What’s It Mean? Implications for Consulting Psychology: This thought paper challenges the effectiveness of consulting psychology using science to address individual, team and organization issues and opportunities related to race and other differences. It offers a challenge to accurately measuring the sustained impact of change on these complex issues. It provokes consideration regarding how personal experiences can add value to professional perspectives, and it raises questions to guide the thinking and implementation of interventions that may result in meaningful, measurable and sustainable progress. (PsycInfo Database Record (c) 2020 APA, all rights reserved).
I wrote and submitted my article for this issue before George Floyd whispered his final “I can’t breathe”. Some say our world suddenly changed. Some say not really. I thought and others suggested that I should look at what I said in May and consider how it might be different now. Around the world people protested and counter protested about the killing of George Floyd. I added “et al” to his name because the list of murdered Black Americans increased steadily after George Floyd was able to say “I love you Momma” and say one last time “I can’t breathe”. Equally sobering is remembering and uncovering how long the list is of those who died before him and since him.
I thought then and I believe now that counting the number of deaths, tracking the instances of microaggressions, exposing numbers of people to training, and renaming systemic racism as a pandemic, are all necessary but insufficient actions to take to achieve meaningful change. Without putting a face to those facts, without weaving personal stories into statistical reports of main effects, without having a live 8 minute and 46 second video of George Floyd dying, our probability of success for lasting change is limited.
If I updated what I wrote in May, 2020, would it again be out of day by the time you read this or would it be timeless?
I wanted to contribute to this immensely important collection of articles. I recognize they include defendable evidence-based perspectives different than mine, which is a testament to the value of diversity. There is science to what we do. There is also application and art to what we do. There are still some processes close to magic, some questions that remain a mystery, some pursuits driven more by passion and intuition, and some value to being more idiographic than nomothetic. There is something very personal and powerful about our individual experiences. My intention was to offer that lens to this discussion. My intention was also to focus our impact as consulting psychologists on how we influence the effectiveness of leaders, and through leaders the effectiveness of their teams, and ultimately the health and sustainability of their organizations. It starts one-on-one.
What follows is a little different than what I originally wrote. It benefits from more data and more personal experiences and reflections over the past few months. Please note that the title has not changed. How far have we come? How far can we go?
This article shares my personal reflections blending research and application in diversity and inclusion. It highlights where we have made progress and suggests where we should continue to raise questions to understand the complex dynamics of differences. As consulting psychologists, researchers and practitioners in the application of psychology, it reminds us that our focus includes the integration of what we know about individuals, teams, and organizations. It also embraces the importance of understanding how our personal experiences influence our approach to our professional roles.
Key words: diversity and inclusion, differences, implicit bias
Fully utilizing our capabilities, the capabilities of others, and the capability of all an organization’s resources should be an obvious goal for diversity, equity and inclusion. We have made some progress over the years but we still have a way to go. There is evidence to support our understanding of the dynamics of diversity, innumerable stories that capture our experiences, and thoughtful efforts that stimulate us to consider new perspectives about diversity (Morgan 2020). This is my contribution to those efforts, an integration of my personal and professional experiences. It is also an invitation for you to do the same introspection and integration to meet the challenge of making a difference.
DIFFERENCES MAKE A DIFFERENCE.
The history of managing diversity in the United States has progressed from slavery through civil rights legislation and affirmative action, to diversity, inclusion and equity. The baseline understanding of our history has been raised recently as many people have expanded their visceral reference to Blacks in America beyond recalling the acclaimed television series “Roots”. Recognizing the importance of Juneteenth, digging up the details of the Tulsa, Oklahoma massacre, and for a colleague of mine, discovering the NAACP, fall in the category of making progress in understanding the context of differences in the United States (and parallels around the world). Some of our efforts, including what was considered “evidence-based”, over the years have been driven by recognizing differences but assuming they were evidence of deficits or deficiencies (Stanton, 1960). The shift to diversity, inclusion and equity is meant to at least transition from thinking of differences as deficits to thinking of them as assets. We have made some progress.
