Remember that outcome you thought was more important than figuring out how to talk about Equity and Inclusion? How’s that working out for you?

If the system is the problem and you’re only trying to fix individuals without addressing the system, then you are guaranteeing that you will always have individuals to fix. — Steven L. Robbins, PhD

There seems to be quite a bit of confusion among NFL teams as to how to address public protests of police brutality and racial inequity during our national anthem.

It’s been a full year after Colin Kaepernick first sat — and then knelt — in protest against the disproportionate violence visited on unarmed Black people by police officers. It’s been a year after he told exactly no one that he was going to sit on the bench at Levi’s Stadium and put his soul before his vocation.

It’s been just over a year since Kap met up with former Seahawk longsnapper and Green Beret Nate Boyer and discussed his protest privately citizen to soldier; since Kap allowed that conversation to move him like no other cable news or social media rant had. It’s been a year since he adjusted his symbolic sitting into kneeling (something that aligned more closely with what Boyer described as, “Soldiers take a knee in front of a fallen brother’s grave, you know, to show respect. When we’re on a patrol, you know, and we go into a security halt, we take a knee, and we pull security.”).

It’s been a year since Kap protested the machinations of our justice system — which is ultimately an extension of our political system, which is ultimately an extension of all of us — which we allow to disproportionately kill and lock away people of color as opposed to protecting their rights equally or diverting funding to schools where they seek an education.

It’s been over a year, and this past weekend, NFL owners, coaches, and players finally found themselves backed into a corner and forced to take a unified stance on whether they should stand, sit, or stretch for … unity?

The Shift is On

We all know the beginning of the story by now. The current President of the United States Electoral College and the winner of the 2016 Russian-Sponsored Facebook Awards, found the limits of his power when he let loose a series of race-baiting tweets and one spectacularly authoritarian hypothetical demanding that NFL owners force grown men to stand for the national anthem — and referring to those men by slurring their mothers.

While Trump had been hounding Kaepernick’s protest almost since the day it started, this time he witnessed his bully pulpit turn to sawdust when he took it upon himself to tell 32 billionaires (with about 350 million more paying fans than he) how they should be running their largest investments.

While the response denouncing these remarks may have been expected, exactly what would transpire on the sidelines was anyone’s guess, especially given that the movement Kap had sparked and Trump had threatened was now alive and well in the commitments of additional protesting players.

In the end, nearly half of the New England Patriots and nearly all of the Denver Broncos knelt, the entire Oakland Raiders team sat, the Seahawks and Titans opted to sit out the anthem entirely, the Pittsburgh Steelers couldn’t seem to get on the same page, and the Cowboys (joined by Jerry Jones) decided to re-engineer an entirely new process.

The consensus from teams around League seems to be that owners, coaches, and players are united in their willingness to support their fellow teammates right to protest, while also recognizing that not everybody would express a commitment to protest in that particular way.

Consequently, this allowed the conversation to drift quite a bit away from where it had started a year ago. If nothing else, by the end of Monday night, Trump, NFL owners, fans, and media outlets had refocused the controversy on the act of protest and the attendant level of “gratitude” players should demonstrate given their ability to exercise free speech (which sounds awfully a lot like a veiled threat) while denying the reason for the protest almost any air time. Still, when NFL players and teams came together on the field, the majority locked arms in a display of what most referred to as “unity”. One has to wonder where that unity begins and ends for players protesting police brutality and systemic racism, not simply affirming their right to protest.

There were as many different interpretations of what unity looked like on Sunday and Monday as there were teams to demonstrate it. Consequently, two minutes of pre-game time, in turn, provided a phenomenal portrait of what the front offices of organizations and the employees of those organizations were willing to risk for one another when something seemingly outside the purview of nickel packages and no-huddle offenses showed up in their offices and locker rooms.

This past weekend was a nationwide opportunity to show how valuable it could be for members of organizations (from the executives to the interns) to acknowledge and address how systems of oppression work — and the role they play within them — using plain language. Organizations with leaders who are willing to engage in this conversation with their colleagues are far more powerful than those who would wait until they simply had to point out and reject oppressive speech as a less risky method for demonstrating their core values.

I have also learned this lesson the hard way.

A Six-Month Swing and a Miss

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to work on a six-month consulting project with an organization for the purposes of designing a racial diversity training and workforce strategy.

Initially, we held voluntary workshops that engaged roughly 90 members of their workforce. (We don’t do mandatory workshops. More on that later.)

Almost 70% or the organization made the decision to attend. Some remote workers even drove into the training site to participate in the workshop with their peers via a 3-hour commute.

The workshops allowed staff members to come to grips with (1) the ways in which their own racial identity had actually developed over the course of their life, (2) the racial identity and lived experiences of their colleagues, and (3) what was required to have those identities come together to work in trustworthy and powerful ways.

