Monday, April 29, 2013

"The Soft Bigotry of Low Expectations"-A Business Example

A few days ago I used the term "the soft bigotry of low expectations" in the context of the leadership of a large urban public school district.  I believe it also applies in the context of leading in a global commercial enterprise.

In one of my former roles I was involved in the assessment of general managers who had demonstrated the potential to become senior executives. Based on the assessment, a development plan was agreed between the participant and their line manager.  Those being assessed came from all parts of the business, functions and all parts of the world.  In several of these sessions, there were Nigerian participants..

I've been to Nigeria several times, although never lived there.   There are over 130 Million people living in Nigeria.  Over 100 million of them are living on less than two dollars a day.  The poverty is crushing and basic services like food, sanitation, power, public transportation and clean water are scarce, or unreliable, or non-existent in many places.  Muslim extremists in the north part of the country carry out attacks on Christian citizens.  In the South...the Niger Delta...a group of insurgents calling themselves MEND...the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, raid commercial activities and kidnap expatriates for ransom. Corruption of public officials is a well documented matter of record.

In order for a young person to get an education that gives them a chance to succeed, they have to overcome incredible obstacles just to have clean clothes and a full stomach when they get to school.  They then must have the drive to study and excel, and get an advanced education, often outside their home country.  Then there is the competition to get a good job with an international company.  Once there, success requires performing at a high level that warrants promotion and consideration for the most senior jobs in those companies.

I admit that when I did an assessment of a Nigerian who had made that amazing journey and against all odds, had arrived at the threshold of the executive ranks, I was tempted to be less stringent in my "cut them some slack" so to speak.  I had a deep appreciation...and profound respect... for what it had taken for that person to arrive at just that point.

Ultimately, I came to the conclusion I really wouldn't be doing any of them any favors by a less demanding assessment and identification of their development needs.  They deserved candid, "no holds barred" feedback on what it would take to get to the next level.

Like a school teacher in a large urban district, it's natural for a leader in business to empathizes with those who face extraordinary life challenges.  It's important as a human being, to appreciate what it takes to do business in a second language, or be a woman in a male dominated culture, or be a racial minority or have suffered from religious persecution or any number of other life challenges.  It's just as important to not let that empathy get in the way of providing the gift of honest feedback.  Honest feedback, tough as it may sometimes be, respects the person by saying "I expect just as much out of you as anyone else at your level"  When your actions say "I don't expect as much out of you because of what you've had to overcome" you are practicing the "soft bigotry of low expectations."

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