Diversity and the Rightness of Being Wrong

Doing the Right Thing the Wrong Way

Did you know that by doing the right thing the wrong way, you could do a lot more harm than good? You don’t have to look any further than the many tone deaf ad campaigns that somehow still make it out in the world and see that if people leap before they look, they can make quite the embarrassing splash. Such is the case with many of the DEI+ initiatives in far too many organizations. It almost saddens me to see that something that could do so much good is falling short of its ideals for so many completely avoidable reasons. But, I’ve been around long enough to know that Friedrich Nietzsche wasn’t wrong when he said.

“All great things must first wear terrifying and monstrous masks in order to inscribe themselves on the hearts of humanity.”

Mindful of this, I know that DEI in many ways will have to DIE in order for a larger contingent of us to embrace the principles it is meant to elevate. And while the premature death of DEI+ doesn’t have to be the evolutionary path we humans have to take, history has shown that we rarely take the easier route, because that would mean that some folks would have to admit that they don’t know what they are doing or aren’t qualified to make the decisions they’ve been trusted to make. And well, there’s nothing more un-American than saying, “Oops. My bad.”

Qualified Immunity

Back in 2003, when I was trying hard to get transferred into the Office of Diversity and Inclusion in a previous work context, it was a White man who worked in the office who eventually came out and told me that I would never get hired in the office. When I asked him why, he said, “Because if we bring you in, you would be the only person qualified in this office, even more than the Director.”

For months, he had seen me coming in the newly formed office on my lunch break reading articles, he had read my essay I wrote called “Crafted in Diversity” that told of my multi-race, multi-faith, multi-ethnic, multi-political background and how my life experience, self study, and pending Certification in Diversity Training Management had more than prepared me to work in that office. And every time I saw him, he engaged me in conversation and indulged my questions. He was a nice guy. But, it wasn’t until I told him that I was about to graduate from my program that he broke it down for me that the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, where I had yet to see someone that was Black or a Person of Color, would never bring me in because the office was not “functional”.

Until recently, I thought my experience was rare. Like many other folks likely assume, I suspected that in most settings, the Chief Diversity Officer in an organization was, more likely than not, going to be a person from what is often identified as an underrepresented group. But according to the demographics published by job search engine Zippia.com, over 80% of Chief Diversity Officers actually identify as White. Which according to my unscientific calculations of my poll of one, means that there is an increased likelihood that more people than me had experiences like I had in our Office of Diversity and Inclusion.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not someone who thinks that White people or White passing people cannot be Chief Diversity Officers or leaders in the ever-expanding realm of what qualifies as diverse. I have a friend who was preaching diversity back in the late 80s and early 90s when most people didn’t know what he was talking about. And guess what. He was White and he still is. So, it’s not that. But what does get me is how the demographics reflect the same patterns that created the need for Diversity professionals in the first place.

The More Things Change… You Know the Rest

According to the same demographics, not only are most CDOs White, of those who are White and male, they make an average of $11k more a year than women and more than other races who hold the same or a similar position. Which, in some way I find comical. But, I digress.

The thing is I am not as surprised by this as I probably should be. Nor am I offended. I’ve been around long enough and seen enough, that I am not surprised by much. And on more than one occasion, I have been able to predict relational outcomes in matters of diversity simply because, as my essay was titled, I was “Crafted in Diversity”. I have been navigating these dynamics since age 2 and I know a systemic outcome when I see one. But besides that, many of our relational outcomes are predictable because most of our institutions are built on a manufacturing minded, tangible outcome based paradigm where most of our systems and processes are designed to minimize variation. And what is diversity if it isn’t variation?

So when your business model is built on reducing or even eliminating variation in order to maximize productivity (output) and efficiency, it is highly likely that your organization’s culture will reflect what you value most and discourage what you value least. Which, for many folks, whether consciously or unconsciously, makes more business sense than DEI+ does in this dominant paradigm. As Upton Sinclair said, “It is difficult to get a [person] to understand something, when [their] salary depends upon [them] not understanding it!”

So where do we go from here?

The journey to me writing this post began with a Black woman outside of my network posting the Zippia demographics in response to someone more likely to be a Chief Diversity Officer than she was, saying that CDO jobs were just another form of Affirmative Action trying to force unqualified underrepresented people into the C-Suite. Obviously, he chose the wrong person to say that to because she dropped the mic on him. But, if the man has some degree of intellectual humility–which according the the Templeton Foundation website, “involves recognizing and owning our intellectual limitations in the service of pursuing deeper knowledge, truth, and understanding”–he would find the value in having been wrong and adapted accordingly, better equipping him to successfully engage across differences in the future.

In the work I do, intellectual humility is a must. You have to embrace the rightness of being wrong in order to expand and strengthen your ability to see multi-dimensionally when it comes to our human variations. Difference cannot be an automatic threat to your perceived identity and you have to develop an appetite for wonder. Just like physical muscles are built through resistance training, our relational muscles need a work out or we will cramp up under the weight of ideas that are different than those we are used to. And because there can never be enough body based metaphors since we take them so personally, just like we become more nimble through stretching our bodies beyond their present level of comfort, we can become more nimble minded by stretching our minds with “new to us” perspectives.

