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 broken ladderWhat stands in the way of women reaching the top? What prevents businesses from getting the promise of gender diversity? Lots of leaders appreciate the value of developing and promoting women. Lots of businesses take effective actions. Yet women are proportionally represented at the top in very few businesses. McKinsey and Company says it comes down to invisible mind-sets. Unintentional and unconscious habits of thought cause obstacles for women. Only if we make these mind-sets conscious can we create cultures that are inclusive and support men and women in achieving their potential.

One of these mind-sets is the “comfort principle.” It is the natural preference to be with people who look and think like we do. They make us more comfortable! Someone with whom a leader has developed a comfortable relationship is more likely to be selected for a great project – or to receive mentoring. The result can be an advantage for people most like the leader – and a disadvantage for others.

What can we DO about the comfort principle? Unconscious mind-sets are like the blind spot in your car. If you know about it, you can manage it. If you have not been aware of the comfort principle, now you can do something about it. Awareness of this unintentional barrier enables you to monitor whom you think of when providing opportunities. You can stop yourself from giving the assignment or your time to the person most like you and consider: What skills do I need on this project? What style is needed to balance this team? Who needs the chance for this experience or exposure?

What can women and others affected by the comfort principle do? I suggest you look for ways to build comfort. Notice what the leader has in his or her office that tells you about hobbies or family. For example, “I see you have two boys; so do I” or “It looks like you like swimming; where do you swim?” Find opportunities to get to know him or her outside the work environment. At my last corporate job, my boss liked to go out with the guys for beers. He was not comfortable going out for drinks with me alone. So I invited three other women to meet the boss for beers after work. Sharing social time can build comfort!

We can try to make others aware of this obstacle. This works best if it is presented without judgment, and you make clear the comfort principle is normal — not intentional or malicious.

What you have done to make sure you do not make choices based on comfort? What have you done to minimize the negative effects of the comfort principle on you?