Guilty until proven innocent! Most of us cannot imagine a world where this is the norm. We can’t possibly relate to being automatically judged to be up to no good, a menace to society, and having to prove ourselves otherwise over and over again. Unfortunately, this is the reality that millions of people live with day in and day out around the world, and here in the States. Many, without choice, have accepted it as a way of life and have adjusted their lifestyles to compensate for constantly being seen as second-class citizens. Their reality is exactly one of repeatedly being treated as guilty, until proven innocent.
Aside from the stereotypes and discrimination that occurs in every society to varying degrees, organizations tend to somehow create their own haves and have nots, and treat certain people as less important than others on the basis of the function they work in, their education, their background, etc. The combination of the unfair treatment of others due to societal and organizational stereotypes is sure to negatively impact the morale and results of organizations everywhere. Unfortunately, many of us fail to see the profound effect this is having on the well-being of people and their performance as individuals and teams. We may take comfort in knowing that our organizations are not violating any laws relative to equal employment opportunities, however a slightly closer look reveals that social and organizational biases can be alive and well, and do significant damage within the bounds of the minimum requirements prescribed by the applicable equal opportunity laws.
If you’ve never been a member of a minority group with a bunch of stereotypes hanging over your head, you cannot possibly imagine the constant mental load it puts on a person. As an Iranian American, married to an African American woman, and having raised two bi-racial kids to adulthood, I have experienced enough of this, firsthand, to know exactly what it feels like. And yet, I must acknowledge that, sadly, I know countless people whose experiences make my life seem like a walk in the park. Although the focus of my practice, writings, and work is on helping organizations create High Commitment Cultures (HCC’s), I’d like to break from that a little today and share personal experiences with you in hopes of illustrating a point that needs to be made in today’s America, in regard to living, and leadership.
Since moving to the U.S. alone 39 years ago at 16 years old, I have been blessed with many opportunities, and the support and generous contributions of many. I have also been subject to the conscious and unconscious bias that plagues every society to some degree. I have tried not to dwell on my experiences with discrimination and prejudice, and I am clear that they have made me stronger, even though they felt unfair, and were wrong then and now. On more than one occasion, my first impulse has been to indulge in self-pity or be tempted to take revenge in some way to make things right, but I have managed to find the right balance between standing up for myself and not being so consumed or defined by the discriminatory actions of others.
As the racially and ethnically charged debates continue to escalate in the U.S., punctuated by the recent, unthinkable notion that white supremacy would even be discussed in this day and age in The United States of America, I once again find myself in a familiar place, asking whether my family and I will truly be judged by the content of our character and the contributions we make, or the prevalent stereotypes about our race, heritage, or ethnicity. I am certain that there is not enough hatred in this world to make it probable for hate-based movements to succeed, but I am concerned that there might just be enough apathy on the part of the good people to make it possible.
I’m not too worried about those who openly express their hateful views. I know where they stand and I know we must protect ourselves from them. I also know they don’t always show up in white hoods or as masked men committing violent acts in the name of religion. They have shown up in my life as ordinary people.
The people walking around my college campus in Cochran, Georgia with shot guns looking to shoot Iranian students in 1979, because they were outrages about the hostage crisis.
The woman I used to work with when I was a waiter in Atlanta, Georgia who regularly reminded me of the cardinal sin I had committed by marrying a woman of another race, and admonishing me for not being able to explain in terms that were acceptable to her what my kids were going to be
My neighbor in Albany, Georgia who had implored the person we bought our house from not to sell the house to one of those N…’s because the neighborhood had been segregated… until we moved in.
My daughter’s friend at the religious middle school she attended in Dover, Delaware, who told her that she couldn’t be her friend anymore because, according to her parents, my daughter was going to go to hell because she was bi-racial.
The restaurant owner in Bowers Beach, Delaware, who refused to serve a group of us on the basis of race, who was later found guilty of doing so and ordered to pay a fine in addition to attending diversity classes.
And, of course, all the many more encounters with people who made derogatory comments about black people in my presence simply because they didn’t figure there would be any affiliation, and even on occasion by black people who falsely assumed that just because I was married to a black woman, I shared their social prejudices against white people.
