By Curt Nickish

Harvard Business Review, August 7, 2018 —

Katherine Phillips, a professor at Columbia Business School, discusses research showing that African-Americans are often reluctant to tell their white colleagues about their personal lives — and that it hurts their careers. She says people should expect and welcome differences at work, and she gives practical advice for strengthening connections among colleagues of different racial backgrounds. Phillips is a coauthor of the article “Diversity and Authenticity,” in the March–April 2018 issue of Harvard Business Review.

Katherine Phillips was interviewed by Curt Nickish at HBR IdeaCast: #641 “Why Opening Up at Work Is Harder for Minorities”


CURT NICKISCH: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I’m Curt Nickisch.

Opening up about yourself at work is an act of risk management. Can you be yourself, or do you have to worry about presenting well? When your manager asks how your weekend was, how much do you share? That calculation is more fraught for members of minorities. New research shows they’re often more guarded when it comes to their colleagues who are in the majority.

KATHERINE PHILLIPS: Let me just kind of create this little space, and I’ll stay in this space, and I won’t share too much information, and I’ll try to manage people’s impressions of me, right, by essentially covering who I am.

CURT NICKISCH: That’s Katherine Phillips. She studied why African-Americans hold back and found that playing it safe can hurt their careers. Take Marcus, a high performer she interviewed for the study. He told her he thought he was doing everything right.

KATHERINE PHILLIPS: You know, all my numbers are the best numbers, according to, you know, kind of how we are objectively measuring things. Yet I’m still not being promoted.

CURT NICKISCH: It wasn’t until he started going to lunch with company executives and revealing more about his life outside work that his managers promoted him. His numbers didn’t change; his approach did.

KATHERINE PHILLIPS: So, I think managers oftentimes fail to understand and recognize the impact of the relationships that they have with people on how they’re assessing others, that they’re not just using some objective numbers.

Katherine Phillips, PhD

CURT NICKISCH: Here to talk about those relationships and how to foster better ones across racial boundaries at work is Katherine Phillips. She’s a professor of leadership and ethics at Columbia Business School, and she’s a co-author of the HBR article “Diversity and Authenticity.” Katherine, thanks for talking.

KATHERINE PHILLIPS: I’m happy to be here.

CURT NICKISCH: So, I have to start with one quote in your article, um, a result of your research that surprised me. You said in your article that many members of minorities “fail to understand that their career mobility can be affected by their colleagues’ feelings of familiarity or closeness with them.” And I was, I was surprised. I thought that that might be acutely aware to members of minorities.

KATHERINE PHILLIPS: Yeah, it’s interesting. When we started having these conversations with people, many people would say, you know, my parents told me that it’s all about hard work. It’s about putting your head down and getting your work done and proving to people that you’re qualified to do what you do because of the concerns that people have about the assessments that might be made about their quality. And so, you know, many people go in and they say, I don’t want to be part of the politics. I don’t want to get involved in any of that. I want to just do my work, and my work will prove to people that I deserve to be here and that I deserve promotion.

There are no meritocracies. It just really doesn’t exist in terms of really only being able to use some objective qualifications to assess people.

CURT NICKISCH: So, just the, the meritocracy, the fact that anybody can, can succeed just by, you know, of their own volition and working hard and improving themselves that, that story is internalized. But that story, it seems like, um, your research is also showing is not quite true.

KATHERINE PHILLIPS: That’s right. I mean, the story that we have a meritocracy — and in some ways I’ve had conversations with people where I’ve kind of concluded for myself that there are no meritocracies. Laughs. It just really doesn’t exist in terms of really only being able to use some objective qualifications to assess people. It very rarely happens anywhere, really. And so, you know, the fact that social relationships really matter, the fact that who you know, right, not just what you know, but who, you know, it’s very important. I think those two stories exist out there in the lexicon of our lives, and I think sometimes people underestimate the importance of building relationships in the workplace.

CURT NICKISCH: You studied African-American employees in the U.S. How do you think your findings might be generalizable to people who are in the minority in their workplace in the U.S. or, or in other countries?

KATHERINE PHILLIPS: Yeah. In that work, what we found was that if you are in the numerical minority, regardless of your race or your gender or, or any other characteristics about you, it can be harder to build these relationships. And so, you know, we certainly believe that this research applies relatively broadly because being the only one or being one of very few can be difficult for anybody at times. You know, we did not do research outside of the U.S., but I certainly, certainly would think that that same psychological feeling, right, of separation and lack of integration with others, can, can occur anywhere when you were in the numerical minority.

