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Faculty Viewpoints

How to Start Making Real Change in Your Organization

We talked to Yale SOM leadership expert Heidi Brooks about how leaders should respond to structural inequality and racism. She says that many companies have a bias toward taking quick action that is ill-suited to a complex and ambiguous issue. Instead, organizations should reflect on their own culture and power dynamics and create a long-term plan for impact.

Illustration: Detail from Windows of Reflection by Lillian Blades

I wanted to start with a quote that you gave to Business Insider. You said, “People are kind of discovering the DNA of their culture right now, and not always getting good news.” I know you were talking about isolation and COVID, but it makes me wonder if that’s something that is also true about race relations and leadership.

I think it’s the case that hard times are basically stress tests. One of the reasons that a physician will stress test you is that under stress you can see which systems hold up, and which systems thrive, and which systems struggle. Hard times give us a chance to look at the strength of the organizational system.

I do some work as an advisor to organizations, so I have a chance to see a lot of senior executives and a lot of teams. One of the themes that’s come up is that teams that were doing well before are doing well now; they can handle the stress test. And teams that were not doing well now can’t handle the stress. They’re actually doing worse now.

These teams exist in the ecology of an organizational culture. That’s part of what is starting to show. It shows what happens around norms of power and communication, and work allocation, and psychological safety, and engagement, and burnout, and discussability of hard issues and sustainable productivity. Those are the stress tests that are being run right now. And too many organizations are not holding up. There isn’t the foundation of psychological safety or commitment to an organization in which there’s a sense of equity or belonging, or commitment to fairness.

A lot of us don’t actually know how to deal with the kind of diversity of the workforce and planet that we now have. We’ve got to get better at it, because it’s not declining, it’s increasing. But, also, these kind of capacities—for an organization to be able to structure around work fairness, and employee engagement, and discussability of important work junctures, and being efficient, and creative, and innovative—are basics of a good organization. The dynamics at the fore now aren’t only about Black Lives Matter; this is about a good workplace basics. And so what happens is that, when we can’t create some of these basic structures, the power and the dynamics of the organization and culture often show earliest at the margins, with the people who are least protected and buffered in the organizational system. Which is often underrepresented minorities—which in many organizations includes women of all ethnicities.

It’s not that those populations have unique problems, exactly. It’s that they are the place where the dynamics of the organization show the earliest, and where you see the largest disparities. So one of the ways that you can understand organizational dynamics is actually to look and see what’s happening with underrepresented people. There is a tremendous opportunity in multiple directions right now to understand the experience of Black Americans in the workplace. Plus, discussing race and power in the U.S. is such a tough topic that if you can do that effectively, you can take on almost anything!

When it comes to COVID or police brutality and racism, should employers be acknowledging these issues? Should they be showing their own vulnerability more clearly as leaders?

People who are in positions of organizational authority, whether it’s formal or informal leadership, have a really important role to play right now. What we’re trying to do is survive a difficult thing with COVID, and the question of racial justice or injustice has some of the same aspects; we’re trying to survive a difficult period of hard conversations that we haven’t had before. So what does it mean to survive? Does it just mean get through it with as little discussion as possible? I don’t think so. With COVID, we want to stay physically away from each other but, just as with the current situation with racism and police brutality, we do need to be socially and emotionally connected. So in a way it’s not different in terms of our need for connection, it's just that it’s different forces and reasons that are keeping us apart—fear of contagion with COVID; fear of, well, that's what's interesting—fear of what? For specifics, it depends on whether we are talking about white people or black people or maybe even other groups of color. But ultimately it all comes down to fear of being rejected, judged, etc., I think. In terms of attention to racial justice in the workplace, I would say that actually we want to get through with as much awareness raising, as much possibility of progress, as much learning, as possible. In order to promote that kind of an outcome, we want to promote the kind of psychological safety that will allow people to talk safely.

Now, that might mean different things for different demographics. But one thing that we know is that leaders have a hugely important role to play in psychological safety. We can draw on some of Amy Edmondson’s work around the role of leaders, and establishing the conditions where people don’t fear reprisal for speaking. The easiest and most efficient way to do that is for the person who has formal or informal leadership authority to speak, revealing their own sense of vulnerability. Not for vulnerability’s sake in itself, but to make it OK for others to know exactly how to deal with ambiguity. To say, “I’m not sure of the right things to say.” To say, “I’m a little bit ambivalent about speaking as a leader when I’m not Black,” for example, is to help so many people who are feeling those same feelings even if for other reasons.

Instead, what some are doing, in the face of that ambivalence and lack of a sense of authority to speak when the topic is about being Black, is that they’re choosing silence. And what silence does is not what people are thinking it does, necessarily. Silence is not neutrality. If you’re saying nothing, what you might be projecting in your organizational culture, especially if you’re a leader, is the way that we deal with these things is through silence. If you’re thinking you’re kind of a neutral Switzerland in this, I would say silence is not neutrality right now.

