Correlations are Not Enough: Does Diversity Really Work?

January 21st, 2018

I was reading a recent McKinsey white paper, Delivering through Diversity. The report builds on a widely read 2016 report, Why Diversity Matters, enlarging the company sample set, examining a broader range of financial outcome measures, and collecting more qualitative data. The critical takeaway from the most recent report is that it “reaffirms the global relevance of the correlation between diversity (defined here as a greater proportion of women and ethnically/culturally diverse individuals) in the leadership of large companies and financial outperformance.”[1] The authors are careful to point out the correlation is not causation. Their results, they note, cannot make the case definitively that having more women or people of color increases firm performance.

This is the persistent challenge in establishing the link between diversity and bottom line performance. So many variable affect financial performance that, in most cases, it is almost impossible to say that more social identity diversity—diversity by gender, or ethnicity—is better for firm performance. What we do know is that the kind of diversity associated with those identities makes a difference. Diversity of background, cognitive style, and experience enhances innovation, team performance and team management. However, these are not directly related to the holy grail of financial gain.

This research is valuable because it supports the well–established fact that diversity creates value. The issue is whether the indicator of female or person of color is what is providing that value.  It’s more likely that ways of thinking, problem solving, or incorporating unique personal and professional experiences is the critical resource. If that is true, it suggests a possible interesting paradox for recruiting people of these social identities. As populations of women and people of color become more a part of the fabric of an inclusive organizations, those same organizations may lose the value of that uniqueness over time as they continue to recruit women and people of color.

The idea is that organizations socialize those who enter into them. People who thrive in the organization do so because they adopt the norms and ways of thinking that are dominant in the organization. Those who do not adopt those norms are more likely to exit. That pattern would persist no matter the identity of the person. As organizations recruit more women and people of color, they will begin to lose the benefit of the deep diversity that the initially recruited women and people of color brought. It reminds me of the early experience of affirmative action. When I entered my affluent prep high school, I was an inner city black kid who entered into a different world. The setting was foreign and though the adjustment was often difficult, I was better and I think I made the institution better because I brought a radically different way of being to the school. Today, the black kids who enter are smart, but also better prepared to operate in the prep school environment. They are more affluent and more prepared to attend a prep school. The metrics have not changed: there is no difference between a black kid from my generation and a black kid from the present generation. But when it comes to deep level diversity, there is a world of difference.

The value of diversity comes from the capacity of the organization to invite and extract the uniqueness from individuals of diverse identities in the service of the mission of the organization. Inclusion and diversity can’t be only about identifying a static difference—say, women—and loading up on more women in the organization. That might make a difference in the short run. But in the long run, the differences that matter most will be those that invite people who challenge the organization’s regular way of operating. And if the organization is truly ready for these mavericks, that organization will thrive.

[1] From Hunt, Vivian, Sara Prince, Sundiatu Dixon-Fyle, and Lareina Yee. “Delivering through Diversity.” McKinsey & Company, 2018. p. 1.


Men, Women, Mindfulness

December 29th, 2017

I read an article on sexual misconduct  recently in which actor Minnie Driver offered a scathing critique of men—one man in particular, actor Matt Damon—who attempt to categorize  the different behaviors that constitute sexual abuse. In an interview with ABC News, Damon said alleged sexual misconduct by powerful men involved “a spectrum of behavior,” discussing his perception of the impact of various kinds of sexual transgressions. In her comments after that interview, Driver countered that whether the behavior was verbal taunting or casual touching or rape, men “simply cannot understand what abuse is like on a daily level” and therefore, should not attempt to differentiate or explain sexual misconduct against women.

I reacted as I read the article. Ok, I copped an attitude. What was Driver talking about? As a man, I agree I can’t understand the experience of being the target of constant sexual abuse the way women are in a heteronormative environment. But I sure as hell can comment on it and analyze the phenomenon. Indeed, I have a responsibility to engage this way if I am serious about trying to change the toxic status quo. She was straight up wrong, I concluded. Oh, and the article noted that she used to date Damon. Ah, that’s part of what motivated this whole thing, I surmised. She didn’t like her ex commenting on this. I wondered if this was a veiled attack on him. Bad relationships can lead people to be bitter toward one another.