CURT NICKISCH: In your research, what else did you hear from people about how they felt about opening up about themselves to their colleagues and getting to know people in the organization?

KATHERINE PHILLIPS: I mean, I think that sometimes people have fear. They’re actually afraid to share information about themselves out of concern that perhaps the people that they’re communicating with don’t have their best interest at heart and that in fact that information could potentially be used against them or that, you know, in interacting with the other person, they may actually become less close to one another as opposed to closer to one another—


KATHERINE PHILLIPS: Perhaps by sharing information that makes them more different, makes them feel more different from the other people instead of more alike, more similar. And so there’s kind of an assumption that we, that we have, that we all as people have, right. It’s, it’s, it’s kind of a normal assumption that people who look the same will actually think the same. They will like the same things. They will, you know, find it easier to connect with one another, and the people who look different from one another, they think about different things. They like different things, they have different attitudes, and they’ll find it more difficult to connect with one another. And so we go into the interaction with these assumptions that influence the way we behave, that influence what we say, what — how open we’re willing to be with the other person, and it’s almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy can be created through these assumptions that we have, right, when we’re trying to build these relationships,

CURT NICKISCH: What’s the most emblematic thing that you heard from a subject in this study or just from somebody you’ve talked to? Like what’s, what’s a great, great example of this?

KATHERINE PHILLIPS: I think one good example is one that is articulated in the article, but it basically is a woman who went to a concert for her birthday, and one of her coworkers asked her, you know, the next day after the birthday, what did you do, you know, for your birthday? And she said, well, I went to a concert with my husband and some friends, and then of course the next question is, well, who did you see? And she was very uncomfortable sharing who she saw. It was a gospel artist, African-American gospel artist. And she kind of said, you know, you wouldn’t know who they are and kind of moved on and didn’t really share the information about the artist. She thought about like, what does that mean that she wasn’t willing to share that information. And certainly she’s had colleagues share with her with no hesitation who they saw, and she didn’t know who they were, who the artists were. Right? So, what’s so wrong, right, with sharing the information about who the artists was. Perhaps your, your colleague will be intrigued and go listen to some of that person’s music. Um, certainly, you know, there’s no reason to be ashamed of or to hide that information.


CURT NICKISCH: So, recognizing all that, it sounds like the classic corporate team building stuff, the company picnics, the happy hour drinks, the quarterly, like, celebrations that, that can be challenging for people in the minority among the coworkers.

KATHERINE PHILLIPS: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, one of the things that we learned in some of the early work that we did in this area, we were really trying to understand, does being more engaged in these kinds of activities, going to the company party, going to the company happy hours and all of these things, does it really actually bring coworkers closer to one another? Does it help them to build relationships? And actually we found some evidence that it does, right, that there are some positive benefits of people feeling closer to one another after engaging in these kinds of events. But there was a caveat to that, which was that’s true, and it happens to be more true for people when they are socially similar to one another. But when people are different from one another, when they are, you know, kind of trying to interact across these, these kind of boundaries, um, it’s more difficult, and it doesn’t lead to more closeness for people. They go to the parties, but the impact of going is not as, they don’t get that positive boost from going.

And they tell us, you know, the reason that they go is not because they think it’s going to be beneficial to helping them to build relationships, but instead because they feel obligated to go, because they feel like if they don’t go, you know, people will, people will say, you weren’t there, and that could have some negative consequences for their, um, for their outcomes in the organization. Um, and so, ultimately the parties themselves, the activities, don’t ended up solving, right, this problem. It doesn’t create closer relationships for people in and of themselves.

CURT NICKISCH: Let’s work through this. Let’s do a little playbook. Like how should you be organizing something and thinking about it?

KATHERINE PHILLIPS: Yeah. So I think from the organization side, you know, first of all, you have to just recognize that it, that the, the experience that you’re creating is not a universal one for everybody that’s there. Making sure that there are kind of alternatives in terms of what, how people can engage in that environment too. Right? Some people are great with work in a big room and other people, a big room with a lot of people is just overwhelming. It’s too much for them. And so they would prefer something perhaps that’s a little more intimate. Maybe there’s some fewer people, maybe there’s a quiet space at the party and a loud space at the party. So, you can imagine just trying to be thoughtful about the nature of the activities that you’ve created and kind of having an opportunity for people to engage in the ways that might be natural for them. And this doesn’t have anything to do with race. You just have some people who are more extroverted and some people who are more introverted, for instance.

