I am considering converting a shed into an office. My inclination is to tear down the shed and start over. The architect advising me on the project is encouraging me to consider adding on to the existing structure instead.
It occurs to me that this could be a metaphor for a challenge I observe in many organizations today as they struggle to respond to the killing of George Floyd and confront the racial inequities that have been brought into sharp focus as a result. For some people, the racist killing of George Floyd has become a life transforming event that demands organizational transformation as well. Those who feel this way judge the actions of their leaders based on whether leadership is acting in a way that sufficiently demonstrates a commitment to anti-racism.
I feel strong “sympathy” for this point of view. It is in line with my “tear it down and start over” instinct towards my shed. Having immersed myself in reading about the history of racism in this country and its profound impact on BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color), nothing but radical response seems adequate.
That said, the idealism of radical change sometimes collides with the duty of boards and management to acknowledge and pursue the expectations of shareholders and donors (in the case of nonprofits). Pursuing a radical anti-racism strategy may create anxiety for these and other stakeholders because it may feel like an indictment of them or the organization’s past practices. If they withdraw their support, it could put the long-term financial health of the organization at risk.
To be sure, this is not an excuse for not speaking out and actively supporting efforts to make their organizations more inclusive and diverse. Boards and management have an obligation to educate their stakeholders about the benefits of diverse workforces and to challenge their stakeholders to confront and demand change to belief systems, behaviors, systems, and laws that perpetuate inequity in the lives of BIPOC.
There is a legitimate need for organizational governance practices which provide direction and address the needs of stakeholders. And, it can fairly be said that progress has been made over past decades in addressing racial inequities (despite the fact that much remains to be done).
In the end, we are left with a polarity, where both sides of the argument have merit. There is no “right answer” to a polarity, but instead a need to explore both sides and seek the right balance between seemingly conflicting perspectives.
Leaders and employees of good conscience are engaged in a healthy tension in trying to discern a path forward. While there is no “one size fits all” approach I have learned some things by observing and engaging with client organizations.
It seems to me that a healthy path forward begins by acknowledging the common vision that people of conscience share about eliminating racism from our society. Then, leaders need to create opportunities for dialogue with employees to deeply listen to their perspectives. Leaders also need to share authentically where they stand regarding how the organization should respond in creating a more equitable and just society and the need for a considered strategy and plan for achieving those ends.
At the end of the day, governance still matters. Boards and management, with input from employees, are accountable for setting organizational direction and priorities. That said, they must also remain open to perspectives different from their own and be continuous learners and relentless in creating diverse, inclusive, and equitable organizations.
Is your organization struggling to reconcile strong opinions about how to address difficult and important issues? TBG can help. Give me a call at 612-327-4030 or email me at email@example.com to start a conversation.