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Coming Out Is Good Business

Coming Out Is Good Business
Samuel Culbert

Think coming out at work is trivial in 2017? Think again, says UCLA professor Samuel A. Culbert.

It's safe to say that LGBT employees face a roulette wheel of challenges when coming out at work. These days, according to the Human Rights Campaign's Corporate Equality Index, the LGBT community is "subjected to unprecedented attacks -- from state lawmakers plotting to undermine our historic gains, to tragic, unimaginable experiences of violence, to those who pledged to roll back our rights from the highest of offices in the land." More than half of us nationwide hide who we are in the workplace, and 35 percent feel compelled to lie about our personal lives, despite the fact that 98 percent of Fortune 500 companies provide protection against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. It's clear that LGBT employees still fear some form of workplace retaliation, and that problem falls on managers.

In Samuel A. Culbert's new book, Good People, Bad Managers, the award-winning author, researcher, and professor at the University of California, Los Angeles's Anderson School of Management, takes a closer look at our work culture that turns otherwise good people into bad managers. The Advocate recently sat down with Culbert to talk about why it matters to come out at work, what we can learn from Tim Cook and Donald Trump, and the corrupt management practices that lead people with good intentions to act badly and inflict negativity on the people they're mandated to help.

The Advocate: What advice can you give to closeted employees?
Samuel A. Culbert: I think the greatest cultural transformation of my life has been the advances made by the LGBTQ community. Everyone eventually figures out that they have gay family members, work associates, and friends, and it takes too much energy and lack of human compassion to not accept that transformation. People in the closet start out in a tough spot because we're really talking about self-confidence. We're also talking about workplace prejudice. There are hidden persuaders that prevent people in the workplace from being their best selves. The LGBTQ community knows about these all too well and are victimized by them. These workplace force fields cause people to act inauthentic and go along with the pretense that stems from incompetence.

Authenticity is the most powerful mechanism anyone has in the workplace for accomplishing, getting cooperation, and earning trust. It's very hard to do a person damage when they're out in the open and not hiding anything. That takes a tremendous amount of self-acceptance, and ultimately it's about feeling good about yourself.

A trusting work relationship is one of the greatest management tools. All work environments are politicized, and the people that seem to be the big winners are not necessarily winning -- it just appears that way. The other guys, who you might think are acting straight, are also subjected to forces that lead them to act pretentious and inauthentic. The pretense required to manage, to survive, and to cope with insecurity makes authenticity difficult and therefore causes others to distrust them. I'm not saying it's easy to come out at work, and as I mention in the book, it took Apple CEO Tim Cook 13 years with the company (three of them as CEO).

Why did Tim Cook's coming-out impress you?
It's not just about him being gay. It was also about a force for accepting all forms of diversity. LGBTQ people are more than their sexualities, and they are different in every way. Tim Cook's coming-out symbolized the acceptance of diversity, and it made it much easier, at least at Apple, for people of any identity to be clear in announcing who they are and demonstrating for other people that their prejudices are not grounded in reality. Authenticity is always the best front and defense, but it's not always the safest route to take.

There's a Donald Trump quote in your book: "I just keep pushing and pushing to get what I'm after." Why is this approach bad management?
Management is other-directed, and Trump's quote is brute-force self-directed. What words do people associate with Donald Trump? "You're fired." He made a career out of saying that. That's not management, that's something else. Good management is finding out what's on employees' minds, learning about their commitments and identities, and bringing out their unique goals and how to reach them. One thing I wanted to do with my book is to show how managers self-victimize. They're so busy dealing with their problems, which are the consequences of managers themselves trying to cope and survive, that they in turn block their own effectiveness.

Why do some employees think there's a risk to being authentic in the workplace?
I can't generalize like that. However, if management is not committed to your success, if they're so self-involved in their own success, authenticity becomes a risky proposition. All situations are political and people want you to do what they want you to do. Unless you have a relationship that allows you to say what the other person doesn't want to hear, you're always kissing up and being someone's toad. In some ways it goes back to our whole socialization process that's based on our fear of power from people who are bigger, stronger, and with more resources at their disposal. That's part of the baggage people bring to work. They've already been told that there are times when they must hold their tongues and not be themselves. Somewhere in there you elect to go to war against those forces or you become more fearful of them.

Is that why people feel that their hands are tied when it comes to changing workplace culture?
You have to use "I-speak" and talk to people without confronting and challenging them. All interactions involve two people and three realities: It's your reality, my reality, and the reality that we agree to talk about as if it's true. Managers should step back from the limelight and put their own self-pursuits on hold in order to help others shine. It's always easy to tell employees something important. The most difficult part of managing is learning how to manage better. When managers say that their door is always open, they have to realize that their invitation is hollow until they make it possible for their direct reports to speak candidly.

Why does the workplace culture of perfection inhibit workers from talking openly?
The culture of perfection assumes that everybody can be graded on any company metric. But human nature says people are imperfect. Everybody has flaws, and the genius of people is that they know how to work around them. When you believe that any employee can attend on any metric, you create a big mess. If I tell you that there's something you do that I don't like, do you have the capacity to stop doing what I mention? Probably not, but you do have the capacity to hide it, fake it, and always pretend.

How do you define "skilled incompetence"?
That's where you're highly competent with using your defensive and self-protective habits. People who are conflict adverse are highly skilled at sidestepping conflict. I call this incompetence because in being so skilled you never learn the other stuff. We all have the same goals. We want to make ourselves as good as we can in areas that are self-gratifying. But what goes on in insecure work environments is that people stay in their comfort zones and don't evolve themselves. We want managers with a mentality that allows people to learn and grow. That's what every CEO and shareholder wants in a company. They have a workforce, and their best chance at realizing corporate success is by having that workforce personally progress, learn, and become more capable at their jobs.

What skills do good managers possess?
It's learning about other people and how they feel about themselves. Everybody has a bias in their self-preservation, but good management is not based on self-accomplishments but rather helping other people to accomplish and progress on their individualized goals. Managers need to take responsibility for the people who work for them. They must work with the psychological mind-set of the other person and find out how their employees do their work and in turn create an environment in which they can succeed. Learning about other people is not only the most effective way of managing, but it will also allow you to learn about your own preferences and why you have them. You'll become more accepting, which will make you better equipped to deal with the imperfections of others.

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