By Leah Smiley
The other night, my 5-year old son came into my room in a state of panic. He said, “My tooth is wiggly”. As he came closer, I noticed that he had tears in his eyes and a look on his face that said, I’m about to burst into tears. I asked, “What’s wrong?” He said, “I don’t want to lose my tooth.” At first, I thought it was because the tooth fairy forgot to leave a dollar the last time I—oops, ‘he’—got the tooth from under the pillow. But then he said, “It may not grow back.” I soon realized this was easier than I thought. I told him to look in the mirror at the other teeth that grew back. He thoroughly inspected his mouth and began to smile because he realized that his fear was unfounded.
Workplace diversity is a lot like my 5-year old. There are many “fears” when it comes to dealing with difference and change. Some of the top fears include:
• Addressing errant behavior.
People always tell me, “you should go to Missouri or you should help the folks in New York”. But my nonchalant response is, “I like to work with proactive employers.” What does that mean? It means in many of these cases, someone in leadership knew that there were some problems. Nevertheless, they turned a blind eye or slapped the offenders on the wrists until the snowflake became an avalanche.
Here’s the reality: corruption, racism, and negative attitudes are viruses. If you ever had a kid in daycare, you know what I mean—the best childcare providers frequently clean and sanitize the entire building because those little snotty nosed, germ-bots will eventually infect everyone.
• Saying or doing the wrong thing.
The Wall Street Journal recently printed an article entitled, “Women at Work: A Guide for Men” by Joanne Lipman. Here are a few of the reader’s comments:
“What, no mention of the women who, as a result of the prevailing preoccupation with ‘equality’, have been promoted far beyond their level of competence and who retain their positions far longer than is healthy for the company? They hold those positions, and are sometimes promoted into those positions, at the expense of better men. I found the article to be sexist, and unreasonable in the sense that good leadership comes from people who know their business and know how to make the right decisions, not necessarily from good ‘collaborators’. ”
“The reason feminists will always fail to achieve workplace “equality” is because they exhort (and expect) women to be something they aren’t: men.”
“So, of course, now men are supposed to make extra efforts to help even more women displace men in the workplace…??? No thank you. Women: You asked for access and opportunity, then learn the rules, go out and earn it like many of us “privileged” men had to do….Stop whining. If not, do me a favor, run to the kitchen and make me a sandwich honey…”
One person went so far as to say that he doesn’t even invest in companies that are run by women. Online, everyone is bold; but in the workplace, some people do not like to interact with different groups in fear of getting punished for saying or doing the wrong thing.
These sentiments are not limited to a discussion about women, they also apply to articles about blacks in the workplace, or marketing to Latinos and Asians, or including gays and different religious groups. Some news organizations have actually eliminated their comments sections because the reader feedback was so brutal.
But guess what? These folks are in your workplaces. If you think for one minute that diversity and inclusion is not necessary, think again. Your organization’s ability to compete and sustain growth is jeopardized due to ineffective teamwork, lack of communication, unresolved conflicts, and discrimination. The Bible says it best, “Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and every city or house divided against itself shall not stand.”
• Going against the grain.
Many organizations imagine embracing innovation, creativity, and leadership. But the reality is that conformity is valued way more than going against the grain will ever be. A good example of this is can be found in the black community. Young black kids learn early that their peers are not accepting of students who do well in school, speak properly or demonstrate respect. When I was growing up, I remember the same kind of peer pressure—to underperform in order to fit in. Luckily, my dad wasn’t having it. Since I can remember, he frequently told us, “It’s OK to be different. Don’t try to fit in.”
In the workplace, very few executives encourage, or reward, non-conformity. But this mindset also does not reward risk-taking. People are so concerned what others will think, that although they may not feel the same way as everyone else, they will go along to get along—perhaps smiling, or remaining silent, or even adding a few ‘agreeable’ words. But deep down inside, there is a simmering resentment because they feel forced or like they have to conform. Accordingly, they suppress good ideas, feedback or other risks in fear of being different. It’s not hard then, to understand why diversity and inclusion are so difficult for the organization to advance.
Think of going against the grain in this manner: imagine if Nelson Mandela, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, Winston Churchill, or John F. Kennedy were conformists. Barry Goldwater, former U.S. Senator and Presidential nominee, once said, “Equality, rightly understood as our founding fathers understood it, leads to liberty and to the emancipation of creative differences; wrongly understood, as it has been so tragically in our time, it leads first to conformity and then to despotism.”
At the end of the day, fear is not demonstrative of good leadership for all of these reasons and more. It causes organizations to react slowly, stifles true inventiveness, and suppresses the greatness that lies within. Once you get rid of fear, diversity and inclusion are among the many things that will become easier and better in your organization. As leaders, it is up to us to invalidate those unfounded fears and advance towards greatness.
Leah Smiley is the President of the Society for Diversity, the #1 professional association for diversity and inclusion. For more information about the Society for Diversity, log onto http://www.societyfordiversity.org.