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How Managers Get Labeled Racist and Bigot November 30, 2010

Posted by Kevin Burns in accountability, assertiveness, boss, communication, confidence, conflict, corporate attitude expert, corporate culture turnaround specialist, culture of accountability, culture of high-performance, honesty, integrity, kevin burns, keynote speaker, management, manager, middle manager.

It would so easy to blame your life circumstances on your mediocre teachers of your childhood. Hey, if they had no real understanding of success and how to achieve it, how could they possibly prepare you to be successful right?

So why is it that people are so quick to blame their bosses for not getting ahead at work? Nothing irks me more than hearing that incessant whining of “not being recognized” or “my boss plays favorites and I’m not it” or “it’s because I’m (gender, sexual orientation, race, age, weight, etc.).”

Those comments are the result of owning an “entitlement” mentality: you think you are entitled to be further than you are and now you are blaming others for not just giving it to you. Truth is, you are also entitled to be unemployed.

Managers who give credence to the people playing this game for fear of being labeled as a bigot, racist, etc., are just as guilty of keeping this entitlement mentality going.

Look, people who say this stuff do so because no one has told them any different. If they are not being promoted because they aren’t competent, then they deserve to be told they are not competent. Saying nothing for fear of offending allows employees to pull stuff out of the air, to make stuff up in the absence of information – and then you have twice the work to do in straightening it out.

If you speak with your people every single day (and that really IS your job – not paperwork and management meetings, contrary to what you might think) and let them know how they are doing in simple ten-second conversations, you end up eliminating a lot of the backlash that could come later. People want to know how they are doing and in the absence of information, they will make stuff up based on what they THINK is the truth. My Tweak™ – The Future of Management program addresses exactly this.

If this is happening to you as a manager then you’re not managing, you’re defending. And you can’t help your people get any better if you’re constantly defending yourself. When this happens, you are in the way of your people getting any better. Now you need a new manager to start over. Maybe you should have just told them the truth: that their work is mediocre and not worthy of promotion.



1. Michael McLaughlin - December 1, 2010

AMEN good article Kevin

Kevin Burns - December 2, 2010

Michael, thanks for the kind words.

2. Yuvarajah - December 2, 2010


Is there a remote chance or possibility of a manager having coloured vision and not buying into the “diversity” policy? And, where rewards 7 recognition have nothing to do with good performance and competencies.

Sincere and courageous “ten second conversations” by managers on how people are doing is a scarcity and illusion these days!. If there is, I am sure there would not be any need for any kind of labbeling.

3. Anne Thornley-Brown, M.B.A. - December 4, 2010

Kevin, we’ve been in agreement in the past but I can see that we’re not going to be singing from the same song sheet on this one. Not to worry, it would be boring if we always agreed and there would be little basis for discussion.

First, I do agree with you here:

“If they are not being promoted because they aren’t competent, then they deserve to be told they are not competent.”

“Maybe you should have just told them the truth: that their work is mediocre and not worthy of promotion.”

I believe that people should be promoted because of their competence. Yes, there are times when the race card is played and inviduals who are weak performers use their race (sex, weight, etc.) as a basis for blaming others for their slow rate of career progress. There are times when managers are afraid to confront poor performance. However, I have found that this happens in the minority of cases.

Like it or not, even in 2010, there are FAR too many instances in which competent, no, make that EXCEPTIONAL performers are not promoted because of their race. I have seen it and I have experienced it. I have also seen individuals (White) who do not even possess the minimum qualifications stated in job postings promoted and placed in an “acting” capacity to circumvent an organization’s policies. They end up managing highly qualified and experienced individuals. They create a LOT of problems because they have little or no knowledge of the functional area that they are managing. These are not isolated incidents. People are promoted because of race, nepotism, sleeping with the boss to get ahead, belonging to the right country club, and a host of other reasons.

We are both based in Canada and this type of thing is rampant here. In far too many instances, when one addresses a senior management team in Canada, members of visible minority groups are conspicuous by their absence. Something is definitely wrong with this picture.

This situation seems to be getting worse instead of better. I can think of a number of organizations that had diverse management teams a decade ago that, once again, have leadership teams that are 99% or 100% White. I don’t buy the notion that educated and experienced professionals from visible minority groups are not getting ahead because they lack competence. Like it or not, “it’s not what you know, it’s WHO you know” prevails north of the 49th parallel.