CURT NICKISCH: Yeah. Mandatory karaoke is a bad idea is what you’re saying.

KATHERINE PHILLIPS: Laughs. Yeah, exactly right. Um, so just being thoughtful about that I think in the first place and then, you know, really trying to think about how you can create an event, activities, that perhaps may have some more structure, may have something central that everybody can connect around. So you know, having events that are volunteer events where perhaps you are helping out, you know, a shelter or helping out building a house, these Habitat for Humanity kind of things. Things where people can actually collectively come together and accomplish something together can be really forceful, right, really, really powerful for helping to build connections as, give people something to talk about after the event has happened. Um, so they can kind of say, yeah, remember that day when we were building a house together, you know, and they feel some sense of accomplishment together and that those kind of shared activities can lead to relationship building that’s really genuine where people kind of put their, you know, willing to put the guards down and then talk to each other about things.

You should expect that you’re going to be different. Difference is a good thing. And while you’re going through this conversation, you will find similarities as well. And when people find similarities, they don’t feel surprised and disappointed. They feel happy.

CURT NICKISCH: Yeah. All right. So, let’s say you’re at this workplace organized thing, and it’s set up well in a way that gives people places to be comfortable, but also, you know, still bump into people across the organization or your department or whatever it is. And then you start having these conversations. Like, um, what is a good thing to avoid and what is a good thing to say if you’re trying to, like, foster good workplace relationships across race?

KATHERINE PHILLIPS: Yeah. So, one thing, one thing to avoid is that, just don’t make assumptions about the other person or that the other person will be familiar with particular things or not be familiar with particular things. So, you know, for example, the question of like, oh, you know Modern Family was so good last night and you know, kind of jumping into an assumption that the person actually watched Modern Family because in fact it may be a show that they don’t watch, right? So, not assuming that there’s some universal experience that everybody should be having. So, instead it’s about, it’s about really having a curious orientation towards people and a learning orientation towards people. Like, you really want to know, you know, what kind of TV shows they do, like, not necessarily that they, they like all the things that you do because maybe they don’t and that’s OK. Um, so it’s about creating a norm that difference is normal, that difference is expected, and that it is something that is embraced, something that you actually believe you will benefit from. And so asking people instead of, you know, did you watch Modern Family last night, kind of saying to them, I’m interested in watching some new shows. Tell me a little bit about what you’re watching these days or is there a show that you’re watching these days that you’d recommend or that you think is great, you know. So, it’s about that curiosity.

CURT NICKISCH: It sounds more fun, honestly, because you can rehash something that was on TV last night and, but you already had that experience and um, you might not really learn anything new about the other person because you’re just, you’re just sharing something that you both did versus finding out about a new show —


CURT NICKISCH: Or finding out what somebody else does that surprises you or that you might end up having in common that you had no idea about.

KATHERINE PHILLIPS: Mhm. The thing about this mindset change is that the orientation that you go into the conversation with can really change the way you react. So, if you go in with an assumption that, you know, you got to find similarities with this person, then when you find that you’re not similar to them, you might, you know, that there’s some difference, because there will be differences. No two people are exactly the same. When you find difference, you feel disappointed, and that actually kind of reinforces then your desire not to interact with people who are different because it ends up, you know, kind of reinforcing this awkwardness or reinforcing this, oh my God, I was expecting to — I need to find some similarities with this person or it’s not gonna be a good interaction. It’s like, well actually no, you’re actually different from one another. You should expect that you’re going to be different. Difference is a good thing. And while you’re going through this conversation, you will find similarities as well. And when people find similarities, they don’t feel surprised and disappointed. They feel happy.

CURT NICKISCH: I mean maybe I’m oversimplifying, but is this also just being a good conversationalist?

KATHERINE PHILLIPS: No, I think some of it is that. I mean, there certainly are people who have done research trying to understand how to build relationships with people, and a lot of it has to do with, you know, asking questions and being curious and being open and not just, you know, sharing about yourself, but actually really wanting to genuinely know about the other. You know, many times I tell people diversity problems are not really diversity problems. They are, they are really does human problems, like just people, just good leadership, it’s just good communication. So, it’s exactly what you’re saying. It’s oftentimes is a little bit more extreme for some groups of people than others. The consequence of not having good management, good leadership, good communication, uh, in the environment can have more consequences for some people than for others. And that’s where a lot of diversity effects they merge, right?