If you can think of personal experiences like the ones I have mentioned, you know exactly what I mean. If you are surprised that things like this would ever happen or if you are thinking to yourself, “Why is this guy making a mountain out of a mole hill and what is his motive for even talking about this?” I’d urge you to keep reading. Hang in there with me, especially if you don’t consider yourself to be biased. There is a reason the term unconscious bias was coined. We (myself included) always see it in others but not in ourselves unless we are intentional and open to seeking it out.
The experiences of overt racism, sexism, and any other form of discrimination may not happen every day. They show up from time to time and even though they may take you aback when they happen, people learn how to deal with them. I believe the greatest damage that is done to individuals and teams comes in the subtle forms of biased words and actions by one’s own friends and colleagues who are good people. These people are not out there actively advocating for their superiority on the basis of race, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, physical ability, etc., but somehow their actions indicate that they don’t necessarily see much wrong with it and are puzzled why some are making such a big deal of it.
I have had my share of experiences on that front as well and I’d like to share a few to bring awareness to someone who may be inadvertently and unintentionally creating the same experiences for their friends and colleagues:
I recall being at a small dinner gathering without my wife at a long-time friend’s who had also invited another couple who were physicians he had just met. The other couple was Iranian, had also lived in Germany, and recently immigrated to the United States. They shared that their main reason for immigrating was that they felt oppressed and discriminated against as foreigners in Germany, which was something I never experienced when I lived there. Yet, during the dinner discussion, whenever they weren’t talking about just how prejudiced Germans were, they were bashing the black people they worked with at the hospital in Atlanta for being “lazy bums.” The irony was palatable; they had the audacity, as foreigners, to have already judged the people who were born and raised here when they condemned the Germans for doing the same toward them.
Then there was the mother of my wife’s friend. She, Caucasian, with the purest of intentions, complimented my wife during one of our visits to her home by telling her how much she liked her because she was “different, and not like other black people.”
Bridging or Widening the Gap
The last one I will mention is when an old colleague of mine once stated that he simply didn’t see the point in having corporate affinity groups to support minorities because, in his view, they created more division among people. He was unable to see the benefit of these groups as he was not subjected to the issues that those groups existed to address, and had yet to do the work to understand the perspectives of people who had different life experiences than he did.
Transformative Leaders who create High Commitment Cultures take the time to understand their own biases and those that exist in their organizations, which are often a reflection of what goes on in the community, and are at times induced or exacerbated by the dynamics of the organization. They realize that if the organization is divided into haves and have nots, or first and second-class citizens, it not only hurts the disenfranchised, but the entire organization. They know that the chances of having someone who does not feel valued offering their non-discretionary effort and consistently going above and beyond the call of duty are slim, and the cumulative effect of this issue is far greater than the sum of its parts when it comes to the missed opportunity for synergy across the organization. They get in action to counteract the natural forces that divide people and purpose to unite them in a way that impacts not only their immediate constituents, but also the community at large.
I am reminded of my all-time favorite movie, Remember the Titans, in which, Coach Boone, a high school football coach managed to lead a racially divided football team during a tumultuous time to come together, work as a team, and win the championship that they could never have dreamt of, had they continued the infighting that reflected what was going on in the community at that time. We can, indeed, all be Transformative Leaders if we are willing to examine our own biases and intentionally make sure that every person in our charge feels respected, heard, and cherished for who they are and what they bring.
• When was the last time you became aware of your own unconscious bias and did something about it?
• When was the last time you honestly sought feedback from someone of a different background on your cultural sensitivity?
• What are the prevalent biases that affect your organization and cause people to feel devalued?
• What intentional efforts do you have underway to create an inclusive workplace culture?
• What opportunities do you have to personally connect with someone who is not bringing their best to work because they feel devalued?
As always, have a great week! May you Boldly Declare, Courageously Pursue, and Abundantly Achieve the Extraordinary! I would love to hear about your victories and/or challenges. Please leave your comments below or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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