Managing people that don’t look like you

No one trains managers in empathy. We train new managers to use project management software, to interface with clients, and to fill out timesheets, but being a manager means giving a shit about your people. When’s the last time you, as a manager, faced training that taught you that you have profound power over the lives of the people who work for you, and that your thoughtlessness is deeply cruel when you force people to operate in an environment that harms them?

I’m using strong language because over the last fifteen-odd years, I’ve seen an unbelievable amount of thoughtless cruelty towards people who vary from your expectations. Much of what I’ve seen involves treating people with disabilities or medical conditions as inconveniences gladly shed when the workday is through–and absolutely ensuring that people with disabilities cannot attend the after-work and networking events that are so vital to a successful career. Many managers don’t realize how much harder it is getting jobs when you’re differently abled, transgender, female, older, or any of the other categories that aren’t “Single, White, Young, Straight, Male”.

Your job as a manager is very different than the one you did while on the team. As a manager, your job is to facilitate and help your team succeed.

One of the biggest issues I see new managers dealing with is the idea that the team is theirs. Their responsibility, their charge, their trust. They’ve been entrusted with people that have less voice than they do about the conditions under which they work, the conflict they experience and the situations they find themselves in. The worst managers I’ve seen aren’t the ones who deliberately push people around. The worst managers are the ones who assume a peer relationship with their team and take absolutely no responsibility for the success and comfort of the people they’ve been charged with protecting and promoting. “It’s not my fault; I didn’t know that poster would make her uncomfortable, and if it did, why didn’t she tell me?” Pushing blame onto your employees for not doing your job for you is vicious, whether unconscious or not.

Managers often think to themselves “If someone has a problem with these arrangements, I’ll hear about it. They’ll just speak up.” Wrong. If you’re in a position of power over people’s lives and ability to put food on the table, you’ll never hear about a problem with the hotel accommodations, the food selection, the air conditioning, the pet allergies, the disability access, the racist posters in the ladies bathrooms, or the pressure to consume too much alcohol.

This is especially endemic when your team is travelling somewhere. When people are moved outside their comfort zone, they have needs that they expect you to be thinking about and to handle. If you have a team member who is disabled, and you plan an afterparty at a rooftop bar with no elevator, you won’t hear from that person about your stupid choice to create an “optional” event that your workers are expected to attend for job and networking reasons. Instead, that disabled person will simply say “I’m not up to it tonight” and head back to the hotel. How are they supposed to speak up? They have no power, you pay their bills, and if they complain, they’re a party killer instead of a friend and colleague. It’s your job to put yourself in the position of each person on the team, and ask yourself if they’ll be comfortable and able to succeed in the environment you’re forcing them to operate in.

Yes, you’re FORCING them to do what you want. If you’re the person that decides if an employee stays or goes, you literally have the power to turn off their electricity, to pull their kids out of school, to have their car repossessed, to cause them emotional and social pain and shame. You think that someone is going to just speak up when they’re uncomfortable? Or are they going to keep their mouth shut, start looking for another job, and badmouth the poor management you’re providing?

I’ve seen a lot of instances of thoughtlessly cruel management, especially when travelling for work. I’ve seen blind people unable to attend work parties because dogs weren’t allowed in the door. I’ve seen people with severe animal allergies expected to work in small offices with service animals. I’ve seen a single down step into a restaurant prevent two people in wheelchairs from attending a party.

Let’s look at examples involving gender, disability, and ethnicity.

**The one where the manager doesn’t understand the reason for the disabled person’s request**

Say you’re a project manager. Your dev manager decides to send you to the big yearly conference for your tech. You book the rooms for your team, set up the reservations for dinner on two nights, and book 8 seats on flights. Then, the email from your team member who has a mobility disorder arrives. “Can I talk to the airline myself? I want to do an upgrade to first class.” GODDAMNIT, you think. I’ve been trying to get this person to be MORE a part of the team WHY DO THEY HAVE TO MAKE MY LIFE HARDER BY BEING A SNOB??

I’ve seen managers respond angrily to requests to have travel arrangements changed because they’re seeing that request through the eyes of someone working on team solidarity–or they’re simply cutting costs. Unfortunately, the state of air travel can be completely vicious  and much more expensive for someone with a disability, and often the fastest way to handle discomfort and ensure that there will be someone to help you is to do an airline upgrade. It may look classless to not want to sit with your team (pun intended), but it’s often a shortcut to take care of your own needs without being a pain in the ass for your manager. When you have a person on your team who you know has a disability, it’s often easy to think that you know best for them. Being visibly physically disabled absolutely means that people treat you as if you’re mentally or socially disabled as well. Don’t think you know better than someone who’s been managing their disability for years. Let them make their own choices and find a different way to accomplish your goals.

**The one where your workplace is diverse and your happy hour is monochrome**

You’re a new manager. You want to invite all your team out to pizza and beer and make it a regular thing. In a fairly common circumstance, you have 5 white men, 1 East Asian man, and one South Asian woman working for you. After three Friday happy hours, the woman has never come, the East Asian man came to the first one and not any following ones, and the 5 white men are regulars. Why do you think this is? Have you noticed that it’s happening?

To realize what is happening here, look at the socioeconomic factors on your team. I won’t say that it’s always the case, but for many women around the world and in the US, a job with clearly defined working hours is a blessing that lets them support a family and still spend time with them. I’m not just talking about children; there are many cultures that have a big emphasis on care for the aged, and given my experience managing, it’s generally women that bear the burden of that care. Now, you’re less likely to promote that woman because you don’t know them as well. Let’s not pretend that happy hour is totally unrelated to career success. Instead, think about how to make team socializing happen on the job. Can you do a team lunch potluck on Fridays? Potluck always helps, since people can be guaranteed of having something they can eat. Can you do a family-friendly picnic as an offsite some Monday or Saturday? There are better options than the unspoken requirement that even if you’re not getting paid for it, your ass shows up for happy hour or you don’t get promoted. That invisible power structure is a major barrier for the success of women and minorities of all kinds, and you can help open it up.

Your East Asian man may be lactose-intolerant (very common genetic difference) and unwilling to tell your whole team that pizza makes him ill. This is serious–who would want to tell their friends and colleagues that they don’t like their food? Ever thought about rotating the location of your happy hour to include lots of different experiences and restaurants? Not only does sharing new experiences make for a better team, it offers choices for people who may not want to tell you that your plan doesn’t work for them.

There are lots of reasons your team might be different at happy hour. Don’t pretend like it’s not your problem when your not-so-subtle power over your team is what creates burdens for people that don’t look like you.


The reason you’re being thoughtlessly cruel to your team is because you see situations through your eyes, not theirs. If they make a request that seems odd, don’t immediately deny it. Ask yourself why they might be making the request to begin with. If the women on your team never show up for happy hour, ask yourself what about the environment could make a woman uncomfortable. Not going to Hooters is an obvious choice, but a more subtle one might be that the social situation changes to one that is more sexually charged when the rest of your team gets tipsy.

It’s your responsibility to take care of your people. You have power, and whether intentionally or not, you’re using it. Use it to help, not hurt.

2 thoughts to “Managing people that don’t look like you”

  1. Awesome read Tarah! This one is tough! How would it even be possible to manage a team that doesn't like you as a manager in a first place? I say, go with the oldie but goodie strategy: Being direct with your team is better for you, far better for them and much better for the business.

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