Achieving a more diverse and inclusive workplace is among the highest priorities for many organizations. One challenge for minority groups at work is advancing their leadership status; it is common to observe a “trickle-down” effect when lower percentages of minority groups sit in higher levels of a company. Research attributes this phenomenon (in part) to social network theory, stating that minority groups tend to sit in lower status positions, limiting their social capital–a crucial resource for upward mobility. However, the theory does not explain why disparities still exist between minority and majority members of the same social status within a company. The researchers (Khattab et al., 2020) propose that a look into how minority and majority groups utilize and interact with their networks can provide more insight into this disparity, revealing shortcomings in organizations’ approaches to supporting minority group success at work.
NETWORK COMPOSITION PUTS MINORITIES AT A DISADVANTAGE
Before trying to understand how minority groups differ in their network usage, it is necessary to examine how networks form and function. In general, they are dominated by the majority group, and operate under a basic principle called social categorization: that people who share similarities are likely to form closer relationships. Majority members will be more connected with majority members, and minority members will be more connected with minority members. Further, like any other social groups, networks can subscribe to various stereotypes based on the majority group—stereotypes that can often be harmful to minorities in the network.
These stereotypes extend to leadership through something called leadership categorization, where “good leadership” is synonymous with being white and/or male. Therefore, while minority group members may reach a desirable status in a work network, they still may not fit the most accepted description of a leader, as prescribed by the majority group in the network.
The researchers proposed a model of network utilization to demonstrate how the above factors influence how minority groups use their network connections for leadership advancement.
SOCIAL BARRIERS FOR MINORITY GROUPS
The researchers identify two ways employees utilize their networks. The first and more influential method, called career utilization, involves engaging with network connections to advance career opportunities, such as sharing professional goals with prominent leaders. And the second method, work utilization, involves focusing network interactions on task performance, such as asking an influential leader to provide performance feedback after a project. While less direct, work utilization aims to increase employee visibility and credibility.
What do these two approaches have in common? According to the researchers, both methods of network utilization may be more difficult for minority members due to the nature of the network. Direct methods such as career utilization require confidence in believing that professional goals will be taken seriously; with a lack of minority representation in leadership positions, it can be difficult for minority members to see themselves actualizing these goals. In turn, network connections may have a biased view of what a leader looks like and favor members of the majority group. As a result, minority members may go unconsidered or completely dismissed from discussion among decision-makers when new opportunities arise.
Further, work utilization methods may be approached with caution by minority groups due to a fear of appearing incompetent–a stigma attached to some minority groups–particularly if they are less-tenured employees. Majority groups, without this vulnerability, will be more likely to approach network connections regarding task performance.
NETWORK DIVERSITY CAN REDUCE DISPARITIES
The discussion above suggests a cyclical process in which majority group behavior serves to perpetuate negative stereotypes of minorities, discourage minorities from participating in network utilization, and encourage majority members to continue investing in majority network connections.
However, networks that increase their diversity and grant visibility to this diversity can begin to break down implicit associations regarding the characteristic of successful leaders. They can encourage employees to have more diverse connections, and provide minority members with visible organizational leaders who are similar to them. With those role models in the workplace, minority members would have a better chance of overcoming any perceived stigma surrounding utilizing their network.
Network utilization can be influenced by various forms of organizational intervention, including policy, programs, and reinforcement. For example, training can teach employees how to network and advocate for themselves. With respect to minority representation and visibility, organizations may need to review their practices and policies to ensure employment decisions remain fair. Decision-influencers should also challenge each other to look at each candidate individually; Slowing down the decision process can help weaken the effect of any implicit bias.
Regardless of which actions are most appropriate for a specific organization, this article demonstrates the importance of recognizing the cyclical nature of workplace networks when minorities are not represented, majority members do not hold each other accountable, and workplace culture does not support the visibility of minority network members.
Khattab, J., van Knippenberg, D., Nederveen Pieterse, A., & Hernandez, M. (2020). A network utilization perspective on the leadership advancement of minorities. Academy of Management Review, 45(1), 109-129.