There was quite a show going on in my head.

Then a funny thing happened. While I was being outraged and sanctimonious and sexist, I was simultaneously watching myself be outraged and sanctimonious and sexist. I was aware that I was having this string of reactions. I was being mindful. In a nutshell, mindfulness is the practice of bringing awareness to 1) what you’re directly experiencing via your senses, or 2) your state of mind via your thoughts and emotions. It can sound esoteric, but it is actually important in very practical ways. A growing body of research points to a variety of physical, emotional, and psychological benefits to cultivating a practice of mindfulness. In her article “Can we Talk?,” my Darden colleague, Lili Powell writes about how to use mindfulness practices to enhance one’s ability to have crucial conversations.

Far too little attention has been paid to how mindfulness can be an asset in working amidst difference. What I discovered with my Minnie Driver extravaganza was that because I was aware of my reactions, I was able to 1) reflect on and analyze those reactions, 2) learn from them, and 3) change my behavior (instead of stewing in front of a computer screen, I shared my thoughts with friends and eventually I crafted this post)!

In an interview with philanthropist and wellness advocate Sonia Jones, I talked about how mindfulness can be instrumental in creating generative outcomes to intractable diversity conflicts. But, getting through conflict is just the tip of the iceberg when we reflect on the potential for living and working with those who are different from us.  Mindfulness can be a powerful tool for leveraging difference, helping us connect with one another to get real work done well.

I really want to explore this more.

Why Black Professionals Need to Learn to Drive a Stick Shift

December 18th, 2017

Maybe it’s because I’m sitting in my local auto repair/dealer lobby waiting for my oil change. I woke up this morning with a metaphor when I reflected on the advancement of black professionals in corporations. The more I read and learn about stereotype threat, the more I liken it to sitting in a running car, your feet poised to make that sucker go.

To understand the analogy, you need to know that there are two kinds of transmissions that make cars go—automatic and manual. The more familiar of the two these days is the automatic transmission where you move the drive stick from Park (P) to Drive (D). Then you place your right foot on the accelerator and off you go. In addition to (D), automatic transmissions have two or three lower gears that are used when you want to slow the car. If you try to drive at high speeds in a lower gear, you use up lots of gas and potentially wear down your engine. Simple enough.

Progressing through a corporate career is like driving the car. Putting the stick in the right gear is akin to developing oneself and building one’s skill set. Pressing the accelerator is effectively performing. If you perform, your car(eer) moves forward (corny, I know, but you get the point). However, a significant body of research tells us that the process of career advancement is more nuanced for black professionals. A variety of barriers—discriminatory practices, racism, internalized dysfunctional behaviors—interrupt the natural progression for otherwise highly talented black professionals. One such barrier, stereotype threat, is the psychological experience that materializes when negative stereotypes are present regarding a specific group. When stereotype threat kicks in, a member of that group is likely to become anxious about her or his performance, which in turn, may hinder optimal performance on a task. This probably occurs because working memory is compromised so the individual just can’t process thoughts as efficiently. Interestingly, the individual need not subscribe to the particular negative stereotype to be vulnerable to stereotype threat. So for example, if a pervasive stereotype about blacks is that they are less intelligent, tasks that highlight the importance of intelligence are likely to trigger the stereotype and hinder a black person from performing well on the task.

What does this mean for how black professionals move through their careers? Imagine that normal career progression is driving an automatic transmission car in (D) and zipping along. Stereotype threat abruptly downshifts the car to first or second gear. If I want to combat stereotype threat and maintain my speed, I have to use a lot more fuel, and incur much more wear and tear on my engine over time. The life of so many black professionals in corporations is precisely this. They constantly exert greater effort than white counterparts do because they have to manage stereotype threat while also preforming the work at hand. They experience physical and emotional stress and when all is said and done, they typically cannot progress to the levels commensurate with their talent. They depart their careers feelings of resentful and carrying a sense of diminished self-esteem that can haunt them for the rest of their lives.

If this analogy holds, though, how do we understand the many black professionals who are wildly successful in spite of the stereotype threat they face?

They learn drive a stick shift.

