Why is Covid-19 hitting some communities harder than others? Who exactly has been hit the hardest? These are the questions my daughter Abby Narishkin, a reporter for Business Insider, was looking into for her research for, “The Real Reasons Coronavirus Hits Some Communities Harder Than Others.” Abby lives and works in New York City, but, because New York became a U.S. epicenter in March, she came to shelter with us here in St. Louis.
About the time Abby arrived, headlines were reporting a disproportionate number of people of color dying of Covid-19. Abby wondered why the disparity if we are “all in this together.”
Because Abby and I were together, I had the privilege of watching the depth of research and teamwork that go into producing a report like that. As she uncovered the facts about the number of people of color dying, we felt deep despair. It isn’t fair. With such significant disparities between the experience of whites and people of color, the irony that Abby was safely sheltering with us in suburban St. Louis versus New York City was not lost on us.
For us, difficult questions began to arise. For example, “Are whites to blame for these disparities in our country?” Or, “Are people of color to blame?”
As I thought more about it, I realized questions like these make us defensive, triggering a desire to protect ourselves. They make us turn our attention inward. As a result, we end up talking in ways that are alienating and polarizing to people. And nothing gets accomplished. We do this when questions get tough in our communities, schools, places of worship and work. That inward-only focus can often turn to a complacency, or “analysis paralysis,” that allows those hungry for self-serving control or power the perfect opportunity to exploit the most unintelligent and reflexive parts of our culture and fears.
This pull to look inward isn’t our fault, per se. It’s a symptom of being a part of a larger American culture that focuses on individualism, personal responsibility and protecting our individual rights.
While protecting individual rights is a necessary part of the American collective consciousness, individualism can inadvertently fixate our attention on finger-pointing and blaming. This can keep us from doing the more mature and dignified work of showing up for each other. Determining the root cause(s) can be important to moving, in a time of crisis, from addressing immediate needs band-aid-style, to identifying sustainable, long term solutions. Even in that transition, blame and shame are not required to find and reach solutions. Although often not discussed, personal responsibility includes showing up for each other and for the benefit of the larger community, which in turn benefits the individual.
How to look forward
In light of the data Abby shared in her report, I realized I can use my cultural intelligence to appreciate a perspective different from my own and change my behavior to show genuine respect.
So instead of looking inward, a better course of action is to look outward. To get there, we can:
- Accept the disparities as our current reality in America
- Express genuine compassion for those who are all too-often sidelined or silenced, and
- Ask a question that redirects our attention outward, toward our shared responsibility and common good.
There’s a better question here: “Within our sphere of influence, what can we do to ensure everyone feels valued and engaged?”
This question frees us to consider actions that benefit us and the people around us. Instead of feeling helpless, we discover we don’t have to waste energy and time on self-protection but instead consider how we can make a difference and participate in systemic change.
How cultural intelligence opportunities show up in organizations
We’re not the only ones to fall into the trap of self-protection; organizations do too. Corporate diversity programs are often created for the purpose of self-protection. Pamela Newkirk, New York University professor and author of Diversity, Inc, writes that “formal diversity structures” don’t necessarily decrease discrimination. She cites Lauren Edelman, a professor of law at the University of California, Berkley as saying that they’re often “symbolic gestures to public opinion, the views of constituents, social norms or law.” Too often they become “a shield against successful bias lawsuits.”(1)
Not only to avoid litigation, corporate diversity programs also tend to focus on eliminating negative experiences and nasty behavior for minorities because those are easier to track than positive behavior.
But trying to avoid blame and shame as an organization doesn’t free us to do the more impactful work of building an intelligent culture together that ensures everyone in the organization feels valued and engaged.
Thus, the question is: “Within our sphere of influence, what can we do to create an organization where everyone, with their unique perspectives and backgrounds, feels valued and engaged?”
