We have to work on line: “Don’t they get it?!”

March 27, 2020 Leave a comment

Much of what I do as a mediator, consultant, trainer, and facilitator involves conflict resolution, leadership training, and organizational development.  At the core of my work lies addressing the issues of racial justice, white supremacy in the context of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives.  A number of employers – both for profit and non-profit as well as and educational institutions – have begun this work in earnest. They are taking steps to face the presence and impact of these issues on their staff, faculty, students, client base, and their surrounding communities.

I am pleased to be supporting a number of organizations that are taking this racial justice and equity work very much to heart.  The hard work and painstaking efforts can be gratifying when we see changes on the other side of it all.  Finding answers to the questions: “Where are we now? Where do we want to be? How do we get there?” is a journey as individualized as each organization involved. More and more groups are diving in with courage and, in some cases, with trepidation as they acknowledge the need for and benefit of doing this work. 

Now, with the COVID-19 pandemic upon us, through municipal and state mandates and, in many cases, self-imposed efforts, organizations have wisely begun to move their core work on-line as much as possible.  This has required herculean efforts since so much community work, education, and even business initiatives, are best accomplished face-to-face. Most employers, large and small, are making every effort to sustain their employees through this crisis. Even our federal government is making some efforts. (Although, I have little faith in this administration; two trillion dollars is still going to wind up in the hands of the corporations and very rich people in this country.) 

Many employers who have seen the need and started racial justice and diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives, have decided to put these activities “on hold” until they figure out just how to sustain their core output efforts on-line during this sensitive time.  All have the sincere intent of restarting these racial justice and DEI initiatives once “things are getting back to normal.” On the surface this seems like a prudent, cautious approach.  First, make sure you can deliver what is at the core of your mission; then, you attend to the little things that have been getting in the way.

While this cautious approach seems reasonable, there are aspects of it that leaders of these impacted organizations need to keep in mind. And it is to you that I speak directly now.

First, the efforts you have made to address issues of inequity and social justice were made for a reason.  Now that you are taking action to change and correct the environment and functionality of your organization and its leaders and maximize the contributions of your employees, students, or colleagues, you are expected to sustain the positive changes and continue to grow them, even in tough times.  And none of your people want to see your efforts stall.

Second, maintaining emphasis on your core mission is important and your efforts to address inequities are for valid reasons. If everything is “put on hold” during this critical time, the cultural issues, leadership practices, and personal biases that created the need for racial justice work in the first place will still be in place. Our emotional traps, as described by Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler, tend to kick in. Our knee-jerk responses are those immediate responses we know happen and we don’t mind doing them.  We often find these responses to be “just who we are” or how we respond. We often see no reason to change our behavior or apologize for its impact. Then, we sometimes have the emotion of the “lurking response” or the things we really try hard to suppress because they raise feelings or actions we are not proud of. Finally, there are those responses we don’t even notice or know are present. These are often rooted in our unconscious biases. These are the values and behaviors we have learned through our cultural upbringing or through our social conditioning. They are often some of the things addressed in the racial and social justice work embedded in these DEI initiatives.

While the occasional on-line meeting is nothing new to most people, full-time leadership practices via Zoom, Skype, or any of the other video apps are a relatively new practice and require skill development for most of us. In trying times like these, we often “go with what we know” since we think that’s what got us here to our successful space in the first place. As a result, we do what we’ve always done and multiply our efforts since we are no longer able to be physically present. This means we also multiply the impact of our unrecognized or unacknowledged behaviors. 

During a time when corrective initiatives are “on hold” there is a real chance that our behaviors can have an even more detrimental impact and, instead of just holding ground until the corrective initiatives are begun again, we can lose ground to the multiplied behaviors.  So, what can we do in the meantime?

Do……something……different!   

  • First, be quick with the praise. Seek a reason to offer genuine praise to each individual and to each work group. 
  • Second, breathe before you speak. A self-pause and analysis may help you see where you may be making a wrong move.
  • Third, check for understanding, THEN check for agreement. (You can do this one even in person). Once clarity and buy-in have been established an initiative can be successfully executed.
  • Fourth, work actively with your DEI core team, affinity groups, and/or task force to make sure the initiatives are translated into the on-line community. 
  • Finally, say “Thank you.” People like that!

I believe that if you do all these things, you can have a smooth transition to the on-line work world with a unified, happy workforce that feels valued and seen and recognizes your enduring commitment and continued efforts to establish equity and justice.

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