Although most cars today are automatic transmission cars, there was a time when manual transmission or “stick shifts” dominated the highways. With these cars, the driver manipulates the drive stick. However, in order to make the car move forward the driver has to manage two pedals—an accelerator and a clutch. The right foot occupies the accelerator, but the left foot must deftly press and release the clutch, pressing it all the way down when the car is at a stop and slowly releasing it while the right presses the accelerator simultaneously. As the speed of the car increases, the driver manually shifts the stick to higher gears. When the coordination between clutch movement, accelerator pedal movement and stick shifting is off the car usually stalls, and goes nowhere. When the synchronization is right, the car zips along.

Successful black professionals manage their careers like mindful and skillful drivers handling a stick shift. They learn to use the clutch to release the pressure of stereotype threat, simultaneously pressing the accelerator to move their career forward. Absent the distraction of stereotype threat, they are able to make career decisions (like choosing or refusing stretch assignments) strategically. Put another way, they shift gears at the right time to make sure the car doesn’t stall.

Careers develop in an organizational landscape. Successful professionals possess talent—that is a given. But successful careers are crafted and navigated through, with attention paid to developing strategically important relationships, managing politics, and learning continuously. It is incredibly difficult to attend to these career demands while also worrying about the ways in which stereotypes attributed to you by virtue of group membership might be shackling you. Successful black professionals learn to free themselves of these shackles by utilizing a different kind of transmission, one that makes visible the tools needed to overcome limiting ways of operating. Automatic transmissions are convenient and elegant, but their automaticity makes it difficult to alter dysfunction: it costs an awful lot to fix an automatic transmission. Manual transmissions, on the other hand, reveal more clearly the inner workings of driving.  It’s easier to feel the car, to know when it’s running smoothly or when the engine is stressed. And it is easier to adjust when dysfunction emerges. Successful black professionals thrive because they are masterful drivers who choose the right kind of transmission.

The Good New Song—Tradition Gently Reinforces Racism at UVA

August 22nd, 2017

At UVA, “The Good Ole Song” is a stealth weapon. We need a new song.

That good old song of Wah-hoo-wah—we’ll sing it o’er and o’er
It cheers our hearts and warms our blood to hear them shout and roar
We come from old Virginia, where all is bright and gay
Let’s all join hands and give a yell for the dear old UVA.

Lyrics to ” The Good Ole Song” the defacto alma mater song of UVA

It’s a heart-warming tradition for many members of the University of Virginia community attending school events to congregate, grab the shoulders of the person next to her or him and sing the “Good Ole Song.” Set to the tune of Auld Lang Syne, singing the song was a comforting ritual at the Taking Back the Lawn Vigil held on the Lawn of the University last week. Thousands from the University and Charlottesville gathered as a way of countering the violent presence of the white supremacist groups that invaded the University grounds on August 11 and 12. I was not at the vigil and so I am certain that the power of the being there was even greater than that which I experienced as an observer. But I watched lots of video and every time I heard the Good Ole Song, I cringed.

It’s not that it’s a bad tune. The problem is that it’s also a stealth weapon. In the aftermath of the violence that left three people dead in Charlottesville, alumnae Jia Tolentino opined in her The New Yorker Magazine column that idyllic Southern liberal Charlottesville and UVA were prime targets for a white supremacist outburst. On the surface, it’s obvious: find the blue oasis in a predominantly right leaning state (only Northern Virginia and Charlottesville-Albemarle County prevent Virginia from being an overwhelmingly conservative voting bloc), add a controversy about removing the traditional Robert E. Lee monument and voila! That oasis becomes the proof of concept for how the extreme right wing, white supremacist movement can overcome the libs. Tolentino argues, however, that Charlottesville was also attractive because its pristine veneer concealed a tradition of racism and bigotry stretching back many decades. Gentility and political correctness simply concealed–and stoked–the growing white discontent that spawned the racist-fueled demonstration and violence.