Kevin Burns - December 8, 2010

Anne, I’m not sure exactly how we are NOT in agreement here. Nowhere did I express that I was in agreement with promoting a person because of their race. You seem to have asserted that here and I wish to correct it. My assertion is that people make up their own reasons for not being promoted in the absence of information – sometimes those reasons can gravitate over to race, religion, etc.

The good news is that when “exceptional performers” are not promoted because of their race, they have obviously found a workplace that is NOT a culture fit.

I have one simple idea for high-performers who are held back: go somewhere where you are appreciated and take your talents to a competitor and make your old employer pay – twice. I know the howls can start with “why should they have to leave?” The truth is, working for bigots and racists is NOT satisfying. It is an uphill struggle to stay motivated and focused when you are being discriminated against. There are two choices: stay and fight and constantly be at odds with your manager or go someplace where you will be appreciated. Get enough high-performers to leave an organization and the organization suffers forever from poor reputation and bad culture.

I can’t fix racism overnight nor can you. I’m not saying turn a blind eye either. But make a decision as to whether the fight, the frustration and the conflict is all really worth it – or would you rather just be happy and appreciated.

4. Victor Jensch - December 8, 2010

Hello Kevin and Anne,

There are two perspectives that have been discussed here. The first is from the perspective of the leader, who exacerbates the issue by feeding into the “woe is me” mentality of members of his/her staff. The second is a culture of double standards, where the “who you know” often gets promoted above the better qualified and more diligent.

Taking the first issue – the leader. I believe that it is important to remain honest with workers who are not performing. However, this should be done in a constructive manner. For example, “you are simply not competent enough!” will only serve to destroy whatever positive factors there may have been in the relationship between leader and protege. Trust will disappear, and along with it, any remaining vestages of motivation. This will most likely extrapolate to others in the work-force, who will very quickly recognize that communication with leadership is dangerous and should be avoided at all costs.

On the other hand, stating, “you are not quite ready yet, but these are the points that I would like you to concentrate on…1..2..3, etc, to improve,” and then to follow up at mentoring level, is far more constructive. It shows the worker, and indirectly the entire workforce, that leadership is interested in personal growth and development. Direct communication which is honest, but not “brutally honest” will motivate all staff to perform better. Often, this will automatically reduce the “woe is me attitude,” closing the mouths of the wannebe’s and opening the eyes of those with valid ambitions.

The 2nd issue is the “who you know syndrome.” In my mind, this is a double edged sword. Leaders cannot be expected to be psychic. This is especially true in a work force that is large. It is important for workers to market themselves. Let the leaders know that they have performed well. Also let them know when they are finding tasks / workloads difficult. This alludes towards trustworthiness, and shows leadership that the worker can recognize his/her limitations. If a leader knows you exist, and you have great ideas, he/she is more likely to pick you for a position further up the ladder.

What this does not take away, is the importance of fairness on the part of the leader. It is critical for the leader to choose the best person for the position, based on the information that is available to him / her. To this extent, Anne has a valid point – unfair leaders often choose those workers they like instead of those workers who have performed well.

I think we should all remember that it is the responsibility of the leader to lead. If he/she leads fairly in an open manner, his/her workforce will act in a similar manner. Integrity and honesty start from the top.

Kevin Burns - December 8, 2010

Victor, I never asserted that anyone should be brutally honest by just telling them their work is terrible. Of course you would do this with compassion and in a constructive way. And the way to do this is to have conversations daily. Touch each of your people every single day. Never let a day go by where you don’t have a conversation with your people – each of them individually. You can Tweak their performance daily. You can also Tweak their attitudes about how well they are doing daily. You can Tweak an entitlement mentality out of them daily. You can Tweak their performance daily. You can Tweak their own personal assessments of how they are doing so that there are no questions about where they stand.

As for the “who you know syndrome,” I assume you are speaking to Anne on that one as I did not address that issue at all and it was not part of the discussion.

But thanks for chiming in. Always appreciate another point of view.

5. Anne Thornley-Brown, M.B.A. - December 9, 2010

I didn’t get this impression from your comments:

“Nowhere did I express that I was in agreement with promoting a person because of their race.”

I was just stating my position before going into the rest of my discussion as the issue of quotas, etc, often comes up in discussions like this.

We are in agreement here as well:

“I have one simple idea for high-performers who are held back: go somewhere where you are appreciated and take your talents to a competitor and make your old employer pay – twice.”

Why stay where one is not wanted or appreciated? Take your talent elsewhere or set up your own business.

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