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What it is and how underrepresented talent can make it happen.
Managing our visibility is a challenge that all professionals face and if you grappled with visibility in the workplace before Covid-19, it is possible that the challenge is even greater in the current context of remote working.
Unsurprisingly, recent research indicates that during ‘lockdown’ we are interacting with a narrower group of people than before. Although some people find it easier to overcome some of the social barriers of remote working, true visibility requires more than a well-delivered virtual presentation or making an impactful contribution when our turn comes up; it is about how we engage with our networks.
In our targeted leadership programmes, manager and allyship training and culturally intelligent executive coaching, we dive into the power of visibility. In conversations with minority and majority leaders and underrepresented talent, we see that visibility is rarely well understood through the lens of cultural and racial difference.
In this article, we introduce visibility in the context of career progression for underrepresented talent (such as white women or black people in senior leadership positions), visibility in remote working and guidance for underrepresented talent on achieving visibility in remote working.
What is visibility in the career development of underrepresented talent?
Visibility is the extent to which we are fully regarded and recognised by others. When we are visible, our unique contributions are accepted. Visibility often reflects that we have decided to stand out and be noticed. Our decision to do this will be impacted by a range of personality and other individual characteristics, but it also depends significantly on the context and whether we are a member of a powerful dominant group or a marginalised one.
Visibility can be empowering and helpful when it facilitates having a voice, and provides the opportunity to speak up, be heard and take control of how we are perceived and represented. Visibility is good for our well-being because being truly visible means being accepted and valued for our authentic selves.
The risks of too much or too little visibility
Being in a visible minority can mean that people who fall into an underrepresented group (such as minority ethnic professionals) can find themselves struggling to find an empowering balance of visibility. Visibility for those in underrepresented groups can quickly become invisibility or hypervisibility, and in both cases, it becomes constraining and disempowering.
What is ‘invisibility’? Invisibility occurs when we blend in and minimise or hide our difference; this also can mean minimising the attention given to our unique contribution. Minority ethnic employees may choose to do this deliberately to feel a greater sense of belonging or might be rendered invisible by their context or their colleagues more aligned to the dominant group. Invisibility results in the denial of the different voice, lack of recognition and restrictions on legitimacy and authority at work.
What is ‘hypervisibility’? Hypervisibility occurs when we stand out and become recognised for our ‘difference’, but this takes attention away from the unique contribution and personal characteristics that we should be known for. Minority ethnic employees will likely experience this hypervisibility as tokenism.
They may experience performance pressure – feeling as though they are seen to represent all minority ethnic people in their day-to-day actions. Hypervisibility results in increased scrutiny, minor failures being magnified and a lack of control over others’ perceptions which is more likely to lead to stereotype threat and reduced performance outcomes.
In our experience working with hundreds of minority ethnic employees over the last few years, successful professionals mitigate risks of hypervisibility by adopting strategic invisibility. This involves disengaging from parts of the workplace (often the social networks) and remaining engaged with other parts (often the technical work). Essentially, many adopt the motto: ‘work hard, and keep a low profile’. This approach risks invisibility and remote working adds to these challenges.
Visibility and remote working
Remote working can magnify the non-inclusive dynamics and isolation in workplaces. Isolation creates uncertainty about whom to talk to and how and when to approach colleagues. Videoconferencing is not only tiring; it can also be intrusive with a view into our homes and our personal spaces which may lead us to engage in shorter, lower quality interactions. With face-to-face contact missing, opportunities for rich exchanges, forming bonds and collaboration can decrease. Although the work might get done, professional and social networks might seem difficult to maintain and diminish our sense of belonging.
Managing visibility in remote working: guidance for minority ethnic talent
To achieve a visibility balance, you need to focus on the technical work and on the network, here are 3 tips for enhancing your visibility in your network:
Be proactive in your communication
Set up informal and formal interactions beyond your reporting lines and reach out to others to grow a network of supporters, mentors and sponsors. Request roles with greater responsibility and interdependent tasks to build new relationships and keep in touch with potential mentors and sponsors on a regular basis.
Tip: Try emailing key people individually who don’t know you before and/or after a group meeting to make a connection and increase the likelihood of them being aware of your presence and contribution
Identify your ‘desired professional image’
Actively work on your impression management – what do you want to be known for? Use this information to guide your narrative and your USP. Think about whether all the people who need to know you, know you. What would these people say about you? What do you want them to say about you?
Tip: Think about one of your personal strengths that you are not yet known for. How can the remote working environment provide an opportunity for you to introduce this personal strength to shape your self-narrative at work?
Utilise feedback to reflect and refine your approach
Knowing your level of visibility relies on reading the room and gauging people’s response. Feedback provides the best opportunity for this, so be sure to capture feedback from others and utilise this to refine your communication and engagement with others in the future.
Tip: Be proactive in asking for feedback and when feedback is ‘filtered’ (i.e., not specific), ask for an example of how you could change your approach.
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