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Lowering the Walls that Divide Us

By Leadership, Men's work, Racism, Uncategorized

Courtesy, Central Oregon Daily News

Two weeks ago,  I talked about my hometown of Bend, Oregon and the silent move over 1,000 families have taken to pull their kids out of schools and opt instead for homeschooling, as many of them don’t like what the schools are teaching when it comes to critical race theory, racism, or the unpleasant elements of U.S. history.

My plan to follow up that post with a how-to post changed when, last Sunday night, a young man from a nearby neighborhood walked into a Safeway with a shotgun and an assault-style rifle, shot a few rounds into the air, and then walked into the store and killed two people before taking his own life.  

Our town was rocked, as was I. At the time of the attack, a buddy was across the parking lot in a Whole Foods grocery store. His recounting of being on lockdown in the store for 90 minutes made the experience even more visceral, more real. 

The murderer’s online manifesto revealed a rageful, isolated, hopeless young man who consciously used the event to take his own life. He was in his early 20’s, and he was white. It’s not a coincidence that so, so many of the people committing mass murders in the U.S. are white men; over 80% of them are. 

It’s not like the struggle with identity or the depression and anger white men feel is new. It began during the financial crisis in 2007-08 when so many people suffered catastrophic financial losses in their savings. White men in particular felt like their shot at the American dream was lost, along with their savings. 

The crisis made the income gap between the richest and the poorest among us more real. For many, the crisis provoked a loss of confidence in our financial system, economy, and even the government. Social psychologists suggest that some white people weathered the blow worse than other groups because they sensed that their race gave them an advantage in our society. Their loss, some suggest, was harder due to a sense of entitlement. Whatever the reason, individually and as a group, we white men have been in trouble ever since.  

I won’t recite all the statistics, but on a per capita basis, we’re more likely to commit suicide or acts of violence—especially with assault-style rifles—than any other group in the U.S. We use more prescription drugs, and we are less likely to ask for help or seek therapy. 

We don’t know what the Bend murderer’s life was like, but it’s a good bet he didn’t have the level of mentoring or support he needed to cope with the stresses he felt. He may have had underlying mental health issues that weren’t treated or addressed, which also could have contributed to his death. 

In the hundreds of sessions I have conducted with the thousands of participants over the past 20+ years, I have noticed that many of the angriest white men I’ve worked with feel they’ve been labeled as “white” and that, to them, being white hasn’t felt like an advantage whatsoever. 

They hate the term “white men” because it represents a stereotype of a middle-class and up, suburban-raised, liberal arts-educated person who only had a job in high school so they could buy gas for the cars their parents lent or gave them. Meanwhile, the other group of white men—the ones who were not born into as much money or convenience as others—often worked to contribute to their families from an early age, or they wore hand-me-downs to save money, or their after-school social lives were limited because they worked five days a week after school.

And now, here I am, lecturing them on who does and does not have privilege, as if I know anything about what their lives were like. 

Often they don’t see or believe that racism, sexism, or homophobia is as real as people like me think it is, but they sit through the session, afraid to voice their skepticism or reveal their truth, as they risk being labeled, or worse, being told they discriminated against someone at work. 

So here we are: on opposite sides of a deep canyon created by economic hardship and disparity, and a different view of if it is caused by individual random acts or some larger system. Our ideological differences also keep us apart, even though many of those differences stem from a belief system we inherited because of where we were born and who we were born to.

 

Here’s one first step we can take to lower the walls of the canyon, whatever our position on these topics: we can work to suspend our moral outrage, the feelings that convey an “I’m right and you are wrong” message, even if we don’t say it. Our beliefs—whatever they are—don’t make us better than anyone else, so let’s stop acting like they do.  

We don’t need to get better at debating the issues. Debating more often than not turns into an argument about who is right and who is wrong, and right or wrong in this context doesn’t help.  Moral certainty in any of us —the belief that we are in the right and others are not—just deepens the canyon and makes bridging it almost impossible. 

The tragedy of the shooting in Bend isn’t just about guns or mental health or class; it is also about the ways we marginalize, demonize, and vilify people not just after they have committed a heinous act, but when they simply tell us they disagree or they don’t see it our way.

I LOVE being right. It makes me feel better to know I KNOW something. It alleviates some of my chronic self-doubt. But if I bring that righteousness to my relationships, it will lessen my connection with others instead of enriching it. 

We know the positive behaviors to embrace that can help whomever we are “in the canyon” with climb out; empathy, compassion, care, and the gift of listening. 

