How Do Others See You?

Chief diversity officers spend their days dealing with the positive and negative images projected onto various ethnic, religious, cultural, gender and age groups. They have to untangle and process these images to meet the needs of an increasingly diverse global workforce by infusing their organizations with understanding, tolerance and an appreciation of the differences within these groups.

There is another, more subtle way images play out and influence CDOs’ effectiveness — the image they have of themselves and the efforts and energy they put into managing that image.

Image management, or the way a chief diversity officer proactively — and often unconsciously — attempts to shape others’ positive and negative perceptions of his or her competence and character, can manifest in two ways: dreaded or desired images (DDIs).

Dreaded images are ways diversity executives don’t want to be seen. Some of the most common dreaded images can be that the diversity executive is: not knowledgeable about all dimensions of differences; incompetent; biased or prejudiced; too strongly sympathetic toward a specific group; compromised or co-opted by the system; a sellout, or is upholding the status quo; not working hard enough for all groups that are different; or lazy or not fully committed.

Desired images, on the other hand, are ways in which diversity executives hope to be viewed. For instance, most hope to be perceived as: open-minded, empathic and tolerant; competent; someone who adds value; a change agent; an expert in a wide variety of cultural, ethnic and other differences; someone who challenges the status quo; and an activist against -isms such as racism, sexism and ageism.

Dreaded or desired images are not just a matter of concern for CDOs, but rather an overall business issue that everyone in their organization, from executives to employees, faces. In America, culturally speaking, the most common desired image is being competent, while the most dreaded image is being lazy. Diversity practitioners, however, often have the additional job-specific DDI of wanting to be seen as tolerant and open-minded and avoid being seen as compromised or unknowledgeable about differences.

DDIs can be powerful influencers for diversity executives’ behavior because of their fear that not measuring up to perceived positive images or being painted with negative ones can lead to social rejection, professional disapproval and even job loss.

“Desired and dreaded images are pivotal [because] most diversity officers feel compelled to be advocates,” said Martin Davidson, associate professor of leadership at Darden Graduate School of Business at the University of Virginia, and author of The End of Diversity As We Know It: Why Diversity Efforts Fail and How Leveraging Difference Can Succeed.

“In the quest to be an advocate for women, people of color and other minority and disenfranchised groups, CDOs strive to be knowledgeable about differences. In pursuit of this goal, they often end up behaving in ways — sometimes subtle ways — that give the impression they are experts even when they are uncertain,” Davidson said. “[Because of this] CDOs can find it difficult to admit when they don’t know something about diversity.”

CDOs often have the desired image of being knowledgeable, expert and competent around diversity issues. It’s a requirement for the job. When they attain the dreaded image of being incompetent, inadequate or unsure, their ability to foster meaningful diversity dialogue and understanding can be severely hampered. Here are a few common ways in which diversity executives may contribute to their own dreaded image:

Dominating the diversity discussion: A tendency to speak intellectually about diversity and dominate discussions with an air of authority can backfire.

Davidson, who was the CDO for the Darden Graduate School of Business at the University of Virginia, said his desire to be seen as smart and an expert led him to this very problem.

“It was very seductive to me to be seen as the expert,” Davidson said. “Discussions ended up becoming a question and answer session, and people were disempowered and intimidated because they felt I must be right since I had the academic background in this area.”

Davidson said he realized his DDI was impacting his ability to engage the people around him, cutting down on creativity and idea generation and actually making it harder to create the change around diversity with which he was charged.

“The more I was in that desired image of having to have all the answers, the less other people participated,” he said. “The key thing I did to get out of this was to stop answering questions and to start asking questions of other people. As a result of my making that shift, people became much more involved in programs and activities. They got energized and brought skills I didn’t have, and I started learning things from them.”

Another form of this dreaded image is when the diversity executive puts him or herself forward as the sole champion of justice. When this happens, it becomes more about the diversity leader being noble than about all key stakeholders in the organization collectively promoting diversity and inclusion in the workplace and allowing others to contribute their perspectives and ideas.

Putting political correctness above communication: When this dreaded image drives behavior, diversity executives not only do most of the talking, they may be dealing with diversity issues through a politically correct rather than a solutions-focused lens.

When people of differing backgrounds and perspectives engage with one another, resulting conversations can be messy and turbulent. That’s not always a bad thing. It’s natural for some conflict to arise from diversity, and often airing issues — especially in a controlled and respectful environment — can pave the way to constructive solutions. The diversity executive who wants to be seen as competent or feels pressure to make progress may experience turbulent diversity interactions as counterproductive, instead of as an opportunity for a rich exchange of perspectives that can lead to greater understanding.

Viewing these types of situations as counterproductive, instead of as learning opportunities, also causes diversity practitioners to shut out contributions from colleagues who may disagree with one or more of the tenets of diversity by keeping the conversations within a limited scope. The unwanted result: They unconsciously sabotage the honesty they hope to draw out. Over time, employees may feel unsafe engaging in a dialogue, which hinders learning.

