How Good Leaders Fight Stupid Bias

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.

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2 Responses to “How Good Leaders Fight Stupid Bias”

  1. Miroslav Vojtek, Police Officer, Ret., NYPD says:

    I subscribe to Diversityinc and was reading about Dr Head\’s experiences at UCLA. Though I know racism and bigotry still exist I was appalled that this behavior was found to be acceptable at one of the most prestigious schools in our country.

    The reason I am writing to you is that I thought your comments about zero tolerance being a cop-out were the most insightful thoughts I have seen publicly stated in a long time.

    Zero tolerance is absolutely an abdication of responsibility by the leadership. Good leaders, whether military, corporate or academic must exercise judgement in deciding how to deal with the transgressions people will inevitably commit. In word or deed we have all done something thoughtless, insensitive, crass or just plain stupid. A good leader can discern what is appropriate correction.

    To be fair, as a society we need to elect officials that do not pass one size fits all (zero tolerance) laws as a knee jerk reaction to problems that need thoughtful problem solving. Mandatory sentencing laws come to mind. Too often politicians pander to our need for immediate repairs. Unfortunately many of our problems sneak up on us over many years.

    In Dr. Head’s case I suspect that if poor behavior occurs in a group, without fear of punishment, the leadership needs to be changed.

    • Martin says:

      Dear Miroslav,
      Thanks for your comment. We have to be more rigorous in identifying the leadership competencies needed (like responsbile decision-making under crisis) to create diverse and inclusive organizations and communities. A clearer idea of what we need leaders to do will help us to choose the better qualified leaders which, as you point out, is so crucial. I look forward to continuing dialogue!

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