Progress continues as intersectionality is woven into our frameworks for diversity. Differences make a difference and multiple categories of differences add to the complexity of understanding each person and groups of people. (Roberson, 2019). As we move to include more categories of differences – anything that can be used to differentiate one group from another – we may have overlooked how little progress we have made regarding race. Race, at least as far back as W.E.B. Dubois (1903) remains a particularly challenging problem. Despite the progress we have made in some areas, of diversity, nearly 20% of Black professionals in corporate environments feel as though no one like them would ever receive the senior most position in their company (Center for Training Innovation, 2020).
I vividly recall one of my first opportunities to speak with a group about diversity. I had received a Whitney M. Young Fellowship to study keys to success for Black students in predominantly white independent high schools. I was not far into my presentation when a faculty member interrupted me to say: “I don’t know why we are talking about race. After listening to you for a few minutes I don’t even notice you are black. I just see an articulate human being!” I thought we had made progress simply because we were raising the question of diversity, but he reminded me then we had a way to go.
I wondered whether he realized how much power he presumed he had, or how much energy it took to make me invisible, to white wash me, or to not even notice me. Another hypothesis was that he had chosen to avoid the dilemma for him of integrating two conflicting beliefs: an articulate Black man. I knew the person’s role on campus included being the choir director so I asked him what he did when he heard a soprano, alto, tenor or bass: not hear them?, not blend them?, not orchestrate their voices to become a choir? I thought he and I had made progress, connecting the scary topic of race to a metaphor that captured a genuine passion of his. We made some progress by tapping into an experience of differences that he already leveraged to make the whole greater than the sum of its parts. We still had a way to go trying to understand why listening to race was so much more difficult for him than listening to the natural voices of others.
That was forty years ago. A few weeks ago, a client, Shondra (not her real name) shared her frustration that she, the only black person in the room, had to speak up to point out to peers that their approach had not taken into account how it would impact diversity. Several of her colleagues thanked her for reminding them of their commitment to be intentionally more inclusive. One person, a gay white male, as she described him, told her that he was offended she brought up race, that in fact he did not even notice she was black. My client said she took that as an opportunity for a one-way re-education intervention! Perhaps we still have a way to go.
Certainly, there is progress in realizing that the more dimensions of diversity we recognize, the more complexity we encounter. Shondra’s checking of her colleagues met with appreciation from some, offense from another. A black woman speaking out to hold white colleagues accountable, and herself being checked by a gay white male? How far have we come to recognize the broad range of differences and complex dynamics of those differences? How far do we have to go to effectively leverage those differences? Can we make progress capturing a wide range of differences and accomplish an increase of inclusion across all of those differences? At what point do we return to or evolve into one under-represented group confronting another one about who was more offended than the other, and who deserved more opportunities than the other?
Have we taken enough time and devoted enough research to understanding why those with the privilege of shaping work environments to invite diverse groups in, create climates that leverage those differences, and support fully utilizing all individuals and groups of individuals, still fall short of doing so?
As consulting psychologists, we add value helping clients understand their preferences and variations in leadership styles. We have evidence to indicate that learning agility and emotional intelligence and a list of other dimensions increase our clients’ effectiveness adjusting to different individuals, styles, and situations. Why is race a different difference?
IT TAKES INTENTIONAL EFFORT TO MANAGE DIVERSITY AND INCLUSION
Individuals and organizations who believe that differences can make a difference are making progress. They are doing so even with the increased complexity that comes along with this recognition. Some complications come with the inevitability that differences include generalizations, stereotypes, preferences and biases. (Kahneman, 2011). There should be little debate about this, whether they apply to individuals, groups, or organizations. My grandfather often said “I knew from the moment I laid eyes on him he was no good!” He quickly keyed in on an observation that fell into a category of earlier experiences that suggested future outcomes. Once he processed that information he did not need, want, or welcome any new information to contradict or reshape his assessment. (My grandfather would wonder why psychologists spend so much time and money to prove something everyone already knows.) Much of the progress we have made is related to acknowledging that we make judgments on limited information, are inclined to search for and only accept confirmation of those judgements, and use those judgments to select, drive, and sustain behaviors. When done individually relate to race it is prejudicial. When done organizationally it becomes systemic.
