Black Women At Work
James Dignan

More than 16.6 million black women rise each day to make our mark in the workplace. And thanks to trailblazers like Ursula Burns, the turnaround queen of Xerox Corp., which has revenues of $21.4 billion; First Lady Michelle Obama, who is getting our kids to shake, rattle and move to annihilate childhood obesity; and Oprah, who runs a multimedia empire including her OWN network (girl, she did that!), we get to view real sisters changing the world. But we wondered, when it comes to the rest of us who are grinding it out every day, how are we perceived? And does that perception make us more guarded about the way we dress, with whom we associate (both in and outside of the office) and what we share around the watercooler?

To learn more, ESSENCE partnered with research consultants Added Value Cheskin to conduct a groundbreaking study about our experiences on the job. Here we share some of the initial findings, which identify four distinct levels of engagement, and offer strategies for how you can make meaningful shifts that can advance your career.

The Isolated Achiever

Participants in our study noted that she has the least amount of engagement with coworkers and tends to be very guarded. As she struts up and down the hallway, head high, we can almost hear her rallying cry: “I’m not here to make friends, I’m here to do a job, get promoted and move on!” 

THE IMPACT: According to the findings, the Isolated Achiever places herself in a position to be sidelined since she rarely speaks to anyone or has an opinion about her work. “She is the most disadvantaged member of the workforce when it comes to receiving recognition or praise for her performance, resulting in fewer opportunities for advancement and, typically, internal feelings of resentment,” the study noted.

THE STRATEGY FOR SUCCESS: Finding a happy medium between getting the job done and interacting with coworkers beyond a superficial smile is best. Otherwise, people are left to assume you have no interest in the job beyond the work. The more you allow people to get to know you and witness your performance, the more likely they will feel comfortable with your style of leadership.

The Dutiful Conversationalist

She is a strategist who understands office politics. Despite her guarded nature and the tendency to only speak to colleagues when necessary, she is well respected. She is considered a close confidant who acts as a sounding board for coworkers when things in the office or at home start to heat up. 

THE IMPACT: Our findings: While reliance on their social communities for coping with stress and working hard are great traits, it does not help this type excel in the workplace. Prioritizing work over work-related relationships tends to isolate these Black women, and others may view them as unfriendly.

STRATEGY FOR SUCCESS: It’s fine to counsel your peers, but who is advising you? If the higher-ups don’t know your strengths, you run the risk of being left behind. Since Millennials are still trying to navigate what is acceptable to reveal about themselves, they struggle as the Dutiful Conversationalist. If you want to be considered for projects beyond the scope of your current duties, consider voluntarily attending after-work functions with colleagues, or play for the company’s bowling league and stick around for the happy hour.

The Safe Communicator

The epitome of the “hard worker,” this type is sometimes known as the fun, comforting officemate whose mere presence makes everyone feel better. Not one to rock the boat, she only engages in safe conversations, which means she’s likely not receiving the pertinent 411 about what’s really going on at her company. She openly talks with coworkers and participates in lunch activities, yet it’s rare to link up with her after hours for a cocktail or at an industry event. 

THE IMPACT: The study results show while she earns high praise for completing assignments and leading teams, “her conversations often begin and end with her immediate comfort circle.”

STRATEGY FOR SUCCESS: The Safe Communicator must look beyond the challenge of speaking up and take the risk to advance. Sticking too close to the same circle can place her at a disad- vantage because she’s not speaking to the right influencers and avoiding topics she believes may make her dispensable.

The Expressive Connector

She is comfortable speaking with everyone on both safe and unsafe topics. Our study showed she is usually strongest in environments that are homogenous; she revels in talking about her kids, her spouse or what she did over the weekend. Plus, she’s okay with going to after-work activities. A superstar networker who is an accessible member of the team, “she effectively shares, collaborates and produces great work,” according to the study. 

THE IMPACT: She is seen as friendly, open and responsive, the quintessential team player. “She is able to balance the demands of her job with the interpersonal needs of her colleagues. She isn’t afraid to speak up, initiate conversation, express an opinion and chase new opportunities.”

STRATEGY FOR SUCCESS: Instead of waiting to be noticed, she creates a space to be recognized by her peers and supervisors. This allows her to thrive every time.

This article was originally published in the November issue of ESSENCE magazine, on newsstands now.