We will never know what would have happened if someone could have touched the heart of the man responsible for the murders in Bend with care, listening, and compassion. I hope people tried. I hope he wasn’t made to feel small or less-than because someone was more interested in telling him he was wrong than telling him they cared.

Caring about the outcome and deepening our connection with others instead of making someone feel less than—that will make it easier for both of us to climb out of the canyon, won’t it?

 

(This is part two of a three part series by Jim.)

Leading and Sponsoring the DEI&B Journey: Four Experiences That Help Leaders Get There

By Diversity, Leadership

“You’ve got my supportwhatever you need,” the CEO of the company proclaimed. That’s the sort of statement we would want to hear from a CEO—whatever the issueright?  

My heart sank; his newly appointed VP of Inclusion had just spent an hour taking the combined executive and senior management teams through her draft plan to advance the organization’s inclusion journey over the year. Her plan was impressive—it detailed how the company would form and charter employee resource groups, identify key performance indicators, and connect them to a thorough series of activities and events that would ensure that the company’s inclusion strategy would be woven into their existing overall objectives and plans. She spoke with grounded surety, beginning her presentation by saying, “What I am going to show you will only get better with your input. We need to create this plan together and there is no one way to get there. Each of useach of youneeds to play a visible and distinct role in where we are going, and it’s up to you to choose how you will do that.”  


So what was the problem?  It was the CEO’s “whatever you need” comment. The VP of inclusion had just said, “Each of you needs to play a visible and distinct role…” Too often, “whatever you need…” is code for “I’m not sure what my role should be, so just tell me.” 

C-suite players are sometimes unaware that their employees will scrutinize every action, word, and decision related to a company’s inclusion strategy. Seeing an executive support DEI&B is helpful, but not nearly as much as seeing them take a distinct, active role in leading the effort. When I heard CEOs make this kind of statement in the past, it usually meant that the person in the VP of Inclusion’s role would have to hold the CEO’s hands throughout the process, which is not ideal. 

The CEO’s posture here should feel familiar to many of you, especially if you are a member of the dominant or insider group. Like this CEO, we’re sensitive enough to know that when it comes to DEI&B, we need to work with our colleagues from under-represented groups, and not take over the effort. We are also aware enough to know that there are things we don’t don’t see or experience in our workday worlds that our colleagues from other groups do experience, so we assume a more passive posture, hoping that doing so sends the right message.  

Striking the right balance between naming and owning the organization’s commitment to DEI&B and lifting up and holding others accountable for their contribution to the effort can feel like threading a needle. When in doubt, choose ownership over “just tell me what to do…” 

Share your expectations for achieving diversity representation goals, for example. Even better,  re-formulate or expand your team in accordance with those goals, THEN invite others to do the same. More personally, accept the possibility that an element of unconscious bias may be at play in your thinking. When you discover those elements, talk about your discovery and what you will do about it.  

Leading and sponsoring DEI&B is a leadership competency unlike any other. Acquiring the skill requires learning from the following experiences:

  1. Discovering our own (unconscious) mindsets: Examining one’s own lived experience when it comes to the messaging, socialization, and conditioning with respect to race, gender, sexual orientation, age, class, and ability. Each of us inherits programming—the issue isn’t if we have it but how it impacts our credibility as leaders.
  2. Misstepping: A developmental step in learning this leadership skill requires doing it wrong before knowing how to do it right. Once we become aware of our mindsets, we must practice catching ourselves reacting to a situation based on our conditioning in ways that are counter to our espoused DEI&B values. This takes insight and courage.
  3. Owning and Recovering: Learning to name our missteps and take steps to recover from them.
  4. Noticing and Intervening when others make similar missteps.

Here’s the catch—you can’t learn from an experience you don’t have. Notice if you have a tendency to not engage in some DEI&B activities because you don’t want to misstep. Step IN: leading in DEI&B doesn’t mean you have to do it perfectly. You will misstep, but when you do, own it and keep going.  

We know how hard taking these sorts of risks can be, so we designed a special workshop on how to lead and sponsor DEI&B activities in your organizations. Our Leading and Sponsoring the DE&I Journey workshops—when delivered with teams of leaders all working in the same organization—can accelerate the experiential learning cycle and hyper-lift your organization’s engagement in the critical actions necessary to make the workplace an environment where everyone can thrive. 

Effective DEI&B leaders don’t wait to do it perfectly; they take action and course correct as they go, humbly making amends and repairs when needed. Instead of asking, “Tell me what to do,”  ask, “Do you have any feedback for me on my most recent DEI&B effort?”