Recent research says “It is easier to find a CEO called Steve than it is to find a BAME CEO in the UK”. It will be obvious to many people of colour that “the higher you go, the whiter it becomes in most UK organisations”. As a researcher I am even more intrigued at the rarity of UK empirical studies that powerfully capture the voices of very senior black leaders for example. It seems like research too has conspired with organisational practice to perpetuate silence and underrepresentation.
This summer, I set out to shine some more light on the experiences of some of the most senior black leaders we have in the UK today. My study was one of a kind; prioritising powerful black voices, and aiming to bring these voices into the scope of behavioural sciences in the domain of Occupational and Business Psychology, as well as organisational practice.
Rooted in lived experiences of UK black senior leaders, the study focused on concerns about being judged negatively based on stereotypes of race, gender or seniority; otherwise known as stereotype threat in behavioural studies. In 1997, Claude Steele, a popular scholar advanced research on the stereotype threat phenomenon pointing out that the most frustrating thing about it, is its tendency to severely impact the “best in class”, who he refers to as the “Vanguard”; hence the title of this study. These individuals tend to be the most confident, competent, motivated to perform, and most identified with the domain in which they are stereotyped.
My study therefore espoused that if stereotype threat is indeed a “threat”, then successfully navigating through it requires a unique mix of skill and experience, that is to be recognised and celebrated, both in research and practice. Like the Vanguard Faction in the action video game “For Honor” by Ubisoft, the study hails the well-roundedness of the Black Vanguard and the tact with which they challenge their obstacles to allow an empowered navigation of highly political and high-stake leadership environments.
Some of the questions answered by my study include: what kind of incidents constitute stereotype threat? Who is responsible for orchestrating these potentially damaging incidences in senior leadership contexts? How do these incidences impact the Vanguard? What unique characteristics do the Vanguard have? And what effective response and coping mechanisms allow the Vanguard to succeed against such great odds.
It is hoped that the results of this study will help the development a psychological framework to understand BAME corporate success in the UK. The benefits will extend to emerging and future BAME leaders, providing better tools to authentically navigate senior careers, disrupting centuries of invisibility. The study makes invaluable recommendations for organisations, with the hope of reducing the underrepresentation of black people and BAME talent at senior leadership levels.