Corporations, organizations and academic institutions have devoted significant resources in terms of time and dollars to address implicit, explicit, conscious and unconscious bias (Jost et al). At times, differentiating types and levels of bias remind me of splitting the hair on a frog! Does it matter whether we are talking about unconscious, conscious, implicit, or explicit bias? What is added by splitting differences between different types of stereotypes? They all result in individual experiences of being undervalued, and organizational instances of under-utilizing resources. We might still consider it progress that organizations recognize the impact of bias on fully utilizing all its resources, their capabilities, and the capabilities of the organization. Shutting down all Starbucks stores and requiring everyone to attend unconscious bias training is sign of progress, but does it alone result in sustainable and meaningful change?
From a practical standpoint, there is evidence that suggests little sustainable progress has been gained from most training related to bias (Dobbins, 2016). I remember a training session that emphasized the point that we are all biased. I raised the stakes and suggested to someone that they were a racist. It did not have the intended impact of getting them to understand what I was trying to say. One person clearly went on defense, which included accusing me of being a racist as well. Another person seemed genuinely more hurt and embarrassed than angry and defensive. They too did not respond with trying to further understand. What was the point of the training? Checking the box for mandatory attendance was easy. Making a sustainable difference in behavior and outcomes would take additional effort.
Has our focus on implicit bias helped us make progress? There is research arguing we can assess how quickly we all make attributions, essentially in the blink of an eye (Kahneman 2011). It happens just as fast as my grandfather said! Perhaps we have made progress in terms of making it easier for someone to accept that we all have preferences and make judgements on limited information. We are at least having more productive conversations. Was it really progress when someone told me: “I don’t like your kind. Never have. Never will”? If it is progress moving unconscious and implicit bias and microaggressions to conscious, explicit bias and macroaggressions, how much further can we go to actually value and leverage differences?
The question has never been could we change attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors. The more important and poignant question is why would we? What purpose is served personally, organizationally, and societally to not only recognize and separate individuals and groups by any number of dimensions, but to attribute some degree of deficiency to them? In times of scarcity there is competition. There are only so many jobs and opportunities available. What deserving, more capable candidate is being passed over to meet a quota? What deserving, more equally capable candidate is being passed over to maintain a status quo? In times of plenty there is cooperation and collaboration.
We know from change theory, particularly resistance to change, that we wrestle with competing agendas. We consciously and unconsciously struggle with what are we willing to risk or lose compared to the rewards of changing behaviors (Kegan, 2009). We have made some progress framing at least one dimension of this struggle between competing agendas as an aspect of privilege. If you are among the first or the few, or if you are one of the remaining members of the “old school”, are you willing to give up the rewards that come with that role and privilege?
Selection criteria and calibration sessions are areas of progress and opportunities to go further regarding full utilization of all resources. Organizations have made progress by defining competencies, outlining selection criteria, and using those more objective discussion points rather than leading with “what do you think about this person?’ They have also made progress when they have been creative and innovative about how to provide more opportunities and ways to contribute and grow. When I worked for a diversity and inclusion firm, it took more effort to advance diversity when clients felt they had to somehow “do more with less”. When they shifted their mindset to “how we can get more from more”, it opened up significant progress in fully utilizing all their resources.
If stereotyping and biases are unavoidable, how can we better manage the potential negative aspects of those processes? I know it helps me manage the volume, velocity, and veracity of information by quickly assembling it into categories, ascribing labels and probable patterns of behaviors. I also know that somehow the more data points I accumulate, the more accurate my assumptions will become. I have to at least move from “all women…to a couple of women I have met…” That puts me on the road to progress toward seeing each person as a unique individual that still includes a long list of descriptive categories. I never want to be blind to a person’s differences, nor do I want to be blinded by them. Intentionally gathering more data helps us make progress. It takes effort to do so and effort to constantly change and refine your view of how people work.
In addition to gathering more information, I have come to appreciate the power of seeing beyond the presenting issue or opportunity to look for broader impact and implications. I have a current client who is concerned that they do not have a representative percentage of Black employees in a certain job category. They were frustrated that the requirements for the position seemed to contribute to a dilemma of how to increase diversity without lowering their standards. As we probed how they established criteria for the job and how they measured demonstration of those capabilities, they recognized that their process impacted under-represented groups and their talent management pool in general. Did they need 5 years of experience? What capabilities were demonstrated by having had five years of experience? Did they need to only recruit at certain schools? Once they reframed the dilemma around how to gain access to a fuller range of potential talent, they were able to reduce the distraction of being concerned that pushing for diversity would compromise their standards.
