The Unapproachable Executive
We once coached the executive vice president of a personal care company who happened to be a person of color. After the turnover in her division began to rise, we were asked to work with her to improve her interpersonal skills. She was viewed as a model of efficiency who was disconnected emotionally. When her Guttman coach suggested that she try to show a more people-friendly side, she countered with her “story”: “People are always uncomfortable around someone who is different from them. They feel disconnected from me because I am a woman and an African American. This is always going to put me at a disadvantage in the relationship game, no matter what I do.”
As the coach probed, he realized that his executive’s early environment was the source of her story. She had often overheard her parents talking around the kitchen table about how whites were uncomfortable around blacks and treated them differently. Her story had been many years in the making. The coach’s response to her was, “Your story about your colleagues is that race plays a role in your relationship with them, and that’s a story you need to let go of.”
When her coach pointed out to her that there were several other African Americans in the division and that they too viewed her as aloof and unapproachable, she began to understand that she had been overgeneralizing based on an invalid story. It took a while, but eventually she realized that she had no empirical evidence to support her claims of racism, and she began working on the real problem: her own behavior when interacting with colleagues.