Archive for the ‘Opinion’ Category

The Man Responsible for Undermining Efforts to Create Gender Equity? It’s Probably You

Tuesday, September 4th, 2012

This blog was first posted on the MARC (Men Advocating Real Change) web site, July 18, 2012.

Good guys don’t care about the well-being of their women colleagues as much as they care about being seen as protectors of women, liberty, and all that is pure.”  And that keeps them from creating real change.

Change the people and systems around you, and you change the dysfunctional status quo.

For men who want to see change in gender relations in their workplaces and communities, this assertion makes all kinds of sense. For example, when confronted with men who behave like jerks and disrespectfully and undermine their women colleagues, the right thing to do is to require that they stop the harmful behavior and get their acts together immediately.  And if they need a figurative ass whuppin’ to motivate them, then so be it.

But I think the greatest opportunity to drive change in gender relations is not so much in fixing those jerks. Instead, the most powerful motor for change comes from looking at the motivations and behaviors of us “good guys” who vigilantly hold the “bad guys” accountable.

A few years ago, I underwent a powerful learning experience when I attended a series of leadership classes and seminars as part of the Learning as Leadership (LAL) curriculum. LAL is a firm of several skilled consultants and teachers who help leaders from all kinds of corporate, non-profit, and public sector organizations improve their ability to achieve their mission and goals. There, I learned the concept of “desired” and “dreaded” images. These are images we carry about ourselves and that we invest lots of energy trying to persuade others to carry about us, too.  Desired images are the good ones; these are the perceptions that we want others to hold about us because they make us look good. I want people to see me as intelligent and educated, so I use multisyllabic words when simpler ones would do (see how I just did that?) Dreaded images are the flip side; we work to make sure people don’t see us in these ways. I don’t want to be seen as uptight, so I regularly arrive at meetings a few minutes late and always with a relaxed a demeanor. Everyone carries these images, and they don’t have to lead to bad habits like tardiness. The key is in managing our images effectively.

And that takes us back to the good guys. We good guys (and I count myself in this category) want other people to see us as allies for women and champions for gender equality.  Now, let me be clear:  I’m not saying that we advocates are not passionately committed to constructive change. And I’m not saying that we only care about change because we want to portray a virtuous image. I am saying that in addition to our genuine commitment, we also carry this little piece of ego that gets off on being seen as righteous champions for good. To quote one of my favorite lines from the Matrix movies, “we’re doing our Superman thing.” In addition, I’m saying that when we are motivated by that ego, we undermine our ability to help women and men change the damaging patterns of behavior in so many gender relations.

Let me give you a classic example. A woman friend of mine had to deal with a sexual harassment situation at work in which a co-worker was coming on to her and making very inappropriate public remarks. When she broached the topic with her boss (a good guy) he was pissed. He immediately dressed down this guy with all manner of zero-tolerance language: “I won’t stand for that behavior here!” “you’re suspended and on probation!” “it ends now or you’re gone from here!” etc., etc. My friend appreciated the intent behind what she called the “support script,” but said her boss had basically screwed her.

When I asked her what she meant by “support script,” she said that was the way that good guys act when they want to be seen as “protectors of women, liberty, and all that is pure.”  In fact, she said, her boss did not really care about her well-being as much as he cared about being the guy who beats the crap out of guys who are mean to girls. As a result her boss’ intervention, the harasser and his friends made it more difficult for her to accomplish her work objectives for a time. The guys who were neutral to both parties became wary of her because they saw her as playing the gender/sex card.  Even her women colleagues kept their distance for awhile because they didn’t want to be labeled a “whining woman.” My friend really struggled in the aftermath and almost left the company. The environment was incredibly tense and, not surprisingly, collaboration really suffered.

The problem with succumbing to the desire to be seen a certain way is that it clouds our ability to accurately analyze a situation and act with wisdom and savvy. We lose track of our real goals and values—like fairness, equity, and creating a vibrant work environment—and get caught up in “look how cool I am” moments. I’ve been there. And I’ve seen many men who advocate for real change behave just this way.

If you really want to create sustained positive change, don’t look for bad guys to beat up. Instead:

1)     focus on the vision of change you want

2)     Take a beat and stifle the impulse to don your cape.

