Why the Focus on White Men? And on Developing Leadership by Building Inclusion?
Our company, White Men as Full Diversity Partners, got started almost 25 years ago because we noticed a pattern in leadership responsibility, regardless of industry, as it pertained to diversity and inclusion that continues today. Almost always, the groups most ill-affected by a lack of organizational diversity and inclusion is almost always expected to lead the D&I effort: In our almost 25 years of work, we have only known of two heterosexual, white men who were their companies’ Chief Diversity Officer. Greater D&I is still often thought of as, “these people and their issues.”
Many companies and leaders confuse representation (or diversity) with inclusion (which is more about evolving culture with how people could bring their full uniqueness while still feeling a sense of belonging). Many leaders mistakenly think, “If we just change the calculus on leadership numbers, the culture will self-correct.”
Well-intentioned but culturally unconscious Insiders (who we define as members of those social identity groups that set the norms or make the rules without knowing they do—typically men, whites, heterosexuals, etc.) outsource the issue of cultivating an inclusive work environment to an Outsider (defined here as a woman, person of color, OUT GLBQ, and others—members of social identity groups who were often literally on the outside looking into organizations and cultures), oftentimes regardless of whether the Outsider is a peer or lower in the organizational structure.
Busy leaders often ignore or bypass any examination of their own mindsets and behaviors and, instead, just want someone to fix the D&I problem so we can get back to the business at hand.
The Pattern: A Toxic Loop
Insiders (usually unconsciously) defer D&I issues to Outsiders but then resist implementing the Outsider’s suggested changes. When the suggested changes do not work, Insiders again look to Outsiders to fix it or further mentor them, the Insiders.
Outsiders are expected to lead, coach and mentor Insiders. Outsiders alone own the issue and resulting problems. Nothing really shifts over decades, and when occasional progress starts to break out, it largely stalls because there is never a shared understanding and ownership of this issue (especially by Insiders).
Instead, the D&I effort is often simply programmatic (like a two-hour mandatory training session for all managers or cultural food month in the company’s cafeteria) or forced changes in representation.
This unbalanced ownership of D&I efforts recycles itself.
Meanwhile, Outsiders feel more tokenized, fatigued and despondent at the lack of engagement with their Insider colleagues and real institutional progress.
Insiders, conversely, often feel stigmatized as the personal cause for the lack of D&I progress. Worse, Insiders propagate old assumptions like, “we no longer hire or promote the most qualified person.”
This toxic mix repeats itself, resulting in further alienation of Outsiders and a sense of blame on Insider. This often futile and dysfunctional loop almost always comes back to disproportionately impact Outsiders who have to tiptoe along a “knife-edge ridge” of moving the D&I effort forward without being accused of pandering to their self-interest or pushing their “agenda.”
A Better Way: The Change Process
The D&I change process is one much like how safety is addressed in a manufacturing environment. It needs to be addressed as an ongoing issue overlaid onto all the other everyday work tasks, interactions, policies and procedures. It is not merely a program to install but a way of being on an ongoing journey.
Over the last two decades, we have discovered that when Insider (read: straight, white male) leaders come to understand their mutual self-interest in co-creating and leading a culture of inclusion, much of the accompanying fear and ignorance can be dissipated.
Courageous leaders get to solving the real issues rather than continuing to do cosmetic window dressing and avoiding the often difficult conversations needed to understand the personal impacts of the often nuanced systemic imbalance that institutional racism and sexism propagate.
We have come to see and fully embrace that for lasting change to take root and hold, much of the change work has to be initiated by Insider leaders. When Insiders examine their own mindsets, assumptions and resulting personal behaviors, real change around inclusion begins. When Insiders make these shifts and accept more responsibility for creating and sustaining change, Outsiders can pivot back to do their own work on their D&I mindset and behaviors without the added burden of taking care of their Insiders colleagues’ D&I learning.
Starting the work first with Insiders in predominantly Insider-heavy organizations releases the expectation and pressure that only Outsiders can lead, teach, mentor and coach for real change to happen. Ultimately, creating and sustaining an inclusive culture must involve all leaders (both Insiders and Outsiders). The work becomes about how to unleash the potential and talent of every employee by removing the personal mindsets and institutional barriers that inhibit some only because of their gender, skin color or other difference.
For real business success to flourish and grow, leaders are responsible for cultivating work cultures where EVERYONE feels a sense of belonging while not having to mitigate or hide their uniqueness.
Effective leaders continually strengthen their own courage, heighten their personal awareness, and further develop their cultural competency in order to become more effective at leading across difference. As a result, all employees feel more valued, seen and heard—positively affecting the bottom line.