Within the context of your organization, it may help to know that, across the board, employees of color not only encounter more negative incidents than their white counterparts, they also miss out on the experiences that leave them feeling good about themselves and their employers. This means minority employees not only have more reasons to look into leaving but also fewer reasons to stay than their white colleagues, explain Peter Norlander of Loyola University and Serena Does and Margaret Shih of UCLA.(2)
Their research suggests the gap in positive experiences could account for as much as 10-15% of the difference in attrition rates between whites and employees of color.(2)
What a leader can do:
- Be aware of the impact of hidden assumptions. Hidden assumptions are an inherent ‘blind spot’ in our thinking that reduces accuracy and can ultimately result in an inaccurate, and often irrational, conclusion.(3) For example, white people in the developmental stage of Minimization often assume that people of color have the same opportunities they do. If left unchecked, such assumptions can hinder our ability to talk, behave and work collaboratively and kindly with colleagues and clients who are different from us.
- Recognize that retention is based on positive experiences, not avoiding negative ones. Particularly for employees of color, managers can encourage direct reports to take part in decision-making and give input on how to do their job. Managers can encourage coworkers to share effective practices and help each other get the job done. And managers can appropriately recognize a job well done.(2)
- Utilize career mapping to communicate value. Career mapping is one strategy for engaging employees in decision-making. In 1-to-1 meetings, managers can connect with their direct reports to discuss their professional goals and potential career advancement opportunities, resources and education available to them within the business. “Rather than assuming that every employee wants to work toward a management-based trajectory, open up the discussion through quarterly or bi-annual surveys asking the employee to identify their pain points with their current role, thoughts on leadership and their ideal role within the organization they want to work toward,” writes Tim Johnson, CEO of Mondo, a leading digital marketing and IT staffing firm. This strategy encourages employees to share their passions and speak up about what it will take to retain them. It also establishes investment in them and their long-term future with the business.(4)
Maybe in 2019 a grocery store checker was regarded as having low education and therefore deserving of low pay or a less desirable job. Now we know that, from the factory worker to the truck driver to the stocker to the checker and everyone in between, each and every one is critical for the survival of our communities and organizations. If we are unwilling to fully value our neighbors and team members and allow them to bring their full contribution to our communities and organizations, why spend the organization’s time and resources to employ them? How much is the loss of contribution and productivity from an undervalued person or community? What’s the profit loss on ¼, ½ or ¾ of an employee’s full potential for the sake of maintaining biases that in the end serve no one?
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.”
In a global crisis, now is not the time to circle our wagons in self-protection. Now is not the time to turn our attention inward with questions about who’s to blame and who should be ashamed.
It’s the time to turn the work inward to be culturally intelligent and look outward to the systems, behaviors and habits that prevent diversity from being a powerhouse of contribution for good that it can be.
In many predominantly black and brown neighborhoods there are food deserts, restrictive housing practices and less access to equitable education, medical care and jobs, conditions that are fueling Covid-19’s impact in these communities. Organizations have their own versions of this inequity. They have praise deserts, stagnant hierarchical structures and roadblocks to valued productivity and career mobility based on personal and cultural, conscious and unconscious bias that are fueling attrition and potential profit loss.
Now is the time to grow cultural intelligence in our communities and organizations by turning our attention outward. Now is the time to acknowledge that Covid-19 in our society and quota outlines within our organization are not the great equalizers. As the Business Insider report shows, these disparities between whites and people of color existed long before the pandemic and are deeply embedded in our culture. It is paramount that we see how blame and shame delay adoption of the cultural intelligence that can actually increase equity and prosperity.
Now is the time to ensure the dignity of every individual, so that none are lost and the full measure of people’s contributions are gained. Now is the time to ask: Within my sphere of influence as parent, teacher and/or leader, what can I do or, even better, what can we do to ensure each person within our organizations and communities feels valued, heard and engaged? -Amy S. Narishkin, PhD
- Newkirk, P. (2019) Diversity, Inc., New York: Bold Type Books.
- Norlander, P., Does, S. & Shih, M. (working paper) Deprivation at work: Positive workplace experiences and the racial gap in quit intentions. https://www.anderson.ucla.edu/documents/sites/faculty/review%20publications/research/Norlander-Does-Shih_Positive_Empirical_Anderson_Review.pdf
- Banaji, M. & Greenwald, A. (2013) Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People. New York: Delacorte Press.
- Johnson, T. (Jun 29, 2018) “The real problem with tech professionals: High turnover. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbesbusinessdevelopmentcouncil/2018/06/29/the-real-problem-with-tech-professionals-high-turnover/#3c89c90d4201