As heartwarming as it may be for many, the Good Ole Song illustrates the dilemma posed by looking to the past for comfort and cohesion while living in the present in a new—and much more diverse—community. I think I cringed at the song because I don’t “…come from old Virginia,” and as I see it, all is far from “bright and gay.” People studying and working at UVA come from all over the U.S., and from around the globe. We’re not from old Virginia. Moreover, both the violence last weekend and the broader historical record of racial injustice in Charlottesville and Virginia demonstrate that there is significant racial and cultural discord here. Don’t get me wrong, this is a thoroughly beautiful place, with stunning land and extraordinarily warm, thoughtful, and resilient people. But niceness need not diminish the capacity to acknowledge suffering in a community. And in the work I have undertaken on leveraging difference and weirdness, oblivious contentment and deep suffering frequently co-exist.

Creating a truly diverse and inclusive community requires the willingness and discipline to see the differences that matter in that community and to engage when those differences create tension and discord.  Pretending that we are all feel as happy and harmonious as the most content among us can alienate and marginalize and people who, by virtue of their difference, live an oppressive reality in that community. Excessive nicety in the service of avoiding facing the realities of social injustice is  morally and ethically wrong. Most of us—myself included—do it.  But such nicety also poses a very pragmatic problem. Avoiding disengagement makes a community vulnerable in exactly the way Charlottesville became vulnerable to white supremacist violence.

Many of the white supremacists came to Charlottesville to “take back” a fantasy. They were obsessed with a time and a place in which white people were the only people that mattered and the thought of having to co-exist with Jews and blacks and immigrants was an abomination. The veneer of places like Charlottesville created structure and practices like segregation that fueled that fantasy. Symbols of white maleness—those confederate statues—became tangible reminders that white people were all that mattered in these diverse communities. But this fantasy makes the dominant white group myopic and fragile. White people have never been alone. They have always lived side by side with communities of people who were different from them by race, culture, and history.  Often, those communities were oppressed and disempowered as a result of actions undertaken in the name of whiteness. When empowered citizens of color spoke up and questioned the status quo, the fragile fringes of the white community—white supremacists–experienced those new voices as weapons assaulting their very existence.

It doesn’t have to be this way. If communities are willing to shake off habits of avoidance and authentically engage in inclusive practices, they become more resilient. Personal and collective wounds can be healed through dialogue, reconciliation, and actions that make amends for wrongdoing.

At UVA, we need a new song. It should be one that acknowledges the past and present experiences of diverse community members. It should support and encourage us to be in communication, to use our voices to learn with one another. It should buck us up so that when we enter into conflict—whether minor disagreements or deep-seated struggles—we are skillful, courageous and compassionate toward our fellow community members. The Good Ole Song can’t serve this purpose because it was not written for me, nor was it written for the women of UVA. Nor the people of color at UVA.  Nor the people at UVA from countries around the world. Nor the LGBTQ community (as evidenced by the homophobic “not gay” chants that have been shouted at sporting events). None of this makes the song bad. It’s simply no longer adequate. We need another song.

Obama was Right about Christianity

February 8th, 2015

Jay Michaelson’s Breaking Down President Obama’s Point About Christian Crusades and Islamic Extremism does a nice job of providing historical information that fleshes out the facts of how Christianity has been used to justify extreme violence and oppression. A hullabaloo arose because the President juxtaposed Christian and Islamic extremism against one another, urging U.S. Christians to practice humility when analyzing and acting against brutal violence perpetrated by Islamic extremists like ISIL. Critics raged against the President because they believed he dared place Christianity and Islamic extremism in the same universe of phenomenon.

The criticism is messed up. First, there the reaction stems from a false analogy. When critics slam the President they are arguing implicitly that he was equating the entire breadth of Christian experience with an extreme group of Muslims. He was not, and he said as much. But the reaction—grounded in muddled reasoning—persists nonetheless. Arguments continue to be posited that the Crusades and the Inquisition happened centuries ago. Of course they did. And that is not germane to the President’s point. His remarks simply acknowledge that the diversity of Christian history and practice includes extreme violence and that Christians cannot disconnect themselves from that reality. By the way, Christian extremism is not dead. White supremacist groups that privilege Christianity over all other religions and racial groups still exist all over the world.

But is my  big insight: critics are reacting to the comments because they seem to believe that a call for humility and perspective somehow diminishes the ability to hold Islamic extremists accountable for their brutal violence. It’s as though we must have some perfect lily-white moral platform from which to blast ISIL else we lose the moral justification to condemn the violence.

