One Step Forward…Two Steps Back by Cultura Ambassador Maria Hernandez, PhD

 

The events of this past week weigh heavily on many of us—particularly the Latin@ professionals who dedicate their lives to advancing diverse and inclusive workplace environments. As if the national headlines are not enough, this month’s Harvard Business Review has published a series of articles with titles that suggest diversity training has not worked during the past 30 years—not quite a true depiction of the article’s content but sensational titles do help sell even in academia!   There is no question that the nation has made much progress in the past 40 years.  But clearly we just experienced the proverbial one step forward, two steps back.

For the better part of the past 25 years, I have had the opportunity to be invited into organizations that want to recruit, engage and advance diverse employees or to develop strategies to better compete for diverse consumer markets or serve diverse constituents. There are successes but no quick fixes.   Based on my experience, there are two key factors that I look for as a sign of potential success.   Executives who demonstrate a strong level of self awareness is key.  Since the majority of senior executives are white males, I look for that leader’s ability to be aware of their personal impact on others.  Do they understand that being a white male has an impact on their views, their leadership, and their own cultural reference point as they navigate their work life?  At some point the conversation of unconscious bias and its corollary of privilege lets me know if there is capacity for psychological insight necessary for authentic conversations.  This personal awareness coupled with clear data that points to how the organization is missing opportunities is the first step in moving forward.

One of the tools that many D/I professionals have pointed to is Implicit Association Test, which is useful to outline unconscious bias.   The harder construct to appreciate is privilege.  The Whiteness Project recently emerged as a resource for this discussion.  Take a moment to watch a few of these short statements. I’m sure you will find these remarkable young people describe how they have privilege with painful clarity.  They are not all men and not all white.  Privilege comes in different forms in our society despite our strong belief that we live in a meritocracy.  There is no more cherished value than a belief that each of us gets where we are by our own effort.  The possibility that gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion or skin color serves to either help or hinder our advancement in the nation is the hardest conversation.  It’s soothing to see the next generation may be ready to see this in clearer focus.

The next step is to introduce the idea that cultural humility requires that we look for ways to understand and see situations as others see them.  Empathy is the new gold standard for leaders.  The national conversations surrounding affirmative action, equality and equity are much easier to have when leaders can see the situations through diverse perspectives.  And as the global economy continues to dominate the financial success of multinational companies, the ability to be effective in other countries cannot happen if we think of American culture as synonymous with human nature.  There are many ways in which people across the globe see the world and we all need to appreciate those truths determine the context in which companies engage in a region’s market.

Once these conversations about self-awareness and cultural humility take place, the best news I can share with an executive is that the behaviors most associated with inclusive leaders across the globe can be learned.  The ability to navigate multiple cultures is a skill.  The ability to engage in authentic dialogue with a person different from yourself is a skill.   This week’s events call upon all of us to harness these skills and take two steps forward.