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Exploring the BME Leadership Labyrinth

Research from Cass finds informal channels are key to progression

Black and minority ethnic (BME) managers face “multiple barriers” on their leadership journeys, according to research from Cass Business School and the University of Kent.

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 finds that white managers are more likely to be given a “golden thread” to help guide them through informal channels and progress more quickly.

The study of 20 white and 20 BME managers in a Central Government Department also finds that:

  • BME managers found it harder to access informal networks within the organisation to increase their visibility and reputation with senior staff, instead relying on more formal processes, working longer and harder, and assistance from formal support networks.
  • BME staff reported focusing on technical requirements of assessments, such as appraisal and promotion, to progress as they found it more difficult to access information about how to perform ‘contextually’ i.e. not just performing well but working on the ‘right’ type of projects, which were rated more favourably by their managers and would garner reputation as well as ratings of competence.
  • BME senior managers talked for longer and identified more career experiences in the study, suggesting they encountered more challenging situations on their journeys, requiring them to invest more cognitive effort in understanding their career.

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.”

Lecturer in Human Resources Management, Dr Wyatt said: “Black and minority ethnic employees face a labyrinth of twists, turns and barriers they must navigate to progress in their careers. While fairness in formal policies and procedures is important for supporting diversity, organisations must also ensure that they acknowledge and address informal or political processes that play a powerful role in shaping career paths.”

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