Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 36
Supervision Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Managing Race Relations

Researcher explores a hot topic.

You have to hand it to David Thomas from Harvard University. He has a lot of courage. He took on a problem few other researchers would tackle: race relations in the workplace.

Thomas is black and he noted, with obvious concern, that he was one of only a very few researchers studying this issue. He also noted that previous research has detailed some troublesome problems: blacks, tied irrevocably to a history of oppression and slavery at the hands of whites, bring distrust with them to the workplace. Whites, as the oppressive majority now hammered with affirmative action, bring varying amounts of antipathy and guilt to black-white relations, too.

Past studies have documented the negative effects of these tensions. They showed everyone losing, including the employer. But rather than alarming us by adding further documentation of our problems, or speculating about causes or solutions, Thomas searched for and found people who had solved the problem. He studied them in the hope that what they have discovered is something the rest of us would profit by knowing, and he was right.

The best relationship in an organization is a mentor relationship. These occur when older, long-tenured managers (usually of high rank) select young, bright, short-tenured people of lower rank for special attention. They give these younger people substantial support and assistance in the organization, shamelessly favoring them over other employees. They arrange promotions and challenge them with increasingly difficult career assignments. They provide biting feedback, counseling, coaching, friendship, and affirmation. These relationships are similar to a coach and his/her star player, or a parent and child. Seventy percent of the CEOs of Fortune 1,000 companies have had a mentor at one time in their careers.

David Thomas began his study by identifying African-Americans who had had mentors. He worked primarily in the WRL corporation, and found 22 people. Next, he interviewed them and obtained their permission to interview their mentors, all of whom were white. Thus he had 22 cross-race relationships to study.

His interviews centered on two questions: how did they manage the racial difference between them and how did these differing strategies affect the quality of the resulting relationships?

Thomas had a surprise when he closely examined the quality of the mentor relationships of his subjects. Most of these, in fact, were not mentor relationships, at all. They lacked the emotional attachment characteristic of mentor relationships, yet they certainly demonstrated ample instrumental career support. Thomas labeled these sponsor relationships and realized he had an opportunity to explore the factors leading these cross-race pairs to develop either mentor or sponsor relationships, so he studied the factors surrounding these relationships.

The first factor he examined was the strategy each party selected to manage their racial differences. Of the 44 people he studied, their preferred strategies fell neatly into 2 groups: denial and engagement.

People selecting a denial strategy preferred not to speak of race. They avoided the subject and pretended racial differences didn't exist, or if they did, weren't important.

People selecting an engagement strategy preferred to openly discuss race.

Thomas expected a close parallel between strategies and the quality of the relationships that resulted, but he got another surprise. The tendency of engagement strategies leading to mentor relationships and of denial strategies leading to sponsor relationships was certainly there, but there were also significant exceptions. Of 14 pairs who preferred denial, 6 of these evolved into mentor relationships. Of 8 pairs who preferred engagement, 5 evolved into mentor relationships.

Something else was going on.

Next, Thomas examined individual-level factors and learned . . .

    1. Pairs preferring to openly discuss racial differences were closer in age to each other.
    2. Pairs preferring to avoid discussing racial differences had younger than average blacks and older than average whites.

So age had something to do with it.

Next, he considered their attitudes about race. These also fell neatly into 2 groups: 1) liberal assimilation, and 2) pluralism.

Thomas found people who held liberal assimilation attitudes believed racial minorities would eventually develop the tastes and sensibilities of the majority and blend in. This is the famous melting pot attitude of racial and ethnic integration. The ideal attitude is color blindness which finds race no longer being a real difference between people. This attitude carries with it an implied criticism of those with an interest in racial differences. It suggests this interest causes divisiveness among people and it's best to keep the subject out of interracial work relationships.

Thomas found people who held pluralistic attitudes believed racial minorities should develop a positive racial identity and feel connected to their race. They should also adopt some aspects of the dominant culture, especially ones which allow them to function effectively in it. The best way to handle interracial work relationships is to acknowledge and appreciate racial differences and to work toward eliminating inequities.

Not surprisingly, people holding liberal assimilation views of race preferred a denial strategy in dealing with race in interracial relationships. Those holding pluralistic views preferred an engagement strategy.

The final factor Thomas studied was the matching of strategies between the two parties of the relationships, and this factor solved the puzzle. Thomas learned when the preferred strategy of the senior person matched the preferred strategy of the junior partner (the African-American), then a mentor relationship would evolve. But if it did not match, only sponsor relationships evolved.

That was not what Thomas expected to find, but there it was: It is only best to openly discuss race when both parties want to do it. When both parties don't want to discuss it, then it's best not to discuss it. And when one party wants to discuss it and the other doesn't, Thomas found a denial strategy being adopted and a limitation on the relationship at the sponsor level. (All of these cases involved senior whites not wanting to discuss race and junior blacks wanting to discuss it.)

Thomas, and other researchers he cited, hold decidedly pluralistic attitudes toward race and believe African-Americans holding liberal assimilation views are younger and "naive about race and organizational politics." They believe both blacks and whites should adopt pluralistic views and they believe the young African-Americans with assimilation views will eventually adopt a pluralistic attitude once they've gained more work experience.

Thomas' research provides a splendid opportunity for whites to gain a perspective on the black experience in the workplace and the things we might do to manage the interracial realities in our businesses.

To the first, most pressing question, "How do you learn the preferences of your African-American employees for dealing with the subject of race?" Thomas suggests you ask your black employees to explain how race affects different ways they see things. From these open-ended questions you can learn of these differences and you can also gain a perspective on the person's comfort discussing race. You can sense if the person prefers engagement or denial, and this will guide you in the strategy you select in managing this person.

Thomas also offers a number of insights whites can keep in mind as they work with blacks:

    1. Blacks need time to overcome historical prejudice and oppression and learn it is possible to have a relationship with a white person in which they reveal their whole selves, including their racial identity and fallibility.
    2. Blacks often feel under intense scrutiny and feel pressure to be perfect, and these feelings are sometimes overwhelming.
    3. Blacks live in 2 worlds and they often have difficulty going from one to the other.
    4. When blacks who prefer to talk about race encounter a white person describing race as inconsequential, it minimizes their feelings on an important element of their self-identity. They feel a need to guard themselves and withhold trust.
    5. Blacks who deny the importance of race often place a high priority on helping the whites around them feel comfortable. By doing so they usually suppress their own feelings about race, bottling up powerful emotions which need expression.
    6. Blacks often test whites early in their relationships to learn of the white person's attitudes toward race. Thomas documented these tests occurring as early as the initial meeting in the job interview. Thus, following our attorney's advice to avoid discussing race in our selection interviews would lead our African-American applicants to conclusions about us which might not be warranted.

Thomas has provided a real service to the business community with this research and has clarified the tasks that face us in managing our businesses. We must assess the preferences and strategies of our African-American employees and colleagues and adapt ourselves to match the needs they present. We must engage their minds to learn of their perspective and we should expect to devote a considerable amount of time to this task. We should take the initiative in addressing the needs of our African-American employees and strive to make them feel comfortable. And finally, we must strive to eliminate inequities and prejudice.

Reference: Thomas, David A. (1993) Racial Dynamics in Cross-race Developmental Relationships. Administrative Science Quarterly, 38 (September), 169-194.

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