White Work: Why Being Nice Isn’t Enough

In Darrell’s 25-year experience in corporate America as an African American, he’s found when a company’s leadership reflects the end-user, there is often an inclusive culture. Whereas, when the organization is predominantly homogeneous and simply wants to appear more diverse, there is a tendency to ask the few minorities for the “fix.” But these “fixes” don’t typically have much staying-power because when faced with tough decisions, it’s easier to default to what people already know. Darrell explained, “Despite all implied empathy, until you live with the day-to-day challenges of interaction with a group similar yet dissimilar to you, you don’t have to make inclusion a reality.”

By asking the people of color, women or those with disabilities for the ‘fix,’ we’re asking them to do even more work. As if they’re not already burdened by systemic problems that leave them regularly feeling sidelined or silenced. This suggests that whites (and those that identify with the majority culture) may not recognize the company’s dominant cultural characteristics that can actually leave us all, including whites, out in the cold. It’s important not to ask the minority people to do our work. Whites have work to do and being “nice” is not enough. Everyone in the organization needs to be more connected, allowing them to feel and be valued and thus contribute value to the company.

Why Diversity?

According to a recent study by McKinsey and Company (2017), companies with the most ethnic and cultural diversity on their executive team were 43% more likely to experience higher profitability. However, according to researchers Distefano and Maznevski in their article Creating Value with Diverse Teams in Global Management (2012), merely making an organization more inherently diverse can actually lower performance.

What’s an Organization to Do?

To increase performance within a team, corporations will need to build capacity for intercultural competence. Intercultural competence is the ability to shift cultural perspective and appropriately adapt behavior to both cultural differences and commonalities. This is accomplished through the intentional integration of identifying and establishing accurate commonalities (e.g. goals, needs, motivations, interests) for a shared experience in our organization. It also means identifying and valuing differences that can produce innovation (i.e. new ideas, practices and values) because culturally different perspectives and practices contribute to the life of an organization (Hammer, 2016).

The problem is, on average, 65.5% of people who take the Intercultural Development Inventory® (Hammer, 2016), have Minimization as their primary orientation. People of majority culture, in a multi-cultural society like the United States, tend to de-emphasize differences in order to maintain the status quo and avoid conflict. This creates a climate of conformity, which will not attract and retain top diverse talent. While minimization of differences can appear nice, it falls short. One of the most pernicious myths of majority culture is the belief that if we whites are nice we can solve the problems of systemic racism. While being nice is certainly valuable, it’s not enough. Niceness falls short when it isn’t coupled with an understanding of majority culture systems of power that silence and sideline all of us; hampering the collaboration, innovation and productivity companies seek.

As a majority culture in Minimization, we tend to:

  1. Play down differences
  2. Make assumptions about commonalities
  3. Belittle the feelings and experiences of ourselves and others

A Solution: Use Regular Meetings to Connect

Leaders can challenge these majority cultural tendencies linked to Minimization. They can intentionally create conditions for people to share experience and be joined together.

Creating a culture that allows for vulnerability and high levels of trust builds connection. And for connection to take place, people will have to be real with one another (Cloud, Boundaries for Leaders, 2013). Leaders can use regular meetings to fuel connection. After ground rules for working together are established, the facilitator can begin a meeting by asking participants to “check-in” with each other and conclude by asking them to “check-out” with each other.

1.       Check-in—When people choose to share, voluntarily, they say whatever they need to say to be fully present, more connected and real. They may share their internal state or they may report progress on an interior goal. Or they might let the group in on something that is happening at home that is inevitably part of how they are “showing up at work” that day (Kegan & Lahey, An Everyone Culture, 2016). A leader can encourage vulnerability by asking:

  • What’s happening in your world this week?
  • What is a goal you have?
  • What do you want to learn from someone else?

2.       Check-out—To summarize and encourage reflection, leaders can ask:

  • What is everyone thinking but no one has had the courage to say yet?
  • How did we do working together today that left us feeling either connected or disconnected?
  • Did we live up to our team ground rules?
  • What will help you be more effective this week?

Connection is the process by which people come to feel valued and thus, contribute value to the company. How people feel is important as a means to an end for more productivity, innovation and profit.  -Amy S. Narishkin, PhD

To attract and retain top talent from diverse backgrounds, leaders need to create a culture of safety and belonging for everyone. With a PhD in Adult Education, Amy works with CEO’s, management teams and those who take the lead in organizations to effectively implement the tools for intercultural competence. To learn the tools in our 6-session Corporate Workshop Seriescontact Amy.