3)     Develop a discipline of asking yourself the question “what can I do in this situation to help my people and my organization achieve that vision?”

4)     Seek out other people to help you temper your righteous indignation; and

5)     Marshal your experience and wisdom to deal with the situation. [1]

Only then will you really start doing the right thing.

[1] Check out “Rethinking Political Correctness,” in the September 2006 issue of the Harvard Business Review for more on these key skills. My coauthors (Robin Ely and Deborah Myerson) and I explain them in more depth.

Beyond the Blind Spots

Tuesday, July 17th, 2012

This blog was first posted on the MARC (Men Advocating for Real Change) web site, June 11, 2012.

I often think about these three guys I know:

  • Guy 1 is devoted to gender equality. He knows there are gender inequities in society and the world over, and he goes out of his way to make sure that he fights for the rights of women.
  • Guy 2 doesn’t really give a damn about gender equality and bristles at the notion that we’re having the conversation. He believes that men have their status relative to women and that’s how it goes (besides, women have a lot of benefits men don’t have).
  • Guy 3 is on the fence; he thinks things aren’t always right in relations and dynamics between men and women, but he doesn’t have a lot of motivation one way or the other to do anything differently.

OK, now the pop quiz—which guy fosters greater equity and inclusion for women and men in organizations?

Most people choose Guy 1. He’s the one who is active, energized, and committed to creating change. Guy 2 is the clear resistor and he’s not forwarding the cause. And Guy 3 is annoyingly indecisive, so he’s not helpful. Indeed, many men who care about gender equity follow the heroic path of Guy 1.

But each of these guys has blind spots that get in the way of being trusted and reliable agents of change in creating inclusion and equity. Guy 2 is the obvious knucklehead in this regard. He does not understand and appreciate the value of true equity with the women in his life, both professional and personal. For example, one manager I worked with shared privately that his experience revealed that women were exceptional in social relations positions like HR in his organization, but that he had serious concerns about hiring women for technology-intensive positions.  Guy 2 is generally not interested in the kinds of arguments offered by Michael Kimmel in his MARC post on Why Men Should Support Gender Equality that show how his work and home life could be better. He also doesn’t appreciate the costs he incurs by embracing his unearned privilege as a man.

Guy 3 is picking his nose. He’s not focused on the impact of inequities and lives in a fog about this stuff. He sees the problems that women colleagues and friends have, but he gets distracted and ends up not following through on trying to do anything about the problems.

And Guy 1—the Committed One—knows exactly what needs to be done to create change, and his certainty and arrogance about it all alienates many of the men (and the women) with whom he needs to collaborate.

The guy who may be most important in fostering gender equity and inclusion is Guy 4. He’s the one who accepts the mission to engage each of three above to work together to change gender inequities. This fourth actor is committed to equality, but understands the importance of not discounting any of the other three. At any moment in time, one of these guys may be instrumental in creating change. Guy 1 will be a tireless advocate and can lead in that way. Guy 2 can model that change can happen even for someone who seems resistant. His visible learning can be inspirational. And Guy 3 is the silent majority who, if motivated, can transform an organization or community that is exclusive to one that embraces equity.

So here’s one last confession. I didn’t make these guys up out of thin air. I am all of these guys. At different moments and in different relationships, I experience each of these “guy states.” At times I am outraged and deeply hurt by the inequities that I see and I am highly motivated to create change. I push for inclusion because the alternative is unpalatable. At other times, I feel resentful of my women colleagues and friends. They seem not to support me when I need it the most and I am annoyed and frustrated by their behaviors and attitudes. And at other times, I am simply paralyzed, knowing that change is needed, but not knowing what to do or how to do it. Part of what helps me to be effective in supporting change is not beating myself up when I am not perfectly politically correct and not getting too self-important when I am. Men who really want to make a difference need to embrace their inner Guy 4s.

Duped By Dominance

Tuesday, June 12th, 2012

This post first appeared on the MARC (Men Advocating Real Change) web site, April 30, 2012.