In fact, being clear and truthful about the historical reality of one’s religion positions that person to take more decisive and wise action to end violence in the name of that religion. Self-righteous outrage is not a prerequisite for moral action. It’s OK to understand that Christian religious tradition includes and sometimes condones extreme violence. What better way to motivate good Christians to persist in cleaning their own houses? Self-righteous indignation is at the heart of rash and frequently stupid reactions. It is rooted in the need to do whatever it takes to make you and your group, community, or nation look and feel virtuous. It weakens our reasoning, prompting us to stereotype and group anyone who even resembles the perpetrators as guilty (e.g., bigotry toward all Muslims).

Michaelson gives us some facts in his post. What we do with them speaks more to our real virtue than sound bytes of indignation.

How Men Create their Own Safe Ports

September 17th, 2013

Male-only spaces can foster candor and emotional honesty.

My first blog post on this topic, In Search of a Safe Port, about where and how men could do their best gender work has stimulated a lot of discussion and reflection. I asserted that men can’t fully build their gender awareness and skill by learning and working in contexts in which women set the norms for the work. For example, I wondered if an organization like Catalyst could effectively foster the dialogue and learning about gender that men need to undertake.

My experiences in the past month have reinforced my belief that while some gender work for men and women must be done in partnership, men also need their own “safe ports,” male led and male. These are places where they can have open, frank conversations in which they express themselves with candor and emotional honesty.

Last week, I worked with a group of men and women on gender in organizations. My colleagues and I split the room into all male and all female groups and let those same-sex groups talk together for a period of time before reconvening the groups for a plenary conversation. In facilitating the men’s conversation, the toughest moments came when some men talked about how they believed women intentionally manipulated men and that women really had no legitimate gender grievances. In fact, they argued, women were the ones who had the upper hand. These sexist perspectives, we later learned, mostly flowed from their personal experiences of injury in interactions and relationships with women. But as I cringed at some of the attitudes expressed, I realized two things. First, these men needed to express themselves in a gathering of men coming together to intentionally address gender (as opposed to talking off-handedly in a bar or at a gym). These sexist views did not need to be censored, but rather expressed and, hopefully, influenced to change.

Second, these men would never have spoken these perspectives if they had not been in a men’s safe space. As one man said, “We censor ourselves around women. It’s not that they are doing anything to us to make us clam up. We just won’t say these things when they are around because we don’t want to be seen as bad guys. But this stuff really is part of how we feel.”

Men’s space is important for another reason. Women’s presence in gender conversations often feels dangerous to men. In the situation I was in last week, some women would—justifiably—have been enraged by what those men said. Men’s sexist perspectives actively injure women on a day-by-day and minute-by-minute basis. That is the reality of gender oppression in our society. But this justifiable outrage does not diminish the value of men being able to express their perspectives. This opportunity for men to speak their truths and be constructively challenged is a valuable method for creating change.

I offer these observations as an entrée into my modest attempts to respond to the two questions I posed in my last post:

1) Where can men do their gender-focused work?
2) What, exactly, is men-focused gender work, as distinct from woman-centered gender work?

I think the right spaces for men to do the best gender work will have the following characteristics:

  • Men can have the opportunity to interact only with other men.
  • These interactions are initiated and owned by men.
  • Men have the opportunity to interact in mixed-sex groups with both men and women. These interactions may be sponsored by men or women AFTER the men have had their own space.
  • Men are explicitly invited to explore what gender would mean if we were not talking about women at all.

All of these conversations include men who can ably facilitate learning productive ways for men to manage their identities and their relationships with women: These facilitators are self-aware and conversant about their experiences as men. And they have highly effective personal and professional relationships with women.

These two blog posts were stimulated by my simple insight that equality between men and women comes from empowering men and women. This empowerment means supporting them to speak their truths and thereby engage with others who may live different—even seemingly opposing—truths. My experience in my visit to Catalyst was one in which I did not feel fully empowered. It was not Catalyst’s fault. It was just that I needed—and I believe many men need—a different point of departure for their learning and development as men.