CURT NICKISCH: Yeah. What do you want to tell members of minorities to be thinking about? Because obviously if the organization sets it up well or your coworkers are asking good questions and, and seem really interested, like, that makes it so much easier, but that’s not always going to be the case. The friction is going to be there. So, um, what’s your message to members of minorities?

KATHERINE PHILLIPS: Yeah, so I’ve had lots of conversations with minorities about, about this and this is really where the impetus of this research started, and I think a good lesson can be taken from the experience Marcus had in his workplace where he just took a risk, right? He took a little bit of a gamble to share a little bit about himself, more with himself to open up. Um, and so I actually encourage people, I say to people, a couple of things. One is you don’t have to share everything about yourself with everybody. That’s not what this research is suggesting. It’s really suggesting that there must be somebody in the organization, at least one person — are you really telling me there’s not one person in the organization that you would feel comfortable opening up to building a relationship with, right? So, think about who is around you in the organization and choose somebody to be more open with, right? And share something them that perhaps you would normally only share with people who look like you, right? Well, what if you shared this information with this person who’s different from you.

And I, I kind of guarantee people, I tell people this all the time, but I experienced it for myself and certainly have seen it show up again and again in this research that, that ultimately those risks pay off, right? That there is benefit to actually making that connection. And making yourself in some ways vulnerable in a way that brings you closer and that gets people to actually buy into you and support you and really want to see you succeed because they really know who you are.

CURT NICKISCH: Yeah. Another way that you say people can build work place relationships across race is through mentorship. And what kind of mentorship do you think is really effective here?

KATHERINE PHILLIPS: So organizations do a lot these days to build mentorship programs, and sometimes people ask me, you know, should they be formal? Should they be informal? Should they be assigned? Should they not be assigned? Ultimately, in my opinion, I don’t really have good research to back this up — I’m sure there, there may be some out there that I’m just not aware of — but you know, I think it’s important that people go into these mentorship relationships or sponsorship relationships with a real genuine desire to make connection on both sides, right. And to learn from the other on both sides, right. Sometimes people use the language of reverse mentoring, that the manager will actually be getting mentored by their subordinate. And so ultimately it really is about that openness. It’s about creating a mentorship relationship that is genuinely desire to get to know the other person.

CURT NICKISCH: Yeah. You’ve given some examples of people who have told stories to you, and I’m just wondering if there’s one where you feel like you have a success story of somebody who did let their guard down, took a risk, and ended up with really a strong mentor or sponsor or workplace relationship that changed their career and you thought to yourself, this is what should be happening everywhere.

KATHERINE PHILLIPS: Yeah. So there’s a young woman who sat in on a session of mine where we talked about these issues, um, and she kept in touch with me. And over a number of years actually, she would kind of email me every now and again and tell me how she was doing. And she told me that she took my advice from that session, which was just to kind of take a little risk and open up to someone in your workplace. She took that advice, and she said she implemented it in her experience there at work, and she kept getting promotion after promotion, and she learned so much. She said she felt like she got exposed to and that people kind of took her under their wing in a very different way than when she was kind of being a little more subdued about building those relationships.

And my own personal experience in my own career as well, I think I would say that I’ve benefited quite a lot from opening up and sharing with people. Just as one example, when I moved here to Columbia Business School, I shared a lot with the students about who I am as a person when I first started teaching my course, and I have so many students who send me notes of encouragement because they know of things that have happened in my life, uh, and it really I think makes a big difference in how I can make a connection with the students and how the students connect to me, uh, and others have started taking the same kind of approach, right, to connecting with their students as well. So I think it’s, I think it can make a big difference not only for you in terms of your career, but also just how you feel about work, right.


KATHERINE PHILLIPS: You feel real, genuine connection with people.

CURT NICKISCH: Well Katherine, thanks so much for telling us about your research and giving us some practical tips about what people can do to build better workplace relationships across race.

KATHERINE PHILLIPS: Thank you so much. I appreciate it.

CURT NICKISCH: That’s Katherine Phillips. She’s a professor of leadership and ethics at Columbia Business School, and she’s a co-author of the article “Diversity and Authenticity.” You can find it in the March–April 2018 issue of Harvard Business Review and at

This episode was produced by Amanda Kersey. Adam Buchholz is our audio product manager, and we get technical and production help from Rob Eckhardt.

Thanks for listening to the HBR IdeaCast. I’m Curt Nickisch.