On the list of traits that are widely regarded as markers of good leadership, confidence and charisma usually rank pretty high: When you think about the qualities that would boost someone’s chances of being hired or landing a promotion, are you more likely to respond positively to candidates who are perceived to have those characteristics in spades?

Confidence and charisma are often pedestaled as ideal for leaders in today’s workforce, and while there is certainly nothing inherently problematic about these traits, it’s also important to keep in mind that there are troubling undercurrents shaping these broader impressions—and they could have critical implications in the workplace. In the American workforce, the perception of confidence and charisma is much more prevalent among a singular, dominant demographic: white, heterosexual, cisgender, able-bodied men. And these perceptions are driven by a quiet, pernicious, deeply-ingrained system of privilege and systemic oppression. Setting aside the fact that confidence and charisma alone do not correlate with effective performance or leadership—research shows that humility and curiosity go a lot farther—this inherent preference is often a barrier to building intentional and inclusive workplaces.

As an organization, PBFA is committed to not only acknowledging the systemic oppression that shapes flawed perceptions, but to deeply exploring our own biases and building a work environment that is designed around inclusion and psychological safety. And a major part of this commitment entails investigating our own biases and actively learning, listening, and responding in kind. 

Systemic Oppression and Unchecked Bias

Foundations of power in American work culture are deeply rooted in racism, sexism, and other myriad forms of marginalization and oppression. The sizable influence and wealth of the dominant group were literally built on the backs of BIMPOC people, and the outsized power of men in the workplace is steeped in the persistent expectation that the role of women is to remain quiet, to be unchallenging, and to enable of the success of men. 

Institutional acknowledgement of these issues goes back decades: Employment discrimination based on race, sex, color, religion, and national origin was first outlawed with Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But while this was a much-needed victory and a tremendous step in the right direction, racism and sexism within the workplace have continued in a much “nicer”—and more insidious—fashion. The dominant group can no longer legally refuse to hire or promote folks based on protected characteristics, yes, but bias is still going strong within our systems, and that bias is perpetuating preferences that continue to advantage the dominant group. 

To illustrate this reality, let’s revisit confidence and charisma as core metrics for success. It’s much easier to put forward a confident and charismatic persona when you’re used to being taken seriously, being regarded as competent and high-potential without having to prove it repeatedly, and being respected without having to demand it. When you’re able to command attention with ease or raise your voice without being tone policed. When you’re not overworked, over scrutinized, and underpaid. The emotional fatigue of holding an under-represented identity within a workplace that is designed to hold you back, while protecting the unearned power and privilege of the dominant group, cannot be overstated. And in addition to the horrific moral and ethical implications, bias is a business liability: How many brilliant ideas have gone unheard? How many disasters could have been averted if only organizations supported and empowered the full breadth of amazing talent on their team?

Within PBFA and PBFI’s current women-led leadership team, we all bring with us ample experience of struggling to succeed in workplaces where we have to outperform our male counterparts to be seen as even remotely equal. That said, it’s important to acknowledge that we are currently an all-white leadership team, which we recognize is problematic and creates multiple blindspots, as white women still hold much unearned privilege in the workplace and beyond. As a team, we’re aware that the makeup of our leadership is not fully representative of the community we serve, and are committed to changing that and working long-term to improve in this area.

Fostering Inclusivity

In the meantime, we are making great strides to foster the type of inclusive, psychologically safe working environment that is fit to receive the invaluable contributions of an increasingly diverse team. Our employee handbook introduction letter, penned by our CEO Rachel Dreskin, promises a culture that values constructive feedback, constant learning, and personal accountability. I see it in action daily. We strive for the low power distance needed to invite feedback and challenges across all levels, and meet it with gratitude and curiosity. Time, place, and tone are de-centered in favor of the message. Through these commitments, we seek to avoid pitfalls such as pacing for privilege or prioritizing the comfort and power of non-marginalized team members.  

More concretely, I’m excited to share that our Operations team is leading an extensive revamp of our recruitment and selection processes. The outcome will be a comprehensive internal guide intended to challenge conventional assumptions and practices within the hiring process, and dismantle systemic barriers to entry for people from non-dominant groups. This will include a re-examination of the qualifications required to truly excel in a role, accountability checkpoints, utilizing diverse hiring committees, and other disruptive tactics. 

In addition, I’m proud to be facilitating an internal working group devoted to diversity, equity, inclusion, justice, and accessibility (DEIJA). The group has spent the last few months gaining collective education on the subject to align our efforts and produce a comprehensive DEIJA vision statement for PBFA and PBFI. That statement will be our roadmap that shapes the development of a four-prong strategy to:1) provide individual education internally, 2) provide references and standards for how our individuals engage externally, 3) improve our internal institutional policies and practices, and 4) guide our external work with membership and other community building, all in service of the principles of DEIJA. 

This is just the beginning; there is much more work to come, and our mindset must always evolve and avoid rigidity. We recognize that we are early in this journey that has no end, and the team is embracing it with genuine passion and commitment that inspires me every day. Our goal of systems change must start from the inside; we can’t change our food system on a broad scale using the same old playbook. We need the most talented people working at their optimal capacity, and if we continue to build a work environment that pushes aside ego to elevate all voices and all strengths—and puts our core values first—we’ll be unstoppable. 

Margaret Barnard is PBFA’s Senior Director of Operations.