“You have a responsibility to create the organizational conditions that people can actually discuss hard issues, including race, in the workplace. It’s a leadership job right now.”

For leaders and managers who are used to having the answers, it’s pretty hard to speak with a sense of ambivalence and vulnerability. I really encourage people to display their own humanity, to share some aspects of their sense of indignity, shock, fear, whatever’s true for them. People have expressed a lot of concern to me about, “Isn’t that just making it about me? Isn’t this a time to underscore, emphasize and honor the Black experience?” Actually, no, you’re establishing psychological safety. You don’t have to speak for 20 minutes. You can just say a couple of simple things, like, “I come to this with a little bit of ambivalence and a sense of concern about speaking with authority on this. So I just want to say that I have feelings and perspectives on this issue. For example, I am grappling with my own sense of culpability for our current situation about the Black experience in our company.”

I think it’s worth owning that you have a responsibility to create the organizational conditions that people can actually discuss hard issues, including race, in the workplace. It’s a leadership job right now. If you’re not taking that responsibility, I think that you are perhaps choosing self-protection, and you’re lying down on the job. If you want your organization to be able to discuss these things, you personally need to be able to do that. Leaders embody the culture. So if you want something for your organization, make it possible through your own behaviors.

Individuals are being encouraged to do the work. Activists are being encouraged to do the work. Is that something that leaders and managers should be doing too?

Absolutely. And to the extent that structural components of the organization live in the organizational culture and its norms, structural racism and bias will also live in those norms. And so, you absolutely can do things around policy, but to understand the impact on the people, we actually need to consider the people. There are shorter-term actions you can take. You can learn to tell people of color apart and call people by the correct name. You can conduct an inventory of the people who are in your real work network and start to take account of the real diversity/lack thereof in your network.

My bottom line is really, if you want something for your organization, as a senior leader you need to be able to take on that work personally, those kind of shifts of mind and heart, and ways of being. Now, that has to be a collective effort. Any single person doing it makes a difference. But my work really focuses on people doing this work together so that you change parts of the culture by changing the norms of how we interact. And a lot of this work at the beginning is awareness-raising work. It’s so exhausting for the people who haven’t really thought about this yet. It’s a lot of work to be vulnerable. For people who are really trying to think about the shocking state of justice or lack thereof in our systems, it’s exhausting to think about, to think about personal culpability. It is, of course, also exhausting and exasperating to witness and personally experience injustice and even worse when others seem blind or unwilling to acknowledge what is happening.

A lot of the logic of American culture is one of comfort seeking, and that runs up against the discomfort of awareness raising. The thing to do is to actually move from having your awareness raised into practices that promote competence for individuals and organizations. You have to learn to put up with the discomfort as part of the growth process.

There are a lot of structural and default mechanisms that encourage reducing awareness. Seeing if we can just plug the gap with some sort of Band-Aid, so we could feel better and say, “Oh, we’ve done something,” is dangerous. What we really want to do is move from awareness into practices. We want to start trying things that actually improve the situation.

One of those practices is a deep learning orientation together. We can actually work to create the psychological safety and the tolerance for bad news when the situation is really very, very difficult. And let’s not kid ourselves—it’s very entrenched situation in the U.S. We’ve got to pull up our big girl and big boy pants and get to work. And if we can do that, I think there’s hope for a different kind of future than the past that we’ve been living with—one of tolerating or ignoring a clear negative impact on people of color.

How does it progress to the point where people are having hard conversations about diversity hiring, or talking about their communications strategy, or how they’re representing their company in their advertising?

One of the things to do is to not jump too soon to solutions. In corporate America there’s an impulse for action that is often premature on complex issues. Heifetz and Linsky have written about this as the adaptive versus technical definition of challenges. One of the reasons that we like the technical solution is that we can actually get our hands around it—you know what a plug is, and you know how to plug something in. You just need the right socket and the matching plug, and you plug things in—eureka, light. We like problems like that. Issues around race and structural racism and questions of fairness have such a high degree of ambiguity, complexity, and vulnerability to them that not only do we not know what the answer is, we often don’t even know what the question is in our organizations.

The real intention of diversity, inclusion, and equity work gets lost when we try to find a problem frame for which we know the answer, when we try to reduce the level of complexity of the problem to something for which we have an action we can take. I’ve seen this in meetings and conversations rampantly over the last week. I’ve been on the phone since 7:00 this morning with different companies leaders, and journalists. People want to know, what’s the problem for which I can actually act? This is the road to hell that’s paved with good intentions because it will tank your supposed commitments to diversity efforts. It’s not as simple as the solutions that are available at hand.

That is very bad news for people who absolutely, with their true heart and mind, want to be able to do something of impact. But you have to have the courage and patience to allow for the complexity of the issue.

“Think long-term, and think about impact, not just action. Start to make a plan where your impact is connected to your aspiration.”