For instance, if a staff person attempts to communicate his or her feelings on a specific diversity issue and is stopped by the diversity leader, he or she may withdraw from the discussion and withhold further attempts to communicate. Employees who are shut down from expressing their honest thoughts too easily often conclude all of the talk about diversity and the need for dialogue is just lip service. When a large number of employees feel shut down, diversity conflicts become taboo, and the majority may feel as if certain groups are actively being protected. Further, the minority group in this situation may conclude that the larger majority culture does not care about them. In this environment, stereotypes likely will flourish rather than diminish.

Even diversity executives can fall into this trap, since their desire to be seen as unbiased and fair often makes it impossible to acknowledge their own politically incorrect ideas and thoughts.

Overcompensating: When diversity executives feel like others perceive them through a dreaded image that reflects a stereotype, they are more likely to be reactive and overcompensate with behaviors they hope will prove the opposite.

Take the case of Amy Anuk, an executive charged with heading diversity for women at Encore Capital, a financial service company that buys and recovers financially distressed consumer debt. Anuk, who also runs business development, said she realized she had strong DDIs around being highly professional and competent in a male-dominated industry that were limiting her effectiveness.

“I felt that female stereotypes I displayed were dreaded images that men would judge; I couldn’t appear weak, emotional or empathetic,” Anuk said. “I realized, however, that my desire to appear strong, capable and professional caused me to be very regimented and cold in my demeanor. I wouldn’t discuss anything personal or allow myself to show any emotions. This actually undermined my ability to build relationships with strategic partners because I was almost entirely transactional.”

Anuk said when she realized she was unconsciously undermining her ability to build strong relationships, she put those images aside and began to act more authentically. “To my surprise, the men around me wholeheartedly welcomed my contribution as a woman. The barriers I felt were only in my head,” she said.

Most diversity executives have a deeply personal commitment to creating diverse and inclusive organizations. By becoming aware of their individual DDIs, they can avoid being at the mercy of these images and, more importantly, model behaviors that encourage others to speak authentically, with less hindrance from their own DDIs.

As diversity leaders move beyond their DDIs to be more open, available and approachable around the topic of diversity, they can more effectively forge a context in their organizations for the learning, discussion, tolerance and acceptance they are charged with creating — and that’s an image worth having.

Three Steps to Create Open Dialogue

Getting over desired and dreaded images (DDI) can be difficult because of the fear most of us have of being judged. To make matters worse, a person may feel extremely vulnerable while conducting this type of self-examination. To admit this concern to the people whose judgment one may fear can be scary, which is why so few people dare talk about this type of image management. Diversity officers, like the people they hope to engage, are susceptible to being hijacked by this fear. The following three steps can help CDOs and their teams fulfill their missions with authenticity and thoughtful action.

Step one: Build awareness. Have a conversation with everyone on the team about what their DDI hot buttons are, such as wanting to be viewed as open minded and competent, but not compromised or unknowledgeable. When CDOs can acknowledge up front that they may want to be seen in a certain way, and feel comfortable letting down their guard or releasing a desire to be perfect in favor of being more effective and building stronger relationships with business leaders, it can pave the way for substantive behavioral change.

To build awareness around DDI hot buttons and identify potential solutions, CDOs, or anyone concerned with image management, must feel at ease admitting they make mistakes. The paradox is that while people have a huge fear of what will happen if they do put a foot wrong — social rejection, being judged by others — if they do say what their feared DDI is, the opposite is usually true. When these DDIs are openly discussed, palpable relief often results, and safety and trust among group members usually increases.

Step two: Choose authenticity. By asking the team to choose to be authentic instead of politically correct, the group can agree to move beyond judging others and protecting their own reputations to supporting each other in honest dialogue, learning and growth around diversity issues. This doesn’t mean there won’t be tough or even emotional conversations about what is shared. The goal is to talk about issues and challenge or change thinking through non-judgmental dialogue, not hide true feelings with politically correct posturing. For example, if a team member admits to holding a stereotype about another group in the organization, the tenets of open dialogue dictate the individual’s comment won’t be ignored, but rather openly discussed and explored.

Step three: Ensure support. Once employees are aware of their DDIs and have committed to open dialogue about diversity issues, individuals need to be able to talk explicitly about their struggles and get support from the group. In particular, team members, once they know each other’s DDIs, can support each other by paying attention when someone in the group is falling into counterproductive DDI behaviors. Instead of silently judging but not daring to say anything, colleagues are empowered to hold a mirror up to each other in a constructive way, and invite each other to be authentic in the discussion. For example: If someone on the team has a dreaded image of being incompetent, he or she is less likely to ask for help when it is needed. Knowing this, other team members can reach out to help when that individual is struggling.

Shayne Hughes is a culture change partner and the president of Learning as Leadership, a leadership development company. He can be reached at