“No matter your racial, political or other identity, the civil unrest in response to the killing of George Floyd is almost impossible to escape. In particular, millions of Black people and their allies are hurting. And these issues are not ones that organizations or their leaders — from CEOs at the top of the hierarchy to team managers on the frontline — can ignore.”1 So write Darden Professor Laura Morgan Roberts and Georgetown McDonough Professor Ella F. Washington in a recent Harvard Business Review article.
In fact, recent events have moved diversity and inclusion conversations from the issue of marginalization in the workplace to much bigger debate around the deep and enduring stain of racism in America. This moment calls for us to acknowledge that systemic racism is not just an artifact of past, but it permeates the present. Moreover, racism doesn’t just play out in the streets with threats of violence and videos of police brutality. Racism in overt and subtle forms also shows up in workplaces. Acknowledging the permeance of racism pushes many people out of their comfort zone at work. Still, as Professors Roberts and Washington write, “racism isn’t just Black people’s problem. It is everyone’s problem because it erodes the fabric of society. Leaders at every level must use their power, platforms and resources to help their employees and communities overcome these challenges and build a better world for us all.”2
After many C-suite social media posts and internal communications pledging solidarity with Black workers and commitment to anti-racist initiatives, the question on everyone’s minds is “What now?” We offer three zones of action — Head, Heart and Hands — that you can engage as you pursue your next steps toward promoting racial equity and inclusion.
This is a critical moment for committing to lead change, and the best place to start is with initiating or escalating your process of lifelong learning about the ways race has fundamentally shaped our economy, and how racial inclusion and demonstrations have advanced democracy in U.S. workplaces. Now is the time to step outside of your personal experiences and examine the broader context, in which race, gender and social class are interrelated. Instead of presuming that all members of your in-group or out-group think and feel similarly about race (e.g., referring to what “everybody knows,” how “all of us feel” and what “none of us would ever do”), leave room for dissenting points of view. When in doubt, share your concerns, and invite employees to talk about their individual experiences in ways that honor their uniqueness. Think about how you can allow your employees to discuss what’s happening without putting them on the spot or asking them to speak for everyone in their identity group. This means being open to learn from them when they are willing to share, and being open to consult other publicly available resources to enrich your understanding.
Feeding your intellect is necessary but not sufficient for moving forward. As you engage your heart, you affirm your Black and brown colleagues’ and clients’ right to personhood. You practice affirmation during your heartfelt embrace of someone else’s truth — being able to sit and listen without becoming defensive. Courage is also part of your heart-work: letting go of the fear of talking about race and instead gaining the skills to have difficult conversations about differences. None of us are perfect, and we all have work to do, so it takes courage to do that work. Defensive reactions do not allow for constructive engagement. Instead, they make members of targeted groups feel even more alienated. So don’t take personally any comments regarding systemic inequalities — they generally aren’t intended to be attacks.
There are a range of actions that you can pursue using your creative and courageous handiwork, such as investing in racial justice initiatives, divesting from companies that don’t actively promote racial justice and forging partnerships with stakeholders who hold these same values. You can begin to remedy the underrepresentation of nonwhite leaders by re-examining your hiring and promotion practices, and identifying biases that often undermine diversity. Managers can advocate for Black employees in matters of racial injustice. Managers can also seek out talented employees of color and bet on their potential — engaging them and investing in their success. Organization-wide initiatives should be aligned with established goals: setting targets that align with firm strategy and values and monitoring progress through collecting data systematically.
An Evolved Understanding
The head, heart and hands framework points the way toward an evolved understanding of corporate leadership. The convergence of racism, economic downturns and public health crises reflect “wicked problems,” with interconnections between many complex systems fraught with inequality. If the assumption is that leaders have been deemed leaders because they have all the answers, then we are stuck. The current moment may give rise to a take on 21st century leadership — people who are experts in learning, embodying humility and wisdom to be able to listen and learn, and practicing courage to hold themselves and organizations accountable.