One of the first things you can do is get a real picture of what’s happening in your company. The first stage of awareness raising actually can take some time. And don’t make it solely a Black issue; it’s a power issue in the organization that is playing out at the margins and disproportionately impacting the people who are least networked. It’s about taking a courageous look both about how everyone is impacted and specifically how Black people are impacted by the same issues.

That’s a frustrating answer to people who say, “We just want real and immediate action.” Be careful of immediate but ineffective action, because it has the ironic effect of “we’ve done something, we’ve checked the box; we’ve satisfied our sense of guilt and compulsion for action.” But actually nothing has changed. So my second recommendation is, allow complexity. Think long-term, and think about impact, not just action. What do you actually want to see happen? And let it tie back to your aspirations. Start to make a plan where your impact is connected to your aspiration.

If you want an organization where work is allocated more fairly, or you’re able to hire more people of color, or you’re able to develop people of color more equitably in a way that actually works, what really needs to happen? Who needs to increase their skills? What is the system?

We’re very capable of taking on complex problems when we decide that actually we’re going to recognize the complexity of the issue. This is just another issue with complexity. Part of the complexity is emotional. The history of this country is one of guilt, perhaps, even worse, of shame, and honestly appropriately so. So how do we deal with that in a way that acknowledges and honors impact and still moves forward?

It turns out we’re horrible at that. That’s the key skill set—actually getting a real picture of what’s happening for people, tolerating the tremendous emotional complexity in addition to the situational complexity, and history, and lack of movement. And not retrenching into our really well-refined skill set of extreme denial.

Also, honestly honoring the people who have stayed the course under these conditions. There are some Black professionals out there doing incredible things in the context of an environment that’s quite difficult to work in.

Part of your work is about “micro-moments”; how do they factor in?

Part of being able to move on these issues is allowing for the complexity which I’ve already talked about. And complexity often comes with ambiguity. But part of what happens is that, people often want to think of a moment as an interpersonal dynamic, or they’ll make sense of a situation as an individual personality quirk. Because we know how to understand that. So maybe there’s something happening in your organization that seems to be about bias. People want to find the bad actors and the bad apples—it’s this reactive, blame-based system. By all means, there should be something done about the bad actors or bad apples who are really just infusing toxicity that’s related to bias and racism into your system. There’s also probably something that’s not just interpersonal or about an individual. Leaders need to be able to think about systems at multiple levels.

We’d start with the individual—what happens within the self. You can try to catch some micro-moments that matter. One of the micro-moments that matters is feeling triggered. People who are newer to anti-racism work, or to awareness in this, often have a reaction of guilt, which is what Robin DiAngelo is writing about as white fragility.

And so the micro-moment is, what do you do with that? Can you actually be with that? Can you actually let that just be an emotion you can sit with? And by sit, I don’t mean like go away into retreat. I just mean that you don’t have to flee into denial, or reactivity, or hostility, or blame, or perhaps at worst a kind of projection of the emotion that you can’t be with into someone else’s incompetence.

One of the questions to ask right now is, what are my trigger points? The Black professional could be asking this, too. Because there are many things that trigger the Black professional, often about status vulnerability in the setting. Those things are very hard to name out loud, because people don’t necessarily want to reinforce and make salient the status vulnerabilities that are present in the organization.

“If you can understand the heartbreak of the necessity to primarily exist through the perception of another person, we can have a deeper conversation.”

So, those are some of the intrapersonal things that happen. Then there’s this interpersonal level. Interpersonally, one of the best things that we can do is promote perspective taking, sitting in empathy. I suggest what people do in that domain is really think about not just surface listening and empathy, but actually deep listening. Can you understand from multiple perspectives what someone else is going through?

That applies across different demographics. I think it’s probably already in the skill set of the Black professional to have a double consciousness of being aware of how other people think of you, because it’s a necessary survival skill set for working in predominantly white environments, to have a sense of managing yourself through the eyes of another person. If you can understand the heartbreak of the necessity to primarily exist through the perception of another person, we can have a deeper conversation. That’s what I mean by deeper empathy.

For the people who don’t have the double consciousness skill set, building the skill of perspective taking and empathy—and not in a surface way, but in a deep way—means getting really genuinely curious and able to hear the experience of another person without necessarily agreeing with it, living it yourself, or endorsing it—just seeing it. And one of the best ways to do that is honestly through books, film and media, rather than through trying to get your colleagues to tell you their personal story.

Interview conducted by Emily Gordon.

Recommended Reading

Adam Grant: “Why White People Stay Silent on Racism, and What to Read First”

Lorraine Berry: “13 great books about the black experience in America”

Claude Steele: Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us & What We Can Do

Dolly Chugh: The Person You Mean to Be: How Good People Fight Bias

Bryan Stevenson: Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption

Laura Morgan Roberts, David A. Thomas, and Anthony J. Mayo: Race, Work, and Leadership: New Perspectives on the Black Experience

Upcoming Online Event, June 16: Registration: Race, Justice, and Equity in the Workplace and Beyond

Department: Faculty Viewpoints