This post originally appeared on the MARC (Men Advocating Real Change) website, May 23, 2013.

Trayvon and Zimmerman—What it Means to Be a Man

July 26th, 2013

Expressing our masculinity without violence.

I’ve had difficulty reflecting on the Trayvon Martin tragedy and the outcome of the George Zimmerman trial. I realized that part of it was the result of being stunned by a verdict that seems so wrong. Part of my difficulty was in making sense of the complexity of this situation. Some people are seeing it as a case of racial injustice and profiling of African American Trayvon and the wannabe cop who was white… sort of (Zimmerman is of Peruvian descent and was classified as White Hispanic). Others see it as a gun law issue, a support (or indictment) of Stand Your Ground laws in Florida.

But as I keep looking into this tragedy, I am struck by the masculinity of it all. I’m struck by the ways in which problematic ideals of what it means to be a man likely played out in devastating ways. I see Zimmerman trying to be a man and protector, donning the identity and the weaponry of law enforcement. But he was play acting. There is limited evidence that he was trained rigorously in law enforcement and he was explicitly advised not to act out the role of the cop-protector in the heat of the incident. Yet, he had to be a man and confront Martin.

And Trayvon, probably rightly in fear of personal harm, no doubt attempted to stand his ground and defend himself. I would argue that he was playing the role of a man (young though he may have been) who doesn’t cower when confronted by a bully. Part of that impulse to not be bullied is about being black—I get that deeply as a black person. But racial dignity asserts itself in a variety ways, many of which are not about violent action. I think Dr. King taught us something about that.

Look, I wasn’t there and no matter what I think, if I were in that situation, I don’t know what I would have done. I’m just asking the question of what might have been different about that night—and about the dialogue that has followed these many months since—if we had a different collective idea of what it means to be a man. I wonder what would have happened if the broader deeper definitions of being a man were ingrained in our culture. What if being a man also meant:

  • Avoiding violent confrontation above all else, if at all possible.
  • Questioning your assumptions about the other men you encountered.
  • Accepting help as a virtue, not a sign of weakness.
  • Seeing retreat as a honorable option.

We can’t turn this clock back, sadly. But we can continue to work on helping broaden what it means to act like—and to be—a man.

[This blog was first posted on the MARC (Men Advocating Real Change) on Jul 18, 2013 12:30 PM EDT. Comment here or read additional perspectives and comments on]

In Search of a Safe Port

June 3rd, 2013

This blog was first featured on the MARC (Men Advocating Real Change) web site, April 2, 2013.

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to visit Catalyst in New York for the first time and when I left town, I was struck by a paradox: I don’t think men can explore and understand gender and inclusion as long as they are doing it with women.

The occasion for my visit was a great Men Advocating Real Change (MARC) Thought Leader “Meetup” with Mike, Jeanine, fellow blogger Lars Einar Engstrom, and several other MARC partners and diversity leaders. We had a great conversation, touching on many topics, but I left consumed by an unsettling feeling. As I sat there at Catalyst HQ, seeing the many talented people (mostly women) working on critically important issues concerning women and work, I thought to myself “this is not the right place for me.” It wasn’t that there was anything wrong with Catalyst. It’s a beautiful facility with a wonderful vibrancy and buzz about it. The people were terrific and I felt well-taken care of.

But it was not a men’s place. I felt most welcome, but I did not belong there. In retrospect, this was an important observation. I believe that the most critical work men must do in order further gender inclusion requires us to delve deeply into our experiences, attitudes, and behaviors as men. That kind of exploration requires a safe port and it is very difficult for women to provide that port when it comes to gender.

I attended the Work and Gender Conference held at Harvard later that week. It was a fantastic event; lots of smart, interesting people coming together to talk about changing for the better women’s experiences at work. But what was striking was that there were few men in attendance and there was no substantive conversation about men in the workplace.

I have to pause to be clear about something. I do not raise this point from the perspective I’ve seen some men do so. Some guys rail against woman-centered activities and organizations out of insecurity and threat. They feel uneasiness about how they as men are being affected by these women-focused activities.

My point is different. I was honored to be present at that conference and to be present at Catalyst. I fully and unequivocally support these organizations and events. They are the most important places a person can be if she or he wants to engage with women-focused gender work.

