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September 19, 2020
Three Steps to the Racial Diversity Conversation You Want
By Liz O’Connor

Nonprofit success, perhaps more than ever, is tied to organizations' ability to tap the strengths of a diverse workforce, and a key way to do that is by nurturing productive conversations around issues of race and diversity.

Here's a useful way to create those conversations.

1. Cultivate the Best Intentions
What is the goal of the conversation? Often, leaders addressing racial issues typically want to accomplish one of these:
  1. Address an external pressure. Whether this is minimal (legal compliance) or aspirational (“best practices”), the goal is to demonstrate willingness to do what someone else wants.
  2. Appear interested in change (while maintaining the status quo).
  3. Invest in stronger, healthier working relationships between members of a diverse team.
Suffice to say that c) is the only good reason to move forward. But the other two can also be effective starting places. When a client says something like, “I really need to get ahead of this; there is a task force talking about diversity, and I don’t like where it's’ going,” we can work with that.

How? By explaining the relationship between diverse teams and business returns. This is easy because the research is clear: Diverse teams are good for your organization.

This should be (but isn’t) intuitively obvious. It aligns with what we know from the natural world (biodiversity is essential to the health of all of our interconnected species, after all) and a growing body of management literature (see "How Diversity Makes Us Smarter").

2) Enable a Vision for a Brighter Future, without Ignoring the Past
Often, conversations about race and diversity start and end with addressing real, serious, and highly charged problems. This is vitally important. But it's also important to know that most people need to envision a future which is better than the present in order to make progress. That vision is often what drives them to do their best work. But this insight is rarely leveraged in service to building diverse, and “racially harmonious” teams.

An effective starting point helps groups envision interconnectedness and cross-cultural, interracial friendships in their workplace. This is unifying, motivating, and easier than it sounds. Despite what people read in the news, many (of all racial groups) actively want to build such relationships and live and work in places which are diverse and connected.

In fact, many people describe the absence of diversity among their friends as a genuine problem in their daily life, and they are open and articulate about their desire to change that, even if they don’t know how.

3) Facilitate a Respectful Structured Conversation, and Make Plans
Once the goals and the future vision are explicit and shared, a skilled facilitator can design a productive conversation which takes a group from point A to point B.

Often this will involve tackling past problems, but when the conversation is set up and structured this way, talking about racial inequities is clearly relevant to the whole group in meaningful, personal ways. This is a shift from conversations in which some people are giving voice to injustice and others are listening “tolerantly.”

Consider the following example: A mother told the story of her son’s exclusion from a play date, which was explained by the host child this way, “My mother only lets me invite white kids over.” This story was heartbreaking and horrifying for the Latino family, and was also immediately understood by everyone to be a true threat to community well-being.

A white mother responded, “You know, sometimes I’m worried that my children could say something like that, even though we are teaching them not to be racists. We live in a world full of racist messages, and I don’t think I am the only source of information and influence on my kids. I am grateful you told this story, and I hope that when things like this happen again, we will all pick up the phone to talk it over parent-to-parent so we can learn and work it out together.”

This is a small example of a large leap forward.

The initial story could have landed as simply one more example in an endless series of how racist some people really are, and confirmed everyone’s feelings of frustration, futility, and even despair.

Instead, and because of the conditions created for the conversation, it became an opportunity for healing and future collaborative action toward the shared goal of building racial harmony and willingness to talk about the difficulties and challenges.

What Clear Goals, Shared Vision, and Structured Conversation on Race Can Do for Your Organization
It may not be obvious, but there are many reasons that this work should inform your organizational planning and leadership. To build a strong, diverse team aligned around common goals, you need to be able to have difficult conversations about race.

The benefits include:
  1. You will generate more money #147; A 2015 McKinsey report on public companies found that those in the top quartile for ethnic and racial diversity in management were 35% more likely to have financial returns above their industry mean. Why?

  2. You will be more innovative #147; One recent study examined over 7,000 businesses, asking questions about many aspects of company performance. The results showed that culturally diverse leadership teams had a greater likelihood of developing new products than those with homogenous leadership.

  3. You’ll be ready for the future #147; Addressing racial issues in your organization is creating a platform for its future health, especially as America and its workforce becomes more racially diverse.
Liz O’Connor, founder and principal of Strategy Matters, LLC in Boston, works with organizations and groups of all sizes to use conversations to create a more productive future. Call her at 617-733-2286.
January 2017
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