Why are well-meaning leaders so challenged in being inclusive?

An article written for executives, managers, and ERGs to engage in empathic, positive, and fruitful progress.
March 18, 2022

“If you have grown up being centered by society your entire life, the idea of being decentered is terrifying.”

That’s an enlightening quote from a friend, advocate, and one of the most inspirational CEO’s I know, Joshua McKenty, a (Canadian) White man who – in his former leadership roles at NASA, Openstack, and Pivitol – has pushed himself deeper than most to consider privilege within different environments. A depth of experience in his career led Josh to this incisive observation. This article is meant for leaders, managers, and ERGs to better understand what’s behind Josh’s above statement and how we can apply emotional thinking to improve DEI outcomes.

Let’s start by setting the scene on statistically, where your organization is today.

Through the U.S., only forty percent of professionals, regardless of race or ethnicity, think their company has effective DEI efforts (Coqual). Assume for a moment that might include your organization. 

If you’re a decision-maker who is seeking higher impact and a better ROI for your DEI investment, this statistic serves as an opportunity to step back and ask yourself why satisfaction is so low in and beyond your organization.

As an executive of two startups in my career, combined with a background in social science research, I’d encourage you to begin by considering, what qualities does an unsatisfying conversation contain? 

You can come up with your own response. I’d say that three qualities of an unsatisfying conversation are:

  • I don’t feel personally brought into the conversation.
  • It’s too conceptual or over-intellectualized.
  • The dialogue is mostly containing negative perspectives.

If you’ve gone through DEI training before, then you might notice that these examples describe a majority of DEI efforts.

The backdrop of our current U.S. culture-building environment is, unfortunately, that 75% of DEI training uses negative messaging to get their points across (HBR). By working with our nation’s top labs studying emotion, bias, and empathy, I also do not doubt that negative messaging has an adverse metabolic cost associated with it. In other words, being negative is energy draining. 

The result is that DEI programming is creating a steeper hill to climb than is helpful towards changing behavior. So it’s fair to say that this approach of negative cognitive training may be taking us as far as it can.

Case in point: the morning I wrote this, a DEI director at a firm we work with was talking about how her Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) team felt that their programs and presentations were centering white people. Whenever I dig deeper, I soon learn that a root cause of this is how DEI is being discussed intellectually and conceptually. In most DEI work, the emotions are simply byproducts of the concepts being taught. 

But concepts and emotions are inextricable – they happen at the same time. Science shows that’s how the brain works. A DEI framework without a plan for how to work through complex emotions is incomplete. In other words, without taking time for the emotional part of the DEI experience, it’s no wonder that satisfaction in DEI is so low.

This isn’t to say that discussing concepts isn’t important in DEI efforts, but pure concept discussions lead us astray. For example, when terminology on gender and race is shared as bullet points to learn, White people in leadership, being unknowingly centered by society, can feel a lot of stress focusing on the importance of the vocabulary as a fact, rather than the vocabulary simply as a vessel to someone feeling heard, seen, and understand. 

It can get even worse in more public debates around Critical Race Theory, a weighty example that kicks up dizzying whirlwinds of debate that take a lot of energy, drawing focus away from the building of an emotional foundation that can celebrate differences and new perspectives. 

Since the human mind is a living, endless intermingling of concept and emotion, if we want leadership to develop an emotionally productive perspective on their marginalized team members, we also need to consider how better to address the emotions that well-meaning White individuals inevitably feel when they see themselves become decentered. We need to remember that these leaders and managers represent a share of an organization capable of significantly shifting environmental bias (which we discuss in this article).

These leaders and managers are sometimes even executive sponsors who show up at Employee Resource Group meetings with the best intentions, make social mistakes as a result of biased thinking, feel awkward, and then emotionally disengage from their will towards advocacy.

So what’s the solution? Begin seeing DEI engagement not as conceptual learning, but as an emotional practice. 

Through our research in emotion, empathy, and bias interventions, we know that everyone who feels themselves being de-centered is having a unique and mostly invisible emotional experience. 

This experience contains a range of emotions that vary based on the context, and even how much sleep and sugar they’ve had in the last 24 hours. That emotional experience is going to be invisible to someone else because we are much worse at predicting other people’s emotions than we think. 

So effectively implementing conceptual DEI frameworks into inevitably emotional environments begins by coming together with your ERG leaders to engage with those emotions gradually and empathetically. Start with a discussion around how to approach ‘the real emotional terror of being decentered, not forgetting that White leadership often doesn’t know how centered they are. ‘

There are various reasons for this, and it can be helpful to keep a few points in mind:

  • Since many White men were never asked to be centered by society, they don’t consciously know that they are. 
  • We feel less emotional about things that have been separated from our identity.
  • If White men feel they unwillingly inherited this position – or even that it’s an unwanted burden – then the harmful habit of constantly centering themselves can become less emotionally triggering, and easier to relinquish. 