I am noting, simply, that these are not always the best venues to engage men-focused gender work. Although men can’t fully develop their skill in gender inclusivity without women, they are held back in their development by abdicating the responsibility to learn about gender to women. Men all too often wait for women to set the context and conversation for gender learning. That will never serve to empower men to fully join in co-creating organizations that truly value the gender identities and experiences of the people in them. If this is true, the obvious next questions are:

1.  Where can me do their gender-focused work?

2. What, exactly, is men-focused gender work, as distinct from women-centered gender work?

I have some thoughts to share in my next blog post, but what do you think?

The Virtue of Being Offensive: How Straight People Can Support LGBT Colleagues

March 5th, 2013

A couple of weeks ago, I decided to give a talk on the importance of being offensive (or at least risking being offensive). The occasion was a celebration of Love is Love 2013 Campaign, an annual event at Darden and the University of Virginia focused on promoting inclusion of the LGBT community in the workplace and in the Darden community. My remarks were part of a daily Darden ritual, “First Coffee,” where the community gathers to take a break between classes, connect over coffee or tea, and sometimes mark important events like Love is Love.

Talking about being offensive was strange in this context. Here I was, a heterosexual man, addressing an event with community members of diverse sexual orientations and embarking on a topic that is charged. LGBT members of society are routinely confronted with offensive words and behaviors and, at first glance, my message should have been about ways to diminish those affronts.

But I also think it’s useful to look more deeply at the challenges I see in my consulting, teaching, and research when it comes to the diversity of sexual orientations and identities in our communities. Often, we are so concerned about not risking offending one another that we walk on eggshells. Our goal is to be conscientious and committed advocates for equality and justice for people of all sexual orientations and identities. But my experience is that being overly careful is one of the things that undermines that goal.

I know that I often walk on eggshells with my colleagues and friends of different sexual orientations, especially my gay and lesbian friends. Upon deeper reflection, I‘m learning about why I do. To be honest, I’m often scared and anxious. My anxieties when it comes to sexual orientation include:

  • My worry that I will say something offensive when it comes to sexual orientation—that people will label me as clueless or as a homophobe and that will make me look like bad person.
  • My worry that if I am too strong an advocate people will utter under their breath “I’ll bet he’s really gay,” which freaks me out. Despite my ongoing work in diversity, I still internalize the fear of being seen as gay which somehow equates in my mind to being less of a man. It also feels threatening because I imagine the ways my life and relationships would change if people thought I was gay.
  • I worry that sometimes if I am too strident and too sympathetic, maybe that means that deep down, I might really be gay (see bullet point 2, only bigger)!

The results of these anxieties make me frequently hold me back and keep me from doing what I believe is the right thing to say or do.

So I try three practices that help me overcome:

  • Adopt a learning attitude—I work to remain as open as possible to new information and perspectives. It can help to adopt at attitude of curiosity and to ask questions. One of my most powerful experiences in learning about sexual orientation happened when a friend who lived in Provincetown, MA invited me to visit. “P-town” is a predominantly gay community and I got to feel what it was like to be in an environment where being heterosexual was not a given.
  • Separate intent from impact—This means realizing that even though my words or actions may not be in intended to be harmful or offensive, they can nonetheless be experienced by my audience that way. Separating the two—intent and impact—is important because it helps prevent me from getting defensive when I make a mistake. And if I am not defensive, it is easier to understand why my action was hurtful and to discover other ways to express my sentiment.
  • Practice everyday courage—Just keep being aware and practicing saying when you see or feel that a comment or interaction provides an opportunity to learn. If you see something that is wrong or harmful, try to bring it up in the moment. Usually that can be tough since problematic moments often take us by surprise. But that’s OK. It’s never too late to be courageous. I have often come back a few minutes or a few days later and said “I don’t know if you remember when you said… but after thinking about it, I realized that bothered me. Can we talk about it?…” By the way, I call this “everyday courage” because it helps to remember that this doesn’t have to be a big deal. And if you miss an opportunity today, work on trying it the next time. What is most important is that you keep trying.

