The high costs of shifting!

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Ever been in situations where folks seem to tiptoe around real issues through stilted communications? And later in the safety of “their own,” undoubtedly their real feelings pour out. If yes, there’s a good bet that a lot of shifting was at play in those situations.

Shifting is a term that describes the tendency to live double lives to fit in. Among other reasons a strong need for belonging is often what drives shifting.

Experienced shifters have perfected the art of changing the subject when conversations get a bit too close to their vulnerabilities. Inexperienced shifters slink into silence behind manufactured smiles. Shifters stay on hyper alert ready to put on the right face at the right time. They rehearse what to say and how to say it, often agonizing over how best to get through situations unscathed by wrong impressions they dread leaving behind. “Whew!”…”Relief!”… “So glad that’s over!” – words they mutter to themselves, or trusted others, when the situation is behind them.

In, “Shifting: The Double Lives of Black Women in America,” authors Charisse Jones and Kumea Shorter-Gooden write that many Black women feel pressure to compromise their true selves as they navigate America’s racial and gender terrain. They modify their speech. They shift “White” as they head to work in the morning and “Black” as they come back home each night. This is sometimes true for men of color as well.

“Covering” is another word that describes shifty. In his, “Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights,Kenji Yoshino, Professor of Law at NYU, introduced the concept of “covering,” explaining:

“Discrimination directs itself against the group that fails to assimilate to mainstream norms. Outsiders are included, but only if we behave like insiders – that is, only if we cover. Everyone covers. To cover is to tone down a disfavored identity to fit into the mainstream. In our diverse society, all of us are outside the mainstream in some way, whether consciously or not, and sometimes at significant personal cost.”

So what’s behind the compulsion to shift? What are the personal and organizational costs of shifting? Simply put, we shift to conform to codes set by society or an organization. Often it’s the fear that if we dare say what we believe or act in a way that’s perfectly natural for us, there’s a risk of “rocking the boat,” being stereotyped or experiencing outright rejection. Thus, we struggle to blend in underneath smiles that often belie the internal turmoil.

Many shifters learned to internalize the pain of negative stereotypes they encounter. And sometimes they shift by fighting back at the real risk of being labeled a b-tch, “Angry black Woman (Man)” or poor fit for the organization.

What are the signs of shifting? One example is how we modulate our language. We choose our words carefully in an attempt to speak the “King’s English,” to leave out any semblance of ethnic or regional differences that may foster those dreaded stereotypes. We alter outer appearances with hair dyes and face-lifts and starve ourselves silly with weight-reduction programs, all designed to help us to fit in.

As to personal costs, the long-term strain of shifting takes its toll. People start losing the desire to go above the call of duty. Slowly they start to disengage, psychologically at first and then, for some, physically by quitting. Getting through the day is their modus operandi. It’s not unusual to see them just going through the motion, avoiding conflict, speaking only when spoken to.

And there’s the double whammy cost for managers too. The questions for them: Are people telling me the truth or am I just hearing what people think I want to hear? Am I not hearing fresh new – albeit unpopular – perspectives? What’s shifting costing me in discretionary effort?

Now it behooves the reader to understand that women and people of color are not the only ones who shift occasionally. White guys also shift driven by the need to be “one of the boys.”

It should come as no surprise that managers too sometimes shift when they desire to avoid unpleasant feedback. The need to be seen as fair-minded and to avoid diversity-related faux pas also has caused more than a few managers to shift.

Shifting,” “covering,” – knee jerk reactions. We all do it.

Hey, don’t run, don’t hide, don’t delete…..don’t shift!


© Terry Howard is an award-winning writer, trainer and story teller. He is a senior associate at Diversity Wealth, a contributing writer with The Chattanooga News Chronicle, The American Diversity Report, and New York-based Catalyst. He can be reached at or by phone at 470-558-7310.

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