Warning: This post may not be politically correct or conform to the current expected narrative. If you are easily offended you may want to skip this one.

In a recent leadership development class, a woman expressed frustration that, as a woman, her voice was not always heard or taken seriously. Another woman said that was even more true for a black woman.

I’m old enough to remember times when this was a common occurrence, although more recently, women have risen to high levels in their organizations. But I know there are teams and companies where these prejudices still hold people back from full recognition and appreciation of their potential contribution.

I put the blame squarely on leaders.

There is a common tendency to put people in virtual boxes. These boxes are usually labeled, “Generation,” “Gender,” and “Race.” The problem is, your team members are more than such a simple categorization. I spent my high school years in a small midwestern town. There were 42 in my high school graduating class. When I went out into the wider world, I discovered that many people my age were very different. We shared the same generation, but had much different experiences. As I gained more experience as a team leader I observed that these categories, the boxes that seemed so convenient, were really a way to avoid the challenge of really getting to know the people on the team.

When I was an aircraft mechanic in the Air Force, I was teaching a class to qualify experienced mechanics on a new aircraft. One of the students was a very capable woman. We were chatting one day and I mentioned that I was impressed with her abilities. She thanked me, but then said she had to be careful because she walked a sort of tightrope between being seen as someone who was being recognized just because she was a woman and someone who couldn’t do the work because she was a woman. That was almost 25 years ago; a time when women were just beginning to break into such jobs. Today women can be found in the highest levels of the maintenance world, but her comments have stayed with me.

I will not say that it doesn’t matter whether a team member is male or female, or the color of their skin, or their date of birth. Good leaders don’t make any judgements based on those factors. As a leader what matters most to you is what each person brings to the team; their strengths, weaknesses and how you can help them grow and develop. However; even if those factors don’t matter to you, it does matter to them!

No, everyone is not the same, but each team member deserves the same opportunities. Ask yourself this. Do you make a real effort to know your team members? Do you look beyond the easy categories and strive to treat each team members as an individual? If I asked members of your team if they feel valued as an important part of the team and if their contribution is as fully valued as any other member of the team what would they say?

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