I’m not advocating going out of your way to be offensive or obnoxious. Rather, I’m saying that we make progress in overcoming bias—overt and subtle—when we are able to engage, not avoid. That approach has really helped me on my journey to being a better ally for LGBT colleagues.

You Can’t Win with a Room Full of Just White People

November 8th, 2012

As I watched the election returns Tuesday night, I was struck by the “optics” as the networks panned the Obama and Romney headquarters gatherings. These were large spaces—convention centers in Chicago and Boston—where supporters gathered to monitor the progress of the election and to cheer and/or lament the proceedings. I was not wearing my glasses, so I could not easily read the smaller captions signifying the location of the scene. Instead, I monitored the results on my iPad. I also turned down the sound down because the announcers and pundits annoyed me.

The funny thing is I noticed that I did not need captions or sounds to know which headquarters I was watching. This was not because the election seemed to trend in favor of the President; early in the evening, it was still quite a horse race and crowds in both camps were anxious and excited.

Rather, I could tell which room was being shown because I looked at the proportion of white people in the room. The Romney room was almost completely white. As the camera panned the room, there were more and more, well, white people. In contrast, no camera could pan the Obama crowd very long without coming across the face of a person of color.  That is how I knew what I was watching.

This experience reinforced my assessment that no candidate will win a presidential election in this country again if her or his headquarters room on election night is that white.

Analysts have speculated on the myriad of elements that led to the outcome of the election.  But one clear factor in play was the ability of Obama to mobilize communities of color to vote for him. The exit poll statistics are stark. Consider that 72% of voters this year were white, 28 % people of color.[i]  Of that 28%, Obama won 80% of their votes.[ii] Overall:

  • 59% of white people voted for Romney in contrast to 39% for Obama, however…
  • 71% of Hispanics voted for Obama (27% for Romney)
  • 73% of Asians to Obama (26% for Romney)
  • 93% of Blacks for Obama (6% for Romney) [iii]

Blacks matched their record turnout of four years ago, while Hispanic and Asian turnout increased. All gave their votes to President Obama by record margins.

Several people have suggested that somehow, Obama’s appeal to people of color is very much a result of being a man of color himself. For example, in the last weeks of the campaign, various commentators debated whether blacks were voting for Obama because he was black.

Well, surprise.  Of course lots of black people voted for Obama because he was black. I certainly did. But that is not the only reason I voted for him. The fact that voters prefer leaders who they see as similar to themselves is not earth shattering—we all tend to do that. But that preference does not eliminate one’s ability to analyze the leader’s position. Nor does it prevent one from analyzing the alternatives to that leader.

This is where Romney failed. Had he been a more compelling option for people of color, he could have eroded some of the support Obama garnered in this election. No, he couldn’t change the color of his skin.  And I probably would not, at first glance, be attracted to his candidacy as much as to Obama’s. But I see myself as thoughtful and reflective. I most certainly could have been persuaded by an enlightened, cross-culturally adept candidate who took seriously my interests as a black constituent, even if he was white and Mormon. I don’t know if he could have won my vote, but he could have won my attention.

Romney lost voters of color—and the election—not only because these voters were drawn to Obama. He lost because many fled from him. I reject the notion that an older privileged white person can’t win over constituents of color. But if that white person is serious about winning those constituents, he or she had better develop skill and insight about difference, in particular cultural and racial difference. Otherwise, that white person cannot be a compelling and credible option for those constituents.

How does an aspiring candidate gain that skill and insight? Here are some tips for future Republicans, Democrats (I don’t believe this is wholly a partisan thing), and leaders of diverse communities in any walk of life:

1.  Don’t think you can win and lead by pandering superficially to people who are not white. That won’t fill your headquarters ballroom with the winning combination of folks.

2.  Rather, build a diverse coalition around you. Make sure your advisors are diverse, and that they are connected to diverse networks of constituents.

3.  To be able to do this, you must do your own homework. You must develop your personal competence in navigating diverse communities so that you can be seen as a credible representative for people who are different from you.

By the way, this analysis applies not only to white candidates. The same strategy for success must be executed by whoever aspires to lead this country from this point forward. Now more than ever, competence in embracing and leveraging difference is mandatory.

But only if you want to win.