If you’re a White person in a position of leadership, this might be a good moment to consider the above and how it relates to you. If you’re not in leadership or White, also realize this conversation is about all of us. If we all acknowledge the terror of being faced by uncomfortable conversations, it improves emotional engagement from all participants. 

Without acknowledging the angst of being decentered we risk introducing friction into the growth process. 

Exercise 1: How can ERGs and DEI teams support decentering conversations:

To engage in this particular set of emotions within DEI, I recommend choosing a time to gather as a team internally. In that gathering, each shares a time when you’ve felt this discomfort of being decentered. 

You can think back on a moment when someone called you out, however gently. It might look something like filling in this template.

At [this time and place] I was having a conversation with [this colleague(s)] when I did or said [this thing] and received [this feedback]. I did so because [these reasons]. My colleague pointed out [why that wasn’t the best approach]. At the time I felt [these two-three emotions] but also realized my colleague was right because [find your own way to say, “it was more important to center them in this context”].

Here’s a recent example from my own experience. 

“Last Friday I was talking with our interns about a meeting that would take place during their spring break. I asked one of them if she would like me to cancel or keep the meeting because I didn’t want to assume she had plans and wouldn’t want to come during the break. My colleague pointed out that that puts her in a position that ignores our power dynamic. At the time I felt conflicted, uneasy, and defensive, but also realized my colleague was right because the reasons I had for asking her weren’t as important as being aware of the position I was putting her in.”

This exercise is helpful to look at the degree to which a person is aware of these negative emotions because if they can articulate it, they’ve just extended a bridge toward being supported by their colleagues.

Exercise 2: How leaders can successfully decenter themselves when they accidentally do so in real-time. 

Here is an approach you might try as a White manager or leader who wants to help advance your organization’s advocacy but might be tangled up in an overly centered mindset. To make it memorable, we can call it, Name it. Blame it. Frame it. 

Step 1: Name it. For example: “Am I overly centering one particular viewpoint in this conversation?”

Step 2: Blame it. If it’s helpful for you, describe the world you’re leaving behind. Let the blame be on that world, and not on you. Assume that others know very little about your experiences. Once you have explained your reasoning, if you’ve given yourself a gentle but brief space to do so, you will be better able to focus on the new perspective your team is offering. 

In turn, your team may appreciate how you didn’t challenge their new perspective. They might notice how you simply explained why you didn’t see it, due to your own previous experiences, and why you were able to embrace their perspective. That would be ideal because, in the process, they’ve also gotten to know and empathize with you.

Step 3: Frame it. Bring it back to a positive space for the team you’re speaking with to be part of creating belonging. You might say something like,“I hope you know I didn’t mean to center my viewpoint. Thanks for helping me understand yours.” Doing so will allow your team to process your own decentering in a positive and non-defensive environment.

These exercises are a keystone of the immersive experiences we offer, wherein we present participants with a new perspective in a safe way. We’ve found that when someone has an emotional reaction to witnessing a scene that doesn’t align with their experience of the world, it takes time to process. 

Organizationally, there is hope on the path of decentering successfully. 

To sum up, though, it must start with that powerful realization shared by our friend Joshua: that being decentered, when you didn’t realize you were centered to begin with, is terrifying. 

To touch one level deeper on the why: White leaders have been taught that it’s up to them to conceptualize what a “good” society looks like, and how people should act within it. The problem with this dynamic, where a dominant group claims the responsibility to share its ideas to create a “better” society, is that leaders only have their own experiences to draw from. When these experiences have consistently been centered by society, the result is a structure in which it’s difficult to understand why someone else, who has not been centered by society, would respond to an interaction differently from someone who has been centered. It’s also important to note, those variations in response are beneficial to our society’s well-being.

White leaders and managers are so often in positions to define where society is headed while simultaneously lacking the tools necessary to understand where a majority of people are. Good-faith effort is not enough to make up for this deficit in experience. It requires opportunities for better understanding other perspectives.

I’ve witnessed thousands of participants be propelled into a new sense of empathy and perspective through watching real moments in real people’s lives. Many of these participants are White, cis, straight, neurotypical men. 

The surprise evinced by White, centered leadership is significant because it shows how underexposed to other people’s perspectives we are as a society. Glimpsing different perspectives on Twitter is not the same, in fact, popular media can be more confusing than clarifying. Real, immersive perspectives help people feel things on a personal level. 

Seeing a lifelong White, centered perspective be jolted into a new viewpoint is exciting – it moves us all into a more empowered…

At Empathable, our team uses psychology, neuroscience, and the outer limits of artistic design to create interactive spaces within which to learn. These experiences are designed to promote empathy across perceived “differences,” including socially-constructed divisions such as gender, race, and age. The immersive process helps participants to contextualize their inner biases to the people around them, which increases inclusion.

Schedule a Demo to learn how to invite empathy into your organization.

Special thanks to Anushri Kumar, Savannah Johnson, and David Kessel for their support in writing this article.