Perception Management – Corporate South Africa

by Marvin Writer

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“Explain to me why on earth you found it appropriate to test assets this way?” My manager impatiently asked, clearly very disappointed in my methods. “Well… I…” (I’m already too terrified to say anything) ” I thought…”

Too tired to listen to my flimsy and soft spoken excuses, he impatiently cuts me off and replies: “The problem is that you didn’t think enough, delete that rubbish and start again”

The truth is I really did think about it, I know exactly how to justify what I did and why I did it, but I simply can’t seem to sum up the courage to say anything. So I decide to just keep quiet and start again…and I’m not even sure how.

This is a common issue faced by black females in corporate SA. Failing to defend yourself in situations that require you to show confidence in your intelligence. Where Caucasians can easily rescue themselves with a mouth filled with intellectual vocabulary, maybe even making the manager doubt themselves, they use voices that command attention and leave no room for interruption. We, instead, doubt ourselves and find that we end up feeling useless, almost pathetic. This inevitably affects our work ethic and our attitude towards our jobs.

Confidence issues are a reality, more so in the corporate world. You always need to sound like you know exactly what you are talking about, even when you have no idea. Remember in varsity when they repeatedly told you to “Ask questions, there’s no such thing as dumb question.” Then there was that annoying front row student who always asked questions even if it meant delaying everyone from going home? Yeah. That person. That must be you in corporate. Eager, always asking questions, challenging responses and getting into intellectual arguments.

Why? Because that’s how you manage perceptions. Perception management is a real thing in corporate, it affects how people treat you, whether they will promote you and how well they think you do your job. And you simply cannot afford to be down playing yourself if you want to be climbing corporate ladders.

That quiet, meek and obedient little black girl your mother raised you to be, who speaks exceptionally softly because her voice box got lost in fear of all the beatings and scolding’s she endured every time she said too much to people who were​ too old for her to be speaking to in the first place. How dare she think she has an opinion? That obedient young lady who was constantly reminded that no man would marry a woman who can’t simply do what she’s told and take simple orders without asking questions. Never complaining and simply suffering in silence. All of this, so that the people in her community can look longingly at her mother and applaud her for the amazingly obedient young lady she has raised.

Unfortunately that person doesn’t fly in corporate. And it has become increasingly difficult to blame it on your background because nobody really cares why you are like that. You just simply won’t stand out, if anything, in a highly competitive and innovative environment you may even be perceived as annoying.

Even though it’s difficult to teach an old dog new tricks, i.e. calling partners and managers the same age as your parents by name, never mind arguing with them over something they obviously know significantly more about. Simply doing things, because “that’s how it’s done,” is definitely not the road to success. But unfortunately, being innovative, outspoken and coming up with new ideas may not have been an integral part of your upbringing but it does play a fundamental role on how organizations perceive your potential.

You cannot afford to be silenced because you need to constantly remember that you have the right to freedom of speech. More so, you owe it to yourself to own the corporate space as much your Caucasian male counterparts. And I know it’s difficult because, naturally, you will be caught in your traditional roots, which have been vexed so deeply into your soul as your natural hair into the pores of your scalp. That image of the modern successful woman who quickly affirms her independence, ideals and ideas, who firmly stands by her opinion and dismisses anyone who dares to question her capabilities, that needs to be you.

And trust me, it isn’t easy shedding your skin and growing new wings. It’s painful and it takes time. You need to grow through the process: where people break you down by making you feel stupid, where you pour your heart and soul into your work, only to still get told that it’s mediocre or “not up to standard”, where you give your best and find out that it actually isn’t enough, where you get a bad rating simply because someone doesn’t like you and there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it. Where you’re told that their conversations are always inclusive of black people but the crowd forgets that you probably have no idea what Labouqeria is.

You need to endure the process until the point where you can’t take it anymore and you reach your peak tolerance. It is at this point that I would hope that you mentally and emotionally decide that enough is enough and begin to defend yourself and fight your own battles. Your confidence eventually begins to grow because you will realize that the more you speak and break out of your shell the less likely people are to disrespect you. Fortunately most corporates offer support systems such as Health and wellness and psychologists which are solely up to you to utilize.

At the end of the day, it’s like survival of the fittest. You’re adapting to survive in a environment that’s very different to what you grew up knowing, if not thrive. And it truly is collateral beauty because this is where your full potential begins to manifest itself.

Writer: Irene Chikobvu                   Photographer: Jeff Rikhotso

  • Palama

    To be quiet honest I really really can not relate because I have always known the only way to deal nabelungu it’s to be assertive and never ever take their BS. You see their tendencies as early as Primary School with their Savior and Know-It-All complex.

    ‘Your confidence eventually begins to grow because you will realize that the more you speak and break out of your shell the less likely people are to disrespect you. ’ That’s why you call a person to order the very FIRST time they come at you sideways and trust that they will never ever do that again.

    You not at work to make friends but to work. And if certain people don’t allow you into their circles,don’t pay no mind. And my career doesn’t depend on appeasing people but hard work and God’s favour.

    In any given space be proud,assertive and never tolerate being spoken down on.

  • Irene

    Yes agreed. But unfortunately not every black person in corporate grew up:

    1. Surrounded by white people
    2. Paying them enough attention to have to defend themselves from them.

    Therefore, we are not all automatically tuned into that mindset the minute we walk into corporate. It’s something people develop over time.

    And the mere fact that you can often find yourself as the only black person in a particular space in corporate is more psychologically intimidating than people like to talk about. Especially if you don’t sound like you went to a private school or if you can’t relate to the conversations they are having about, for example, being UCT alumni. It’s an internal conflict that most people can find challenging to deal with but either way, have to surpass.