I had a friend in graduate school, Miriam, a tall vivacious woman who was both gregarious and grounded in a really appealing way. A conversation we had one day has stuck with me over the years. She remarked that she and I might be able to work together in interesting ways because we had complementary perspectives on the “Race and Gender 2X2.” Of course, she meant that because she was a white woman and I was a black man, we held diagonal positions on a 2X2 matrix that captured our racial (black or white) and gender (male or female) identities:

This was one of the first times I had ever reflected on what had previously been an invisible consciousness. I knew I was black and understood my place in the dynamics of race in the U.S. But what surprised me was how that focus prevented me from paying as close attention to my identity as a man. With time, I reconciled this shortcoming by focusing on my fallback position—I was, in fact, a black male! That felt much better. I was giving a nod to my gender but not forgetting the ever-important race struggle that was integral to my U.S. experience.

In fact, I was playing an identity mind game. I was looking for a way not to deal with my male identity.  My colleague Heather Wishik and I are working on a new line of research that begins to map what was happening to me as I was confronted with my identity as a man. Our social identities—race, gender, sexual orientation, able-bodied-ness, etc.—are always imbued with a dynamic of power. We call these “dominance” or “subordinance.” In any of these identities, you are generally one-up or one-down in the social order. Subordinance identities in the U.S. include being a person of color, female, LGBT, or lower class. Dominance identities are being affluent, heterosexual, male, or white. (By the way, in our research, these two labels don’t convey value judgments about a person’s character. Being a member of a dominant of subordinant group is just a description of how that group identity is situated in larger society).

Racially, I carry a subordinance identity by virtue of my blackness in the U.S. But by gender, I live a dominance identity. I am the youngest of three boys in my family and over the years, the next two generations of my immediate family are all boys. As I often tell folks, we have to bus women into my family. Masculinity is a deeply rooted part of my upbringing and my background.

And that is precisely why it was so invisible—and so uncomfortable—to me. One of the greatest subtle biases we all carry are connected to those identities in which we carry dominance. And most people have one or more of these dominant identities. It’s almost a guarantee that when we look closely at our dominant identities, our vision about them is clouded and distorted. Most of the time, we have a very hard time talking about them. We don’t have lots of insight into the experiences of being of that identity. With race in the U.S., I often encounter white people who don’t know what to say about their experience being white; they just have not thought about it that much. By the same token, I had a hard time just reflecting on my maleness in response to Miriam’s invitation. I wanted to make it my “black maleness” that was at issue. That was just another way of trying to cling to race and avoid dealing directly with my dominant identity as a man.

Peggy McIntosh’s classic 1988 essay, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” helped articulate the experience of privilege and the role that power plays in our everyday experience. What we have to reflect upon today is how subtle and insidious power and privilege is in the way it shapes our perceptions, relationships, and colleagueship. In my case—like that of many others—my dominant identities hid behind my subordinant identity, pushing race front and center while maleness remained stealthily in the wings. Indeed, it’s no accident that power and dominance are often such difficult topics to address in the workplace. Dominance perpetuates itself by being psychologically and behaviorally elusive. The bias of privilege has a life of its own and no one is immune to its effect. Every man, no matter his race, creed, or color has to come to terms with how the dominance of maleness quietly shapes him.

How do you overcome this bias? There is no better antidote than awareness. By just reading this blog post, you’ve affected the bias by making it more visible. In addition:

  • Make sure that people who are conscious of these dynamics are a part of your network. Having social support in identifying, and when possible, counteracting the fruits of dominant maleness is essential. Like-minded allies help you to see biases and can support you and hold you accountable for doing something differently.
  • Keep people in your circle who are mostly oblivious to this stuff. Being aware of your dominance is exhausting. Give yourself a break and commune with people who are similarly committed to not being intense about this stuff every waking hour. I don’t suggest this lightly. Remember that dominance is as smart as you are and probably a little more devious. You have to feed it a little to keep it calm. Do so with benevolent intent.

How Good Leaders Fight Stupid Bias

Friday, June 8th, 2012

I recently came across an article in Diversity Inc that described racial uproar at UCLA’s School of Medicine.  A Black medical professor, Dr. Christian Head, was depicted as a gorilla as part of an annual “roast” by medical students. The racist prank ignited national attention as a petition on, had collected nearly 85,000 signatures.

Being outraged by this stupid behavior is understandable, but not particularly helpful. Nor will some of the recommendations in the article—having CEOs hold people accountable with zero tolerance policies, requiring mandatory diversity training, and promoting resource groups—really change the root causes of this behavior over the long run.

