How Approvals and Feedback Undermine Diversity

The other day, I was having a conversation with a dear friend. He’s in email marketing, which, in most organizations, is one of those roles mired in approvals. Everyone thinks they can write marketing emails well, and everyone’s got an opinion about it. Also, the work involved is grossly underestimated – “It’s just an email. Can’t you get it out by Friday?” Nevermind the segmented contact lists that need to be pulled, formatted, and imported; the layout and design work required; the time involved in gathering all the relevant content and writing a draft, linking to all the right places. And then, there’s the dreaded “feedback” phase where everyone and their COVID-19 puppy rewrites your work in their own voice based on their personal preferred writing style, with no or limited knowledge about marketing best practices and brand voice. Not helpful. Especially when you’re on a deadline, and you already had four other projects in the pipeline for this week. 

Some people interpret this kind of workflow as shared leadership because it’s inclusive, it’s transparent, and people are making decisions together. Also, isn’t this what it takes to be an agile and responsive organization? Don’t fall into that trap. This is a mechanistic worldview, the underlying belief being that some people are the gears that make the clock work and some are the engineers, the visionaries. Often, those categories of employees are defined by how much positional power one holds. This can also align with how much social privilege and status someone has: race, gender, ability, body size, and more. Positional power and social power overlap, like a venn diagram. That’s because people from dominant groups (white, cisgender, thin, etc.) have access to more opportunities for advancement and can more easily navigate power structures and hierarchy to advocate for their own needs and desires.

In other words, I’m classifying this approval and feedback workflow as a system of oppression, designed to keep power at the top and to maintain conditions that advance the dominant group’s interests (production, final say, realization of their vision, etc.). 

The digital marketer in this opening story ends his day feeling like he’s nothing more than a cog in the wheel, an implementer for someone else’s ideas. His creative talents are constantly undermined by the opinions of others, even his peers, and he encounters daily criticism (shrouded as “feedback and editing”) of his work. There are no established systems that support him in setting boundaries, and he has limited agency over the final product and how he uses his time or prioritizes company marketing needs. As a member of a marginalized group, my friend tries to blend in, to go with the flow. He doesn’t feel safe dissenting, demanding new approval processes, declining feedback from people with power over his employment status or advancement opportunities. I hope it’s clear to you, my dear reader, that this is not an energizing or inspiring way to work. And I see this everywhere, even in the “Best Places to Work.”

So, most of his work is the watered down product of having too many cooks in the kitchen. This is also what happens when institutions prioritize high production over quality and innovation; there just isn’t time to slow down, try new things, create space for employees to step into their creativity and agency. That results in typecasting that compounds over time; my friend’s bosses seemed surprised to hear that he is actually a talented and published author. They’ve just never bothered to see that about him; the one story they’ve constructed about him as “the email person” plays on repeat in their heads. When a cool new project surfaces or a promotion opportunity opens up in the company, my friend is probably not going to come to mind as the creative genius who can knock it out of the park (though, he totally could!). We all know someone who has fallen victim to this kind of typecasting.

Why does this matter? 

Every moment we allow our work systems to revolve around dominant groups and people with power, we rob ourselves and our colleagues of the opportunity for brilliance. It’s not good enough to hire a few Black and Latinx employees or improve your male to female ratio (we call that check-the-box diversity). Have we created the conditions internally that enable people to bring forth their ideas, their unique contributions, their best work? I know this is the obvious question, but in practice, it is not straightforward. We have so much to unlearn, so many default social and professional norms that we can’t even see. And, those of us in dominant groups might feel like we have a lot to lose. I mean, we’d be giving up a whole bunch of advantages. To learn more, you can read Peggy McIntosh’s White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. In reality, we have so much to gain.

So… how do you create an inclusive workplace that actually values and prioritizes diversity? That challenges traditional power structures and norms to make space for people from nondominant groups? 

Start by committing to your own internal work. We have to shed our conditioning and challenge our own beliefs. If we don’t start here, our underlying worldviews will creep in to whatever process or system changes we make. 

  • Develop a practice of self-inquiry. Ask yourself: what am I holding on to and why? When you feel a tightness in your chest or have an impulse to react, pause for a moment and examine what’s driving it. Liberate yourself from the oppressive norms you perpetuate and impose on yourself.
  • Understand that you’re going to mess up. It’s okay, as long as you own up to it, apologize to those impacted (including yourself), and change your behavior moving forward. 
  • Build accountability. Find a person or a group of people who can be on the journey with you, process things that come up, work through questions and stuck points. 

If you haven’t accomplished all those steps, don’t hold up change! We’re living in a time of complexity. Many conflicting things can be true at once, and no change effort is going to fit in a perfect box with a bow on top. While you’re finding ways to commit and seeking out a supportive community or a thought partner for yourself, start experimenting. Approval processes and feedback practices are one of the most obvious and tangible starting points. Here are a few of my favorite tools:

  • Liz Lehrman’s Critical Response Process – This process rebalances power dynamics in feedback.
  • S.T.I.C.C. – This decision-making process is a helpful tool for organizations and teams that are emergency responders or typically rely on chain of command.
  • In power sharing, group decision-making is not always appropriate, but where it is necessary, consent decision-making from sociocracy is a powerful riff on consensus. 

Though people in positions of power hold a disproportionate responsibility for enacting systemic change, we all have a scope of influence. A few years back, I realized that, as a middle manager, I couldn’t change the organization or how other teams and departments worked, but I had a budget and a team whose time I “approved.” As a team, we leveraged those resources to change the way we worked together and to inspire change towards becoming an anti-oppressive workplace. During that experiment, my role as manager changed a lot. A big part of my responsibilities became protecting the team’s right to work differently, to make decisions, to exercise individual agency. If all you’ve got influence over is your own behavior, like how you provide “feedback” to your colleagues or how you participate in meetings, start there. If you make decisions about workflow and operating procedures, or if you are responsible for the allocation of resources, whatever your scope of influence, find ways to disrupt the flow of power. One thing’s for sure, if you don’t start somewhere, nothing’s going to change.

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