When hard work only goes so far - examining the career experience of BME leaders

Working hard and following procedure will only get so far in a career path to leadership, particularly for BME employees. As this research shows, a grasp of informal processes and relationships is key to success.

Despite a continuing rise in the number of Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) employees entering the UK workforce, their representation in leadership roles remains disproportionately low. Although several possible barriers to BME leadership progression have been identified by researchers, remarkably little attention has been paid to the voices of BME individuals in questioning the prevailing assumptions about what influences their path to positions of leadership.

Reflections on the labyrinth: Investigating black and minority ethnic leaders' career experiences, by Cass Professor of Psychology, Jo Silvester, and Dr Madeleine Wyatt of the University of Kent, gives voice to BME senior managers to offer insight into the significant positive and negative experiences they've experienced in the workplace.

It investigated how BME and white senior managers working for the same UK government department and being at the same grade, make sense of career events along their leadership journeys.

The specific research questions were (1) how do BME senior managers explain their leadership journeys, (2) what are they barriers they have to navigate, and (3) in what ways are these similar or different to those experienced by white managers?

A key finding was that BME senior managers talked for longer, and identified more career experiences they considered to be of significance. Sense-making is most prevalent when people encounter negative, surprising or challenging events. Therefore one can infer that BME managers encountered more unexpected and challenging situations on their leadership journeys, which required them to invest more cognitive effort into understanding how to progress in their career.

The overarching theme related to how BME and white managers made sense of, and engaged in, informal and formal organisational processes. BME managers found it harder to access the informal networks within the organisation which could increase their visibility and reputation with senior decision-makers. Instead they relied on formal processes, such as focusing on working longer and harder in their roles, learning how to pass formal promotion assessments, or participating in formal support networks and development schemes. In constrast, white managers treated formal and informal routes as equally legitimate ways to progress their careers. They also perceived themselves to have more influence over informal behaviours, such as using self-promotion to develop network contacts and access informal support.

The findings appear to show that formal processes run in parallel with informal means of career progression. However, BME employees are disadvantaged, being more reliant on formal procedures. More specifically, BME employees lack the type of knowledge typically acquired via informal sources ( i.e. informal relations with senior managers), which aids understanding of 'hidden' routes to promotion, and therefore will not progress as quickly or easily as their white counterparts. They also found it more difficult to access information on how to perform 'contextually', which involves selecting the right project to work on to build reputation in the eyes of senior management. Those who can engage in both formal and informal processes, and also understand how to work contextually, are the ones that progress the fastest.

These findings appear to indicate that BME senior managers who have been successful in achieving leadership positions have put more effort into both task performance and making sense of informal organisational processes. Thus, there would seem to be an important need for researchers and practitioners to understand how these informal aspects impact on differential career progression, and the potential interplay between formal and informal organisational processes.

Professor Silvester said "BME managers often lack access to the insider knowledge needed to navigate the political reality of most organisations. Companies may have formal promotion procedures, but these often mask informal political procedures. With less opportunity to build a political understanding of their workplace, BME managers can find themselves at a real disadvantage when applying for senior roles"

A draft version of the research paper is available for download at the link below.


{Reflections on the labyrinth: Investigating black and minority ethnic leaders’ career experiences}{https://www.bayes.city.ac.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0016/354103/reflections-labyrinth-bme-wyatt-silvester.pdf}