I agree that accountability from leadership is absolutely crucial to fighting this kind of bias, but zero tolerance is not the way exercise accountability. Leaders have to take responsibility for being discerning about what behaviors merit the severest reprimands (censure or termination) and what behaviors can better be served by engaging the perpetrators and other stakeholders in learning opportunities. Zero tolerance can be a cop-out: it allows leaders to abdicate the responsibility for being thoughtful about how they deal with diversity in their organizations.

In addition, “mandatory training” recommendations should always be accompanied by the qualifier “good.” Mediocre diversity training can be more damaging than no training at all. It can heighten resistance to diversity and can stoke resentment toward the people who are different it was supposed to support.

Resource groups are clearly helpful, but only if they are supported unequivocally by leadership and strategically aligned. They must wholly be a part of the organization and must be both a resource for its members and a resource for the organization.

Outrage gets old. Informed, deliberate, and sustained leadership action is what eliminates ridiculous incidents like the one at UCLA.

My Lessons from 6th Graders: How to Stop Being Comfortably Black

Wednesday, May 30th, 2012

When I returned to my home town of Cleveland, Ohio to promote my new book, The End of Diversity as We Know It:  Why Diversity Efforts Fail and How Leveraging Difference Can Succeed, I was excited. I couldn’t wait to see old friends, some of whom I had not seen since childhood. I was eager to show everyone what I had accomplished over the years. It would be a real coming out party. And it turned out to be just that. It was a great event and I really enjoyed reconnecting with family, friends, and colleagues.

But the best part of the event was not the connection with the old faces (sorry, seasoned faces?…ok, this is not getting any better…). The best part happened when, shortly after the event got started, a seemingly endless line of short people enter the venue. To my surprise and delight, my youngest nephew’s class concluded their school day with a field trip to my book event. And this was going to be great because now, I would also be able to influence young minds, too!

I probably did make some impression on the kids, but if I did, that was the backstory for me. In the hour that followed after they settled into their seats, these 11—13 year olds educated me and the rest of the adults in the audience. I wanted to engage them in discussion about three big ideas about Leveraging Difference: 1) the importance of having a strategy, 2) being able to see, understand, and engage multiple differences, and 3) endeavoring to stay focused on larger goals without being distracted. They stunned us all with their variety of insights, but none were more provocative than their thoughts about distractions and diversions.

Now as we all know, our kids live in an incredibly stimulating environment with video, social media, and myriad technologies to grab their attention. And we all know that attention deficit issues are ever-present in dealing with educating kids, right? Except this groups of kids violated those assumptions. They were certainly regular kids, full of energy, and excited about being in this sun-drenched university meeting room overlooking the Cleveland landscape. There was no shortage of “herding cats” activity going on. But once they focused, they provided a number of gems:

Martin:            …the third big idea: you have to keep your eye on the larger goal. What do I mean by that?

1st student:      Paying attention to what’s really important.

Martin:            What keeps people from remembering what’s really important?

1st student:      People get distracted…like something happens in the stock market and they are not focusing on their business. They’re trying to figure out how to get out from under.

2nd student:     Sometimes, in order to run a business, you have to be able to change things. Sometime people let greed get in the way of their goals. They can be too greedy for money. Like a fool is easily separated from his money? If you don’t lead your business well, you could easily lose it all.

3rd  student :    I believe that personal goals get in the way. In order to do well, you sometimes have to put personal goals aside to achieve the larger goal, or else you sacrifice the larger goal.

OK, so what does this have to do with being “comfortably black?” There was something about hearing these words from the mouths of young people that compelled me to ask myself: what distracts me? I decided to examine what was getting in the way of how I was sharing what I was learning from the book with the audiences I met. I realized that I had two great distractions I continue to work on:

1)    Being the “rock star.” When I arrive at a place to teach a class, give a talk, or consult with a client, I am invited to be the center of attention. This is an awfully seductive position to be in because I know that in these circumstances, I love the spotlight. But invariably, that impulse to bask in the limelight makes it very difficult to actually help my students learn, affect my audiences constructively, or help my clients change. I am preoccupied with what I need to do to look smart, sophisticated and suave (whether or not I can execute on it!)

