Opinion: Coaching is a must to increase diversity, equity, and inclusion

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During the last decade, career coaching has become ubiquitous with leadership development thanks to its relatively low cost and high return on investment. The U.S. Office of Personnel Management issued a memo in 2018 to all federal agencies guiding them to set up coaching programs for example, citing evidence that coaching increases creativity, engagement, organizational performance, and strengthens relationships between people and departments.

Coaching, by emphasizing nonjudgment, self-awareness, and communication is also an asset to advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion. Coaches help leaders discern what they want from life, take massive action to get there, and release blocking thoughts along the path.

Based on our experience coaching women, U.S. minorities, LGBTQ staff, and global majority professionals, we see an opportunity for coaching to help shift the power dynamic in global development by championing historically underrepresented talent to attain and excel in leadership roles.

By Quantum Impact’s estimates, more than half of U.S.-based implementing partners have zero people of color on their leadership teams. We also estimate that representation of women at leadership levels is less than half of what it is at entry level.

We know this disparity is the result of organizational inequities such as recruitment bias, work cultures that tolerate harassment, wage gaps, inflexible parental leave, or the absence of mentors and role models. Internalized negative beliefs, which are the result of innumerable microaggressions and harassing behaviors accumulated over the course of a career and can diminish a person’s view of their own capacity, are also contributing factors.

Here are three specific challenges that coaching helps to overcome, as part of the internal work needed to augment diverse voices.

1. Defeating the impostor syndrome

Regardless of how smart or accomplished someone is, they struggle with the fear of being discovered as a fraud. This is commonly known as the impostor syndrome, and research has shown that it affects more than 70 percent of the population.

The impostor syndrome is a debilitating thought pattern, leading to extreme self-consciousness, second-guessing, and attrition. It’s especially prevalent among minorities, women, and others who are victims of social stereotypes on account of their identity.

We feel more confident the more we feel like we belong. Therefore, when we see fewer people who look or act like us, the more likely we are to doubt ourselves. In global development, it is more difficult to lead confidently as a member of any historically underrepresented group as long as leadership is still predominantly held by white men.

Emerging leaders benefit when coaches help them identify impostor thoughts, learn to question them, and then extract what is causing them in the first place. Coaches help create a safe space to practice receiving constructive criticism to undo unhealthy expectations that we should know all the answers all the time.

When organizations prioritize upward mobility for members of historically marginalized groups, they must offer supportive solutions so that these emerging leaders are able to manage the internal barriers to success.

Real inclusion means working on structural biases, while also supporting all leaders to operate as their authentic selves.

2. Leading authentically

Traditional work cultures — hierarchical, rewarding control and aggression — are often at odds with the demographics and values of today’s workforce. When we conform to values that are not our own, we can lose our unique sense of identity and more importantly our authenticity. When we lose authenticity, we lose our power to unleash our potential and inspire others to do the same.

The default management style for most new managers is to emulate the way their managers managed them. If we see that our manager has been rewarded with a promotion or job security by acting a certain way, we are more inclined to emulate her regardless of whether or not her actions are aligned with who we are, or how much her actions and behaviors are even inspirational to her team members.

Sadly, many well-meaning new managers end up doing themselves and others they manage a disservice when they try to lead like previous managers using a command and control approach.

With personalized coaching engagements, leaders are able to overcome the fear of not being accepted for who they are and tap into their true voice. They will, as have many of the clients we have worked with, quickly discover that in their ability to lead authentically lies their power to lead, inspire, and motivate others.  

3. Reinventing how we work, parent, and lead

Working parents face tremendous structural challenges. In the U.S., more than 75 percent of expecting mothers say that they are excited to go back to work after giving birth, yet 43 percent end up leaving their careers, and of those who do return to work, 50 percent switch to a lower-paying job. Per the same study, replacing an employee who leaves after childbirth can cost from 20 percent to 213 percent of an employee’s annual salary.

Personalized coaching engagements help mothers become more aware of their emotions, use mindfulness to increase productivity, as well as prepare for difficult conversations with supervisors about issues that arise before and after maternity leave. Outcomes include reduced fatigue, increased promotions, and releasing “not good enough” thoughts that are blocking them from taking on challenging assignments.

Coaching allows mothers to sort through their options and make choices aligned with their values. These benefits are amplified when their employer is willing to support them with flexible work schedules, paid paternity leave, child care benefits, and openness to reinvent their jobs in a way that complements their new reality.

Why your organization may be resisting coaching

Those objecting to coaching generally do so for reasons of cost, the stigma associated with coaching underperforming employees, or status quo bias.

Regardless of whether you’re trying to hire from a more diverse applicant pool, promote rising talent, or increase engagement, the priority for any organization looking to attract and hold on to diverse staff is to invest in their development.

There is also the ripple effect that coaching has on teams. Employees who are being coached are constantly thinking how they can grow and build trust with their colleagues. They learn to manage their own interests in light of structural inequities present in organizations.

When all leaders get credit where credit is due, accept feedback, and can admit mistakes, this is seen and felt more broadly. It will create a more inclusive atmosphere for everyone.

About the authors

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    Sarah Grausz

    Sarah Grausz is an energy leadership coach, organization development specialist, and co-founder of the diversity, equity, and inclusion nonprofit Quantum Impact based in Oakland, California.
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    Joelle Jackson

    Joelle Jackson is a conscious leadership coach with 19 years of experience in helping global citizens overcome the status quo. Her desire to see more individuals unleash their potential and become "the change they want to see in the world," compelled her in 2013 to enter the realm of professional coaching. Joelle’s niche, conscious leadership, entails leading our thoughts, emotions, and actions consciously, and moving out of default modes of thinking, feeling and acting that keep us stuck in the status quo.