A common statement I hear from white mid- and senior-level leaders during or after participation in racial equity or diversity and inclusion training is, “This is complex, it’s systemic; I just don’t know what I can do to change things.” They often express feelings of overwhelm, powerlessness, uncertainty and, in some cases, fear, whether they use these exact words or not.
These leaders who come to realize the systemic nature of racial injustice in the workplace and how white supremacy permeates the organizational culture are like car batteries, they have the power to move things along, but the strategic part of their brain has stalled and needs a jump start.
Here are eight things white mid-level managers and senior leaders can do with the power they have to lead inclusively and equitably, to start changing the system within their organizations. Recognize your decision-making power, and review any upcoming decisions you will need to make, in the near term, next few months and this fiscal year. This is where you have some power!
First, write those decisions down and start developing your strategy for disrupting the status quo by flexing your inclusive and equitable leadership muscles.
Then, take note of what you are thinking. Get all those thoughts out of your head and onto paper or a digital device. When you see it, read it aloud and work with it outside of your head, where you are better able to recognize gaps and patterns.
Answer these questions: Who will the decision impact? What organizational policies and procedures apply to it? How does that thing usually get done, if it’s been done at all (practices)?
Who does your gut tell you to engage? Write those names down. Look at your list, and answer these questions:
- Are those people representative of who will be impacted by the decision you’ll need to make?
- Are those people diverse, in roles, levels and lived experience (e.g., social identities such as gender, race, ability)? If you have only one person on that list who is different in any of the above noted ways, think carefully about whether you usually listen to or give serious consideration to what they suggest or raise. Research shows if you have more than one engaged person with diverse, lived experiences, the end result of the group’s effort is more likely to be well rounded, innovative and impactful.
- Are they the people you (and other leaders) typically loop in or rely on?
- Who else might you engage?
- What kind of stretch or growth opportunity might this present for others? How might taking this approach stretch you in ways you could benefit from growing as a leader?
- What is the timeline you are working with on that decision? If the timeline is short, what is the rush? What are the benefits and drawbacks of rushing? What opportunities might present if you don’t rush?
Next, review this article, “White Supremacy Culture,” by Tema Okun. Think through which characteristics are showing up for you as you engage in developing your strategy. Pick one or two of the characteristics to focus on to avoid feeling overwhelmed, and then take a look at the antidotes. Identify a few of those antidotes that you can immediately use to counter white supremacy culture characteristics and practices while going through this strategy development and moving into implementation. Note them in your draft strategy you’re creating. Consider writing a shortened version of the white supremacy culture characteristic and relevant antidote on a sticky note and keep it in your line of sight to serve as a reminder.
Next, assemble an inclusive project team or work group to attend to what came up in points one through five, leading inclusively and equitably guided by the white supremacy culture antidotes. Let the team know you are working on leading more inclusively and equitably and why you are doing this. If your organization has values that speak to the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion, that would be important to emphasize. If the organization publishes a public statement and also puts one out internally about prioritizing racial equity, justice and inclusion, that, too, would be worthwhile to reiterate in your “why.”
Consider sharing in your group which white supremacy culture characteristics you are intentionally working on doing differently and how (the antidotes). Encourage the group to read the article and identify for themselves one or two characteristics and antidotes they could benefit from working on right now, and which they can do so safely and supported by this team or work group. Then (here’s the tough part) invite them to serve as accountability partners in this process. This means that without getting defensive, you must be willing to hear from them when they see or experience you demonstrating the white supremacy culture characteristics to the detriment of enabling an inclusive and equitable culture and workplace. When that happens, you will need to correct.
These first six steps are starting points for affecting change from your sphere of control. Be sure to give thought to how you can affect systems-level change through your sphere of influence. The next two steps are two ways you can affect systems-level change with what you’ve already put into motion at your level.
Revisit the list of policies and procedures you noted may apply to the decision you will be making, and answer this question: What are some of the ways these policies and procedures may serve as a block to inclusion or even perpetuate white supremacy? In partnership with your project team or work group, or others within the organization who are actively working on diversity, equity and inclusion, draft some alternatives to the policies and procedures that may make them more equitable and inclusive.
Finally, make note of who you know, someone you have some strong ties to and can influence, who has the power to make decisions on policy and procedures. If you don’t have a direct relationship with that person, who within your network does? Use your relational currency to influence that person to eventually influence the person in power. You know this — you do it for other things that are important to you. See it through from change through implementation.
Hold yourself accountable to make the decisions you started with, and the process for doing so, in an inclusive and equitable way. You will make some mistakes as you do this. Those who you have brought along in the process may be courageous and generous enough to let you know what they are observing or experiencing that is counter to what you are aiming for. Whatever you do, don’t get defensive, try to explain your way out or reasons for doing so. Thank them for being brave and candid and for working with you to ensure you are leading inclusively and equitably. Then make note for yourself what you learned from that mistake and feedback, and how you can prevent it from happening again. Return to your learning on a regular basis to see how you have grown and what you can benefit from doing more or less of.
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