Every leader has responsibility for creating a cultural environment where all employees feel included and valued. The job of diversity does not merely reside within the purview of the DEI lead in your company, because inclusion ultimately happens at the team level, where goals are assigned, and results are generated. While creating an inclusive culture is a challenge for any leader, it is increasingly so now, as the use of modern-day “swear words” around diversity have permeated our global lexicon. “Privilege” is one such word. It is a trigger for frustration and dissent, especially for those on the receiving end of that label. But what is privilege exactly and what can leaders do about it?

In sociological terms, privilege refers to a phenomenon where a specific grouping of people experience treatment or benefits that are perceived as “better” than that which others receive by virtue of their membership in a particular social group. Often that group membership is beyond the control of the person perceived to be “privileged” because privilege can be based on any of the primary dimensions of diversity, such as age, race, gender, language, etc. (These are called primary diversity dimensions because they are personal human attributes that are easily discernible by the senses.) Yet, privilege is often demonstrated as a behavior based on what is socially acceptable. For example, an elderly woman might find that people on a bus automatically give up a seat for her as a sign of respect. It has become “the norm” in that group to do so. A male may experience the privilege of his gender in the workplace if he’s employed in a male-dominated industry. In these situations, it may have become “the norm” to appoint a male into a particular role or job. Likewise, a group of people switching to English from their native language as soon as an English-speaking white person walks into the room is another example. This article being written in English is even a nod to privilege, because I am from South Africa, and my first language is Setswana.

It’s important to note that privilege in and of itself is not racism, sexism, ageism or any of the other forms of overt exclusion; however, it can lead to them. As a leader, if you observed racist or sexist behavior on your team, you could easily recognize it as is a deliberate demonstration of supremacy, where an individual guilty of such behaviors was attempting to assert their superiority over others. Privilege on the other hand, is more difficult to recognize and address in creating an inclusive culture. Here are a few important facts about privilege to keep in mind as you work to identify and manage it in your organization:

  • Privilege is insidious because it feels like “the way things should be”. Therefore, the privileged do not notice when their privilege is being imposed on others as the “right” way. As a leader, it’s incumbent upon you to examine the work assignments, promotions and team opportunities you’ve given to others. Think about how norms of privilege may have inadvertently entered into your decisions and precluded opportunities for some on your team. Ask yourself, “Is my unconscious use of the norms of privilege impacting the way in which I manage individuals on my team?”
  • Be vigilant about the small slights. Do you notice that team members frequently discount the input from individuals who are not in the privileged group? Are certain employees only able to get their ideas heard when they are repeated by a colleague who enjoys the benefit of privilege? These are forms of micro-aggression that can not only erode an inclusive culture, but incite frustration or worse in those who are marginalized, especially when they point out this privileged position and you do little to address it.
  • Recognize that people who benefit from privilege are generally unconscious about that fact and will feel unjustly treated when their privilege is made evident. When recognizing this, demonstrate patience and resilience because they are the currencies required for building an inclusive culture and doing the real work of transformation.

At Workplace Equity and Equality (WEE), our approach to this sensitive topic is to first create a “No Shame, No Blame” environment for those who are willing to explore the challenging topics of diversity and inclusion. Join us for the first WEE DEI Collaboratory to explore this topic at length in collaboration with other leaders across the world. Visit www.wee-conference.org for more information and to register. Our process will expand your frame of reference and increase your capacity for leveraging diversity--on your team, within your business, and across your relationships.

Mongezi C. Makhalima, PhD is an organization development specialist, organizational learning expert, Motivational Speaker Entrepreneur & Chartered Executive Coach with over 30 years of working with organizations and leadership in corporate and NGO’s. He is a Chairperson of the Africa Board for Coaching, Consulting and Coaching Psychology (ABCCCP) and the MD of the Africa Centre for Work-Based Learning in Pretoria. Mongezi is passionate about working with inspiring leaders and entrepreneurs and uses his deep knowledge of leadership and the psychology of organizations towards a sustainable Africa. His full profile can be seen at http://www.abcccp.com/