2)    Being “comfortably” black. As a result of #1, I have been vigilantly challenging myself (especially in my diversity work) not settle into being “the black authority.” I find it appealing to show how knowledgeable and insightful I am by using race as a reference for my teachings and conversations. But the people I work with often want to engage and learn about other differences as well. Many times, these other differences are more important in their lives than race. I have to do a better job of doing my homework and learning about differences beyond race. I have to be open to feeling anxiety, being unsure of myself, even reacting defensively in talking about and working with other differences. I won’t always be the expert; I’ll have to learn, too.

In these situations, I have a personal mantra that I actually speak to myself, under my breath, or out loud: How can I be helpful to this class/audience/client in our time together? Just reminding myself prior to an engagement and then during the encounter helps me to refocus on the larger goal.

I am so grateful to my youngest nephew’s class.

Why I Don’t Really Like MARC

Friday, May 11th, 2012
 The benefits of engaging in gender work can be as rewarding as the costs are damaging…

I was recently asked to join a progressive online community called MARC, which stands for Men Advocating Real Change, and to be a contributor to the MARC blog. MARC is made up of professionals committed to achieving equality in the workplace. It empowers community members to engage in candid conversations about gender, its impact in the workplace, and how to lead change through member-generated advice, insights, and best practices.

It seems like this would be the perfect forum for me to contribute to the conversation, especially with the focus of my work being on “leveraging difference,” which includes gender difference. So, I couldn’t understand why it took me so long to start my first blog post for MARC until I realized that I don’t really like MARC. As a man, it can be difficult and unpleasant to deal with gender dynamics and to have to talk about issues like the challenges of colleagueship with women. I’m reminded of my days in graduate school when I decided to join a men’s awareness group. I wanted to better understand women, gender, and myself. (Actually, in retrospect, the biggest reason was that I was dating this remarkable woman who I wanted to get to know better, and I was looking for anything that would help).

I joined the group and it seemed like the right thing to do, but it didn’t take long to realize that I didn’t belong in the group. Not because I was somehow more enlightened than the other men in the group—I most certainly was not. But because what they talked about didn’t really resonate with me. The topics of discussion too often felt like a personal attack. It wasn’t that other guys were attacking me, but more that the subject matter was offensive. I felt like I was being blamed just being who I was, for being a man. The mannerisms, language, and behaviors that were a part of who I was were being talked about as though they were wrong. Moreover, as a man of color, I was not sure that this gender work was not a distraction from the “more important” work of fighting racism. And to top it all off, I thought the men in this group were a little too self-reflective, a little too self-righteous, a little too sensitive and a little too, well, white. I soon drifted away from the group—other more important activities just took precedence.

My experience nicely illustrates a trap that ensnares many men when it comes to doing the work it takes to create a community and society in which gender diversity truly enriches everyone. The kinds of negative reactions I had to that men’s group are both legitimate and common.  And those very same legitimate reactions create the smokescreen that prevents men from experiencing both the costs of the status quo as well as the benefits of something better.

I understand some very clear realities about gender at this stage of my career and my life. On the cost side, my sexism—especially the unconscious, unintentional stuff—harms my women colleagues. Maybe they are mostly small slights, but inflicting many small abrasions is the stuff of torture. Moreover, my sexism harms me personally. I can’t be fully productive and fully collaborative (and those two are critically important career competencies in the 21st century economy) if I am hindered by my gender bias. That bias can take many forms:  feeling uneasy with a female boss, or being uncertain about how to give feedback to a woman direct report, or being pre-occupied by sexual attraction to a colleague, or just being frustrated about having to walk on eggshells when it comes to women and gender. All of these feelings drain time and mental energy from a man in a gender diverse workplace. That is time and energy that is better used for accomplishing the work of one’s organization. An added cost for me as a black man? I can’t fully address and redress the dynamics of racism if I am myself at the mercy of my own unconscious gender biases. Gandhi and King among others have made the point eloquently that all of these biases and injustices are fruit of the same tree.

The benefits of engaging in gender work can be as rewarding as the costs are damaging. If we can really make substantive headway in breaking down the bias and dysfunction related to gender, there is the possibility of experiencing a truly energized, dynamic and diverse workplace and community. I’ve learned a tremendous amount from interacting with the multiplicity of women colleagues when I can do so skillfully, and free from anxiety and self-consciousness that I will mess up or be offensive. I am much better at accepting and learning from women who are smart, resourceful, aggressive, quiet, feminine, tough-minded and all manner of other traits. And, by the way, I’m also better at connecting with other men who share exactly the same qualities. Engaging gender is not just about understanding women—it’s also about understanding the range of maleness that is present in our workplaces, communities, societies, and in ourselves.

