By Celia Willis
There are many ways we could describe 2020, but if I had to pick one word, it would be “raw.”
The year began with the world literally on fire, with flames devouring the precious Australian wilderness. Not long after, COVID-19 began to spread with similar veracity, crossing borders unchecked, uncontainable. Quarantined, we were faced not only with fear for ourselves and loved ones but, with the deafening silence of our oft-ignored thoughts, our resident demons. This silence strips away illusions, forcing us to wake up to our own selves.
Then, when George Floyd called out for his mother with his final breaths, the fire, already stripping us bare, got a generous dose of gasoline. Black Lives Matter burst back on to the global stage, further escalating 2020’s already overwhelming intensity. We’ve experienced tragedy and upheaval before. But this time, I hear more conversations, see more emotion. The violent deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbrey and Breonna Taylor were the final push, awakening many of us to the systemic racism that has flourished under our noses for generations.
Have COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement accelerated a sweeping societal transformation? Is this the beginning of the end for the reign of “command and control”? Time will tell. But one thing is clear: change is on the horizon.
Until now most businesses have avoided hard conversations altogether, some even taking action against employees who spoke up. Leaders have hesitated to comment publicly or even internally for fear of saying the wrong thing. However, leaders find themselves at a tipping point, discerning not if they should respond but rather how.
We conducted a nationwide survey and found that 88% of respondents believe it is leaders’ responsibility to respond to this summer’s racial unrest. Change can be uncomfortable, but we can’t shy away from it. People are looking to leaders to, well, lead. Our most recent pulse also showed that 75% of employees are optimistic that lasting change is coming. Let’s not let them down.
The expectation for what that leadership should look like varies across generations, races, genders and experiences, colored by a vast diversity of thought and perception. Baby Boomers ranked their interest in diversity training 8-15 percentage points higher as compared to other generations. Millennials on the other hand were the most interested in leadership addressing race relations internally and collaboratively. We see companies taking this seriously: H.R. behemoth SHRM reports D&I job openings are spiking despite a tough job market.
Regardless of the tactical elements of an organization’s response, one thing is certain: Moving forward from these moments in a healing way starts with self-awareness, openness and collaboration, all of which require much self-reflection and comfort with discomfort. Recognizing this discomfort in ourselves first enables us to identify strategies to engage with challenging conversations in a healthy way.
For individuals and organizations struggling to find a meaningful way forward, here are some key things to consider:
- Self-awareness and education come first. KWI is embarking on this journey now and knows progress starts here.
- Any approach taken to address race relations should be an authentic reflection of your mission and values. Otherwise it won’t resonate or stick.
- Go deep and go wide: honestly addressing and healing complex issues like race relations or navigating work in a pandemic fundamentally requires a commitment to vulnerability, openness and collaboration across hierarchical boundaries. Systemic change only sticks when it reaches the individual and returns full circle to the whole.
It’s time to lean into this rawness, this vulnerable time. Why not give it a try? There’s nowhere left to hide.