“The mind, once stretched by a new idea, never returns to its original dimensions.” Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Let’s face it. DEI is failing generally speaking because there is not enough intellectual humility in the current system. Besides the fact that we are not wired for it, our present culture is not conducive to it. We thought we could use the same mind that got us into this situation to get us out of it and we were wrong. And there is something right about realizing that. (Thanks Einstein. You genius you.) But, as my friend and mentor Marshall Thurber says, “The failure of the system is not a failure of the people.” Failure is feedback. There are no winners and losers when the aim of the game is truth. There are winners and learners. But, in order to succeed on the learning team, you must be able to admit that there are limits to your knowledge. That is the rightness of being wrong.

Saved by what should never happen.

Recently in our country, The United States of America, many of us celebrated the legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who was murdered by the collective unconsciousness of our society for the crime of asking of our society to “Be true to what you said on paper.” He died disappointed in our country and questioning whether his dream had become a nightmare and if he had helped integrate his people into a burning building. We rarely hear people talk about this dimension of Dr. King’s legacy because it makes all of us uncomfortable. We would rather focus on “The Dream” because it is easier to digest than the full picture. But, one of Martin’s key teachings was there cannot be great disappointment without great love.

For too long, his legacy has been both a witness and a warning. It is a witness that the human capacity to see beyond the present day into a future of greater relational possibilities is resident in the human spirit even when facing the most strident resistance. And it is a warning to those who try to hold people accountable to their professed aspirations when those people are not ready. In effect, those who are afraid of the rightness of being wrong, hold him up to say, “This is what happens when you don’t play the game or you try to change the rules.”

DEI+ is Designed to Break the Rules

Fundamentally, DEI+ initiatives are rule changing initiatives at the least and are a whole new game at their highest expression. But, it is not a game that even some its most ardent proponents are ready to play. Because, they have learned how to succeed playing the old game with the old rules (no offense)–the one where minimizing or eliminating variation is the key to success. They are playing a new game by the old rules. But, can you blame them when so many of the referees are folks who don’t even know the game is changing? Am I taking this analogy too far? [If you want me to unpack this, you’ll have to get on my calendar. I might even show you a slide deck. But suffice it to say, I believe that this is precisely why there is so little patience for folks who have a hard time catching up with the most recent language of inclusion. They are excluded because according to the old paradigm, they now represent the variation and hence the system dictates that they must be eliminated i.e. canceled.] And in many cases, it doesn’t matter what the person’s background is. If they want to succeed in the old game playing by the old rules, their salary is going to pay them to not get what’s happening. And DEI+ folks and advocates who do get it are going to burnout and leave because they are playing a completely different game.

What we’re witnessing shouldn’t happen in a culture that values Diversity. But it has to happen because many of us still value learning by suffering–either through our own or vicariously through others. We have a hard time seeing what is right until we see enough wrong. If this were not the case, you wouldn’t be seeing last in first out dynamics affecting diversity roles when companies have layoffs. But, just like when a company drops a new product line if that product doesn’t meet its projected revenue goals, when a company loses dollars, DEI stops making sense. DON’T HATE THE PLAYERS. HATE THE GAME.

A Witness and a Warning Too

Not too long ago I was asked to join a meeting to explain to some leaders why I was able to accurately predict the failure of the organization’s diversity efforts. Because they couldn’t see the failure coming, they thought that I must have been using a crystal ball or something. Even though I warned them before they even officially hired the new leader that the position was not set up in a way that facilitated success, they proceed to do what made good business sense to them at the time. It didn’t matter that I was the only one on the planning team who had worked for a season in “Diversity Recruiting”, had a certification in Diversity Training Management, had worked and served in diverse organizations in both leadership and followership capacities, or that I was and still am Black and have had to navigate numerous organizations where I was a super-minority for decades. The leadership in this organization believed that they could use the same mind that got them in their situation to get them out of it, which is the very opposite of the mindset that fosters diversity and the epitome of the duplication focused production mindset that can’t help but alienate variety.

In order to get DEI right, you have to be willing to get some things wrong.

In my opinion, the way many organizations have been approaching DEI+ is like someone trying run a Commodore 64 with a modern Windows operating system. I mean, you could do it with an external interface. But, why the heck would you want to? Because you’ve always used a Commodore? That makes no sense. And yet effectively that is what we do with relational initiatives like DEI+. The production mindset is the right mindset for transactional situations. But it is the wrong mindset for relationships. And that is ultimately what DEI+ is all about. The challenge is for us to create cultures that are expansive enough to make room for both and then some.

While I don’t know the work of the woman below, she does a pretty decent job of articulating the transactional v. relational paradigm. Unfortunately, there are so few of us who are practiced at making these distinctions. But, more opportunities are being created every day. That’s the work I do. But in order for us to have a culture that values this awareness, more of us are going to have to be brave enough to develop a greater capacity for intellectual humility and embracing the rightness of being wrong. Until we can figure that out, we are going to continue doing the right thing the wrong way.

If you’re interested in learning more about the Bridging Field that I am a part of and how we’re creating the conditions for collaborative inquiry, intellectual humility, and other aspects of a learning environment where relational initiatives such as DEI+ can thrive, reach out to me or I can put you in touch with others doing this kind of work, because at the end of the day, the better we get at this, the better it is for everyone.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s