I don’t like MARC because from moment to moment, it is challenging to really roll up my sleeves and work on making myself better; looking critically at myself is not an especially fun activity for me. But I will be better for doing the work. And I will help others in my life—both women and men—if I can fully embrace the insights, dialogue, and learning that can come from a forum like MARC. So I’ll work on it—maybe not every day, but most days—and see what happens.

Leveraging Difference Makes a Competitive Difference

Tuesday, March 13th, 2012

The following blog was written by Robert F. Bruner, Dean of the Darden Graduate School of Business, and posted on his blog site March 5, 2012.

“Civilizations should be measured by the degree of diversity attained and the degree of unity retained.” — W.H. Auden

It’s challenging to find institutions today that harness the diversity of its participants really well. This should be of paramount interest to CEOs and leaders of all kinds because those who harness it well sooner are likely to gain advantage in their competitive space. Such is the gist of a special Town Hall session for students faculty and staff to be held tomorrow, “The End of Diversity as We Know It: How to Make Diversity Efforts Really Matter,” from 3:30-5:30 in Abbott Auditorium. And it is the focus of a new book by Darden Professor Martin Davidson, The End of Diversity as We Know It: Why Diversity Efforts Fail and How Leveraging Difference Can Succeed. I encourage readers to draw on both of these resources.

I see the relevance of this topic most vividly in two spheres: the management of global businesses and the education of the next generation of global leaders. In respect to both spheres, W.H. Auden got it right: success is a matter of embracing the diversity within institutions and doing so in a way that generates strategic strength and focus on the things that matter.

On the basis of results, the former Soviet Union would be a leading example of how not to leverage diversity. So would Zimbabwe—indeed, the potential list is long. Diversity was thought to be a uniquely American problem of dealing with differences in race and gender: “we don’t have a diversity issue here” is a statement I have heard in many countries. Yet, a little conversation will often reveal material divisions in virtually all countries. As I write this, I am in Ecuador, a small nation of about 15 million people, which displays classic issues associated with diversity along the lines of race, ethnicity, gender, language, and tribe—this is not to criticize Ecuador, but rather to suggest that leading a constituency that contains material difference is a universal challenge.

So, what is the leader of a diverse organization to do? Stop thinking of difference as a problem and start thinking of it as an opportunity; find ways to leverage difference as a strength.

At Darden, our purpose is to “improve society by developing principled leaders for the world of practical affairs.” Leveraging difference is a conscious element of our strategy. To my knowledge, we were the first business school to appoint a Chief Diversity Officer (he is Peter Rodriguez; his predecessors were Martin Davidson and Erika James). We organized special Dean’s advisory councils on diversity and on global affairs to assess the curriculum and climate of the school in light of best current practice. We partner with a number of organizations that help us to recruit top diverse talent—indeed, for two years, I chaired the Board of Directors of the Consortium for Graduate Study in Management. We host a range of social events that celebrate the diversity in our community, and learning events, such as tomorrow’s session on “The End of Diversity.” We formally survey faculty, staff, and students on the climate of inclusion in our community—and based on the survey results, we adjust as warranted. I make no claim that Darden is perfect in respect to diversity and inclusion; but I do claim that by pursuing these and other activities sincerely and vigorously, we strengthen Darden’s ability to fulfill its mission. From all the metrics I follow, I conclude that Darden’s strategy on leveraging diversity is working and that the Darden Enterprise is growing stronger as a result.

Faculty, staff, students, and the extended Darden Community are supporting our efforts to leverage difference. As a result, we are creating more compelling learning experiences for our students. We are preparing them to prosper and lead in a world that is only growing more diverse. And we are responding positively to the needs of the business profession that we serve. This is creating a legacy with long positive impact into the future.

How ESPN Could Have Avoided the “LinSanity” Diversity Crisis

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2012

I like sports. I like competition, winners and losers, and displays of excellence. But I also like sports because they have been a rich context for talking about differences.  There are iconic stories about racial integration, gender parity, cross-national growth, and making the most of disabilities.

