? How many Latinos? How many women?
I’m always one of a few minorities and more often than I care to say…the only one.
This is important to me because it often dictates the framing of discussions and debates. Positions are being taken even before one word is uttered. A person is judged by what they say, how they say it when they say it along with a myriad of other factors. When you’re the only minority in the room; the situation is amplified.
There are certain expectations by the homogeneous leadership running the meetings:
– Sometimes you are there just so it can be said that a minority was included.
– Sometimes you are there to represent (unfairly as it may be) the community you are a part of.
– Sometimes you are there because of your insights (based on experience, talent, and background) matter.
I like to think I’m in the room because of the latter, but I’m not naive enough to understand that it’s often because of the first two reasons. And I’m ok with it because what is most important is to be in the room. What happens next is up to me.
Some of my colleagues take a very calculated and political approach to being the only one. Other than when they are asked a question directly; they listen and listen and listen before picking their spot to speak. These brief comments usually come in the form of support right after a higher-up has given their opinion. The harmonious notions are almost always met with the approval of nods and smiles by the establishment.
Now, I most certainly disagree with this tactic, but I respect it. This isn’t a case of brown nosing the people in charge. No, no, no…this is a strategy which often leads to not only job security, but advancement. The non-threatening, conforming brown person in the workplace is always welcomed.
Another method; one I do not approve of or respect is the invisibility approach. These are the people who are afraid to be in the room and have no idea how they got there. They are more than satisfied with being the token brown person and just want the meeting to end as soon as possible; preferably without anyone asking for their opinion. Their vacant minds are disguised by a mask of interest.
And then there’s the approach I always embrace; swinging for the fences.
I love baseball. It is primarily a defensive sport. On average players spend more time during a game fielding than they do at bat. But, it is often when they’re at bat that they have the most impact. As a Latino in a white male-dominated company (it’s not a ding on my employer; it’s a statistical fact of many U.S. companies), I don’t get many at-bats… so, when I do – I swing, I swing for the fences.
Now, what does that mean? Swinging for the fences? Especially for the baseball illiterates who are reading this. It doesn’t mean swinging the bat wildly or swinging at every pitch. It means being patient, studying the pitcher, their body language, what they’re throwing (types of pitches) and then choosing the right moment to swing.
Here are three pitches every minority employee should swing at in a boardroom meeting:
There’s not much to this pitch, but timing. The velocity of the pitch is meant to test the batter’s reaction. A batter has to anticipate a fastball and start their swing quickly; sometimes even before the ball leaves the pitcher’s hand. Nothing can be more frustrating than a batter swinging at air.
Now, accurately hitting a fastball is one of the best ways to get a dinger. A player with a good eye connects the ball with the bat in the right spot and then lets physics take over.
In order for you to swing at a fastball in a meeting, it is best to study the pitcher. Preparation is key in helping you anticipate who will be throwing these verbal heaters. As a minority, I know I have to work harder than my white counterparts (unfair as that may be) and that means doing my homework each and every time. Opportunities don’t come to us; we step up to them. To perform at an elevated level, you must understand what the goal of the meeting is so that you can contribute by facilitating options which will enhance initiatives or create better strategies.
This is a pitch designed to surprise the batter. It starts in one direction and then quickly dives as it approaches home plate. Despite the difficulty, batters can and do crush these benders. Success is based on timing. Unsuccessful players commit too early and swing at nothing, but the patient ones are often rewarded when the ball breaks into the strike zone.
Most workplace meetings are set up to design a plan of action in order to realize opportunities or avoid mistakes. There’s an over-reliance in that upper management has all the right answers and to their staff, these meetings are more about reassuring the boss’s decisions. Not so.
Assuming managers just want mirrors of themselves is the figurative equivalent of a batter thinking the trajectory of the pitch is one way only to realize at the last minute it breaks to another. Managers are looking for differences of opinion to their own if not for anything, but to test their own theories. As the minority in the room, you need to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. Offer well thought out alternatives which are universal, but also sensitive to diversity. You’re in the room in order to provide nuances based on your race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc. Use these tools to connect when the ball sinks into your swing.
The sinker is all about getting the batter to hit ground balls; get an easy out. What looks like a good looking pitch down the middle, quickly moves to the inside of the plate. Players are fooled into trying to crush the ball only to have a weak at-bat; never making it to first base.
Still, players can drive sinkers if they’re patient. It’s a hard pitch to replicate consistently. Smart batters wait for the pitcher to miss up and over the plate where they can connect with power.
In meetings at work, don’t be fooled by the sinker. You may find yourself on the wrong side of right if you miss-time a strategy which appears to have the favor of the majority only to realize the room is going in another direction. Be confident in delivering your ideas without being defensive about others’ misconceptions about who you are based on your background. If you choose to school them on a topic…it will make an impact, but a weak one. Try instead to drive awareness about a situation in which the rest of the room doesn’t understand and invite them to ask questions.
Being the only minority in the room can be an overwhelming experience, but if you’re self-assured, patient and deliberate…you’ll hit the baseball on the sweet spot and round the bases every at-bat you get.