How to Overcome Privilege Guilt at Work
The MPW Insiders Network is an online community where the biggest names in business and beyond answer timely career and leadership questions. Today’s answer for, “What’s the best piece of career advice you’ve ever been given?” is written by Aubrey Blanche, global head of diversity and inclusion at Atlassian.
This article originally appeared in Fortune on March 15, 2017.
It often seems like there is a new “best” piece of advice every few days, but the most impactful thing I’ve ever learned is hardly trendy. I started getting business advice around the dinner table, starting with lessons about how to give a proper handshake. But it was something far less tactical that has stayed with me.
The first time my dad took me to his office — I couldn’t have been more than five years old — he introduced me to his assistant. After we went to her office, he looked at me and said, “I want you to remember something about the person you just met: She is the most important person in this office, and you should treat her like it.” Now, he was her boss, and the general counsel for the company, so I assumed he couldn’t have meant that literally. But he lived those words: Over the next 15 years, I saw him consistently advocate for her, even going so far as to offer taking a pay cut so she could get a raise.
As I’ve moved through life and my career, my dad’s words still echo. He acutely recognized the power and privilege of the office he held, and constantly looked for ways to serve those who didn’t share his advantages. If there is anything every leader should look to do, it is embody this trait, and encourage others around them to do the same.
Understanding and owning your advantages
We all have earned and unearned advantages and power over others. While it can be uncomfortable to acknowledge or lean into this, it is absolutely crucial to being a true, effective leader. While some aspects of power might be more obvious (such as holding a higher rank in a company), some may not be. What advantage did having a father in business give me, for example?
Before I graduated middle school, I learned that education is important, and I would have the privilege of being able to go to college. I also learned that it was important to look someone in the eye and grasp firmly when giving a handshake; being on time for every meeting is a sign of respect for your colleagues; and your resume must be impeccable to be considered for a job. And I can’t leave out that formatting and spelling are enormously consequential.
Now, all of these things might sound obvious. But they might not be obvious to people who have little or no access to this information. What if my parents didn’t know about or value these customs? What advantages have I had because I grew up in a white family, or attended private school, or have no mobility issues?
Deploying privilege for others
Take the time to make an inventory of your advantages and positions of power, and then use them benefit others. I recognize this can be an incredibly uncomfortable exercise. But my challenge is this: Rather than feeling guilt about the things you have been given, turn them into something that uplifts and supports others.
For instance, women are often interrupted by men in meetings, and are less likely to be given high-visibility roles in their organizations. That won’t be solved by designing new leadership programs or making grand gestures, but rather by colleagues disrupting those patterns. Addressing these inequities simply requires each of us to understand how we can advocate for others continually in our work environments.
The best part about leading this way is that everyone benefits, including your business. Not only is high emotional intelligence the most effective trait in leaders, it also helps empower their people and unleash their potential. Teams perform best when they are psychologically safe, enabled by leaders who advocate for them. So think about something you can do — no matter how small — to put your privilege to good use for those around you.
Like this article, and want to read more? Think about hitting that little ❤ button below, sharing, or following my writings here. Check me out on Twitter at @adblanche.