Now enter Jeremy Lin.

For those not especially tuned into the professional basketball world, Lin is a player for the New York Knicks team who has performed exceptionally well the past couple of weeks, earning him mad media attention.  He is also one of a very small number of Asian or Asian American players to ever play in the National Basketball Association (NBA). Adding these two elements together—heavy media attention and Lin’s ethnic background—created a nightmare for the multimedia sports network, ESPN, last week. The company issued an apology for a series of racist actions  (probably unintentional, but still racist) related to coverage of Jeremy Lin.  They noted “three offensive and inappropriate comments made on ESPN outlets during [their] coverage,” the most infamous of which was the headline under a picture of Lin making a mistake on court that read “Chink in the Armor.” You could argue this was simply an isolated mistake (or actually three) that just happened—essentially the explanation ESPN adopted. But if you did, you would be plain wrong.

The ESPN/Lin story underscores how challenging it can be to build what I call a “Leveraging Difference Capability.” In my new book, The End of Diversity as We Know It:  Why Diversity Efforts Fail and How Leveraging Difference Can Succeed, I describe this as what happens when an organization becomes so diversity-savvy that everyone in it develops processes for (and habits of) dealing with differences skillfully, even unfamiliar differences. Errors like those ESPN committed are evidence of an organization that lacks the Leveraging Difference Capability. If they had it, they would have created processes and procedures to prevent these mistakes. For example:

  • All of the eyes that reviewed any headline would have sensitivity to language and idioms that could be even remotely racist;
  • There would have been red flags, thanks to that awareness, followed by channels for information gather and discussion
  • There would have been lines of communication with people who would understand the experiences of Asian American professionals
  • There would be have been consultation with  people who are “firsts” in their industries and organizations

No reputable news outlet would describe a Mexican baseball player’s bases-clearing double as a “Spic ‘n Span” hit. Nor, as one radio commentator I heard suggested, would you likely see an outstanding run by a white football player who barrels over opposing players as a “Cracker Barrel” guy.  The reason these would be unlikely occurrences is that most people know better.  And if a writer misses it, her editor will pick it up.  It’s not about one person being vulnerable for making a mistake.  Rather it’s about an organization not knowing how to institute the checks and balances to make sure that mistake just does not happen.

By the way, the corollary here is that the punishments of those involved (firing the headline writer and suspending an on-air broadcaster) were probably too harsh. If this really was about a systems breakdown and not some rogue headline writer, it’s wrong to punish only the writer. That doesn’t properly deal with the cause of the problem (meaning it will happen again). Moreover, it sends the message that “We’re OK; we just had to get rid of the bad apple.” No, you’re not OK.

An Asian-American as a budding star and as media phenomenon is unprecedented in NBA history. There is no good roadmap for what to say and do and what not to.  But those are precisely the best reasons to develop a Leveraging Difference Capability, especially in a globally diverse world. People and organizations will constantly be faced with new differences and new challenges.  Having a way of operating—a mindset—that skillfully deals with those differences will prevent the kinds of public relations crises that ESPN is dealing with right now.

And it will make for much better sports reporting.

How You Can Manage the Future

Tuesday, January 31st, 2012

Darden’s Black Business Students Forum—the school’s celebrated network organization with the mission and goal of building a stronger community around Darden, UVA and Charlottesville—has gotten ambitious. This year, the organization is launching the 24th Annual BBSF Conference, “Manage the Future,” on February 10, 2012 to answer some bold questions: What lies ahead for professionals entering the hypercompetitive global marketplace of 2012 and beyond? What skills must you have to be successful? What landmines will you encounter? How do you navigate around them? And these aren’t just career issues—they have critical personal ramifications.

The conference presentations and discussions will help you understand the key trends and craft strategies to be successful in the midst of them. But that may not even the most valuable takeaway from the conference. The highlight of the day just might be the Leap of Faith Workshop and Celebration Reception. The BBSF undertook an initiative of the same name in 2011 to explore how Darden alumni have navigated difficult and risky decisions in their careers. When you don’t have perfect information and the stakes are high, how do you step into the future? This workshop will answer that question.