We have made progress when we listened to an issue, concern, or opportunity through the lens and experiences of diverse others and seen how the underlying dynamic was applicable to others. It is progress to understand that under-represented groups may be more in tune with real and perceived gaps in equity and inclusion than groups who are in the majority. Though the temptation may be to consider those perspectives as outliers, there is a richness of information and application in the data when we take time to analyze it.
I had a recent request to conduct unconscious bias training and one to facilitate a workshop on anti-racism. I responded to the first by saying there is evidence to suggest that unconscious bias training does not usually generate the results expected. I responded to the second one by asking what is the goal: to simply be anti-racist or to be something else? Both came coincidentally in the aftermath of George Floyd et al. I am still awaiting responses to my responses. We already know that training alone is not likely to lead to lasting change in behavior. We already know that stopping behavior benefits from replacing it with alternative behaviors. As consulting psychologists, we can accelerate progress in diversity by helping clients understand the limits of training and the consequences of stopping undesirable behavior without replacing it with desirable alternatives.
SIMILARITIES AND DIFFERENCES MATTER. WE CAN GO FURTHER THAN WE HAVE COME.
What progress can we realistically make? When I make a mistake. I want to recover faster having learned something in the process. When I make a discovery, I want to leverage it to find many more. When I have an opportunity to make a difference I want to take advantage of it. I do not want to attribute to malice, what could be explained and addressed as ignorance.
We all have personal stories to share and learn from regarding our differences. We have to take the risk of sharing them and supporting them. In two separate workshops I had white males volunteer they were struggling with trying to identify vivid examples of when they felt some aspect of their difference was ignored or underappreciated. One of them found a glimpse by recalling when someone dismissed his mechanical expertise. In that moment the question was not whether he had an experience comparable to a woman, a physically challenged person, a person of a particular religious group, or a person of another color. We would have made little progress in that pursuit. It was a starting point for him to tap into the raw emotion of being angry and feeling undervalued. Progress can come in small steps.
I respond well in moments like these as a consulting psychologist. I am thoughtful, measured, and supportive in my listening and leading. I stay focused on how this moment will be a learning opportunity for my client. As a Person of Color, they frustrate me because some people “don’t get it”. It is also frustrating in these moments when some people seem to go into overdrive trying to understand. Too much empathy can be a cover for taking personal responsibility to understand. For human beings who survived being left out of a social event in elementary school, for someone of another victimized group to say they can never understand what it is like to be Black is at best frustrating. Similar to our efforts in coaching and consulting to find an example of past behavior and emotions that approximate the future behaviors we are targeting, if we cannot find one lower level demonstration of competency on which to build, our probability of achieving higher level functioning drifts toward chance or highly unlikely. If you have never cried or celebrated because of you personally being different, you will be challenged to understand the dynamics of differences affecting others. I refuse to let anyone get away with saying “I can never understand what it is like being Black”.
As consulting psychologists, we are uniquely positioned to integrate how increasing the effectiveness of individuals and leaders is related to the performance of teams and the success of organizations. Though not sufficient, it will be necessary for us to connect one person and one experience at a time to continue making progress.
I want to make it difficult for my self-described hillbilly friend to sit around listening to his friends tell disparaging jokes littered with the N-word. I want my black friends to get a little bit conflicted when we lapse into talking about all white men can’t jump. I want to make it difficult for my family and friends to roll their eyes and say “I knew it!” when we hear that a new scam has appeared and it is being run by Nigerians. I want my Serbian friend to have lunch with my Bosnian one and my straight college roommate to comfortably wait at the bar with my gay colleague until I get there. I want corporate hiring and promotion decisions to occasionally wrestle with choosing between TWO persons of color. I want the enterprise’s German division leaders to get pushed by their Black American ex-pat boss to deliver results, and when they complain, have to escalate their concerns to another level, coincidentally filled by another Black American, eventually to run out of attempts to use differences as a deficit and finally accept those differences as a resource of perspectives. I want soft-spoken voices to be heard at any volume, and aggressive personalities to know they can focus on what they are trying to improve not what they are trying to prove. I want to make sure I am causing a ripple in the way people I encounter feel, think and act. The ripple ultimately impacts how that one person influences the effectiveness of teams and how those teams contribute to improving the success of organizations.
