Talk Isn’t Enough

“Undoing racism” must become part of a company’s purpose, says best-selling author Daniel Goleman.

Daniel Goleman, author of the best seller Emotional Intelligence, and co-developer of the Goleman EI online learning platform, is a regular contributor to Korn Ferry. His latest book, Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body, is available now. 

I grew up in a small city in California’s Central Valley in the 1950’s and 1960’s. It wasn’t until I met John Ogbu that I realized how racially and ethnically segregated my hometown was. Ogbu was an anthropologist from Nigeria, and my mother, a sociology professor, was hosting him while he did his research. His topic: the caste system in my town, Stockton.

Through Ogbu’s eyes I realized that the three high schools in my town had been neatly arranged; mine was almost all White, while the others were predominantly Black, Hispanic and Asian.

In the past three weeks, protests against discrimination and police violence led to a world-wide conversation on systemic racism. If current events have shown us anything, it’s that “business as usual” rarely pierces a blindspot. According to a Monmouth University Poll, in January of 2015 only half of Americans saw racial discrimination as a big problem; that number has now risen to 76%.

It takes fresh eyes to see the biases built into a social system, particularly when you are part of the dominant culture the system has been built to serve.

In the corporate world, many firms have been reluctant to address systemic inequity. Among Fortune 500 companies, less than 1% of CEOs are black and only 3% of senior American managers are black. When it comes to talking about race, many leaders have chosen silence over facing the discomfort. After all, it’s harder to rock the boat than it is to sail along.

There have been exceptions, of course. In a 2014 TED talk by Mellody Hobson, she presciently urged us all to talk about race, even in corporations. As an African-American woman, she knows a lot about bias and the corporate world. She is the co-CEO of a financial firm and sits on the boards of directors of global corporations. And yet, as she tells us in her talk, she was mistakenly taken to be "the help" at a fancy reception she attended.

Today’s growing awareness of biases and racial discrimination opens the door to the kind of conversations Hobson, six years ago, was urging us to have. Over the past three weeks, leaders from many industries have come forward to engage in the dialogue around equity and justice.

“To be silent is to be complicit,” tweeted Netflix when the protests ramped up, “Black lives matter. We have a platform, and we have a duty to our Black members, employees, creators and talent to speak up.”

Mary Barra, General Motors CEO, wrote this in a letter to employees: “I am both impatient and disgusted by the fact that, as a nation, we seem to be placated by the passive discussion of ‘why.’ There comes a time when we are compelled to stop diagnosing what is wrong and start advocating for what is right.”

What’s more, on June 8th, Arvind Krishna, CEO of IBM, sent a letter to Congress making clear that his company will not allow its facial-recognition software to be used for racial profiling.

But this upsurge of support doesn’t come without a certain level of skepticism. What happens when the dust settles? Do things go back to business as usual?

 In 2016, the Harvard Business Review pointed to evidence that women and nonwhite executives who promoted diversity in their firms were actually rated lower by their bosses than those who weren’t.  The article noted, “This might help explain why nonwhite job applicants who include experiences related to their ethnicity on their resumes are more likely to be passed over for jobs — even at companies that openly value diversity.”

If current events have shown us anything, it’s that valuing diversity and undoing systemic racism aren’t the same thing.

Verbal commitments and performative activism don’t undo the biases that are baked into our systems. For an organization or individual to truly dismantle racism, inclusion has to become a core part of their purpose. And that purpose need be meaningful enough to guide real and important decisions.

As the months unfold it will be interesting to watch, Driven by purpose, who will committed to piercing blindspots and rocking the boat?

Click here to learn more about Daniel Goleman's Emotional Intelligence Coaching Certification.