The “master weaver” of the day will be Keynote Speaker Virginia Secretary of Commerce and Trade James Cheng, who will push participants to face the “brutal facts” about what is ahead, but not to fall into negativity or pessimism about them. He’ll share insights—drawing on his personal experience—of how to do just this. This conference is not to be missed. Register now.

Drive Toward Oneness

Monday, January 16th, 2012

On August 24, 2011, I first posted this blog that I had written for The Washington Post‘s On Leadership series, on our perversion of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream. As we celebrate Dr. King today and this week, I feel like this message is worth sending again.

Our perversion of Martin Luther King’s dream

In reflecting on celebrations of the new monument commemorating the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I get queasy.I get the same uneasy feeling whenever the King holiday rolls around.The reason is that these become occasions when speakers and pundits routinely tarnish King’s dream.

 Nearly 50years ago, Dr. King spoke of his dream that racial inequality—as well as other forms of inequality—would dissipate with time and people would be judged only by “the content of their character.” “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” he wrote in his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail.

 Many people think they are leading toward Dr. King’s dream in politics, education, business and other social domains when they argue against separating people into categories by race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation.  They worry that highlighting these different social identities is the antithesis of King’s vision.  They say we can’t treat people based on the content of their character (or their qualification for a job or political office) if we remain focused on the color of their skin or the sound of their accent.

 But few things pose a greater threat to King’s dream than this drive toward “oneness.”   Pretending that differences don’t matter is not the same as having differences no longer matter. The push to make us all just human has two benefits for people who espouse it.  First, it’s comfortable because it avoids the hard work of negotiating differences.  People retreat to the familiar place of just assuming that “deep down other people are just like me.”  But a lot happens on the way down to deep.  Peoples’ background and experiences, many of which are shaped by their social identities, make them not at all “like me.”  And that means that if we really want to get to the place in which our differences are unimportant, we must roll up our sleeves to do some work, starting with an honest exploration of how we are different.

Our society is made up of people with vastly divergent experiences, perspectives, backgrounds and talents. Often those differences are defined by the structural inequality that exists today, just as it was in King’s day.  A Gallup Poll of more than 1,300 people nationwide found that 90 percentof whites and 85 percent of blacksthink civil rights for African Americans have improved in their lifetimes. Yet wide gaps between blacks and whites remain in average income levels, and access to housing, education and employment.Similar statistics can be found to make the case for gender and class inequities.And a few sound bites from contemporary debates on gay marriage reveal how far we are from treating people of different sexual orientations equitably.  On the positive side, differences that are well embraced can generate the breakthrough innovation, community cohesiveness, and the commitment to making society extraordinary rather than merely ordinary.

 The drive toward oneness—toward “we’re all just human beings”—tends to discount both facets of difference.  It rewrites the story of structural inequality as one in which the Promised Land has been reached.  We hear things like, “We are post-racial.”  “Discrimination is not as bad as it used to be, and it’s getting better.”  “Young people don’t worry about this stuff the way the older generation does.”

 This denial infuriates people who live a life in which their experience of being disenfranchised is glibly attributed to them being oversensitive.  And it creates privileged but vulnerable people who think they live in a world where everything is really getting better, leaving them unequipped to deal with the discontent of the disenfranchised.  The drive toward oneness also deprives us of the opportunity to come up with new ideas and perspectives because it makes it undesirable, or even dangerous, to express a novel and unusual way of seeing the world.  It becomes bad to be unique.

 Of course, it is possible to foster divisiveness by overemphasizing differences. Poorly executed diversity initiatives like hiring or admitting candidates based too heavily on skin color or gender is not good for a company or school, nor is it usually good for the person of color or the woman who enters the institution.  Overemphasizing social identities can relegate people who are different to being seen (and feeling like) one-dimensional aspects of the people they truly are.  King’s dream comes to fruition only when we neither ignore nor overinflate the importance of social identities in how we engage differences, whether in neighborhoods or schools, businesses or government agencies.

Getting to King’s“content of their character” place requires more than just leveling some metaphorical playing field.  This place of clarity, in which people truly see one another for who they are, comes from being willing to engage—not avoid—our differences.  It comes from letting go of the mindless habit of looking for similarity and commonality, and cultivating the ability to open oneself up to looking for and learning from difference. This is the leadership charge we should hold before us as we memorialize Dr. King’s legacy.