One at a time will not be enough to accelerate our progress. We have to look at broader patterns and interventions as well. I want someone in organizations to look at corporate-wide patterns of how the organization utilizes all its people resources. I know I can explain why I chose one candidate over another but I may not see my own patterns and preferences for the usual suspects. I had a corporate client push the importance of increasing representation in a skilled labor category. The leader pressed upon the managers their role in meeting business demands and doing so in a way that increased diversity. Everyone nodded their heads in recognition of the importance and their role in meeting those objectives. Progress made. At the next quarterly meeting, none of the openings had been filled by candidates in under- represented categories. There were compelling explanations about the urgency of filling critical positions, and some more questionable arguments about the need to fill the roles with the most capable candidates – as though they could not find both a person in an under-represented category and one who is also capable. The most striking explanation was the assumption that someone else would make the diversity hire. They knew they all wanted and needed similarly qualified candidates and they knew it was important to increase diversity. They just did not think they were responsible for meeting that goal. They still had a way to go to blend personal and corporate responsibility and accountability for addressing both needs. Who should be responsible?
It seemed like progress when organizations took the position that responsibility for diversity belonged to each individual leader. As a result, the Chief Diversity Officer role often became an addition to other roles and we lost some momentum. If there is no single point of accountability to delivering on that responsibility we may not come close to where we could be. There are few instances of significant institutional progress that have not been tied directly to the CEO taking personal ownership. I remember the CEO of a multimedia enterprise saying: “we are not doing this because it is required. We are doing it because I believe it is the right thing for us to do.”
The number of senior executives who have wrestled with the reality of racial discrimination in our society and in their corporate organizations in the past few months is notable. There appears to be genuine passion in the personal stories offered in public and in private regarding recognizing differences and the impact of under-utilizing individuals and groups of individuals. As consulting psychologists, we have ridden a wave of increased interest in how to have difficult conversations regarding race. We have taken advantage of millions of dollars suddenly available for diversity institutes and initiatives. We have seen Persons of Color seemingly suddenly elevated to positions of influence or accelerated into roles that were allegedly already under consideration. What will make any of this different than similar trends over the years? What progress we will make that is sustainable? How do we interpret even the obvious and sudden slowdown in urgency from a few months ago to now?
I remember the Managing Partner of a financial services organization interrupting my efforts to facilitate an audience of analysts to come to their own understanding about the importance of focusing on the firm’s initiative to increase the number of women in leadership roles. The Managing Partner said “Greg is being nice trying to get you to buy-in to this. To put it simply, we are doing it because I know it matters and if you don’t agree you can choose to work elsewhere!”. Then and now, I think our progress has been limited because we rarely provide a safe space for senior leaders to work through “getting it” and to honestly and constructively work on how to be both capable and credible in their critical role of driving diversity, equity and inclusion. Too often, they only get to salute and comply. We know enough about change and resistance to change to be more active in our consultation with senior leaders. We can facilitate their ability to enable others to gain enough understanding about emotionally charged issues and increase their effectiveness in leading change. Sometimes the question is whether we as consultants have “gotten it” ourselves and whether we have the courage to confront clients on this issue.
I think differences will always matter. I think similarities will also always matter. Where there is diversity there will be complexity. To gain the rewards associated with fully leveraging all of our resources, we have to continue taking the risks of recognizing differences and when they can make a difference. We have to understand the dynamics of differences and their implications on us, our interactions with others, and on teams and organizations. We have to consider the range of interventions we can intentionally choose to do or not do, and the implications of each. Perhaps most importantly we have to be open and actively seeking insight into what we can do individually and organizationally that will cause a ripple of change and progress.
Differences make a difference. The question is do we really want it and are we as consulting psychologists equipped to handle it?
© 2020, American Psychological Association. This paper is not the copy of record and may not exactly replicate the authoritative document published in the APA journal. Please do not copy or cite without author’s permission. The final article is available, upon publication, at DOI: 10.1037/cpb0000165