Everyone had an opportunity to shape his or her workshop time for themselves. Colleagues could make requests to learn about anything they cared about in relation to race, identity, their work and their organization. Over the course of two months of training, there was a bit of frustration, a few emotional points of confusion, constant of problem-solving and collaboration, and a lot of time for self-reflection and contemplation.

In the end, the bonds each of these colleagues shared with one another and the passion they had for their mission allowed them to develop a deep understanding of how their community could work better together.

But we didn’t stop there.

We rode the success of those workshops to establish a committee that brought together roughly 25 of those previously trained members from across multiple functional areas — HR, Business Development, Marketing, Customer Service, and Product Development — to identify a strategy that could take what we learned about racial identity and diversity and leverage it to improve organizational outcomes through principle and practice.

The committee worked together quite beautifully through a hierarchy of process and not a hierarchy of title.

It didn’t matter if the participants were Senior VPs or interns. As long as each colleague was able to (1) propose action items they wanted to act on and would be responsible for, (2) receive input from staff members whom the proposal would affect, (3) request resources from teammates to help you with the project based on their organizational role, and (4) commit to put their plan into motion publicly, then they could move on any proposal they felt would help move the organization forward.

At the end of three months, the Committee produced (1) a well-defined series of proposals to change or introduce new organizational policies and practices, (2) an explanation of the investments required, and (3) a well-defined, expected ROI from each one of these proposed actions.

The proposals were presented to the entire team of executive leadership in during an hour-long meeting and then … nothing. There was no commitment, no backing for the proposals, and, despite our efforts to define the costs, still significant concern over the unforeseen expenses.

There we stood, in a conference room overlooking Boston Harbor and the skyline beyond that, having engaged over 70% of the workforce, a plan in hand, and owning true confidence in our ability to collaborate across differences. We were completely stuck.

The folly in my approach was instantly obvious. None of the Executive Committee members we had presented to had voluntarily taken part in the initial training.

In the beginning, I chose not to push those executives to participate because I knew mandatory training had negative impacts on diversity outcomes. The problem was that they were the only group I should have actually pushed.

We allowed the Executive Committee to excuse themselves from the process because they were too busy. By the time the workforce had finished the training and the committee finished the collaborative strategic planning, our team was so well-versed in taking ownership over their role in disrupting racial injustice that the responses of their senior leaders to their proposals seemed light years behind their own awareness and development.

This was not the fault of the leaders in the room either. It was my fault. While the CEO and COO had felt it important enough to provide their team with diversity training and workforce planning, they never saw the same value in it for themselves relative to all the other priorities they needed to tend to when it came to “the business”. I never tried to convince them otherwise.

Their business had changed in a matter of months. It was no longer dependent on their strategic insights or vision alone. Rather, their business was now dependent on their ability to trust their colleagues and their sense of ownership over the company’s culture and governance. It was a leap much too far to make in the course of a single meeting.

Holding Control is Losing Control

Let me put this another way. There is a reason that the top 25% of companies in racial and ethnic diversity are 35% more likely to be beating the market in any given year.

It’s called resilience. Ensuring you have a workforce that (1) hails from a range of life experiences and (2) can work across those differences creates a workforce that can bounce back and innovate through almost anything. Organizations today have to ask themselves:

  • Do we have representation from a diverse set of thinkers around every table to help us make tough decisions and constantly put ourselves out of business through innovation (as opposed to having other companies do it for us)?
  • Do we have a company culture that inspires all our talent to collaborate, perform toward their greatest potential, and stick around?
  • Can we honestly measure with accuracy whether either of these is the case?

I don’t know that there are any more important questions when it comes to building an organization in today’s economy.

Who is showing up? How do we show up with each other? How do we know if we’re doing both right? It doesn’t get more simple nor more vital than that.

As any venture capitalist or entrepreneur worth their salt has said repeatedly, the product or service is secondary to the team that’s creating and iterating the product or service.

Yet, what makes engaging in diversity and inclusion work so difficult, what gets teams lost in a miasma of awkwardness, uncertainty, avoidance, and fear surrounding our identities in the workplace (a cloud of doubt that seems as ethereal as it does maddeningly complex), is that such work exposes two common needs that prevent people from asking authentic questions and working together — power and equity.

(Diversity and inclusion work) actually exposes two common needs that prevents people from asking authentic questions and working together — power and equity.

The love of control is the supermassive black hole from which organizational galaxies are both born and swallowed whole. All the others reasons we dismiss engaging in the work of diversity, equity, and inclusion are just dust rotating around this one common center of gravity.

  • Senior leaders and executives have been taught to fear giving up control over their ability to make the final call, as they feel this control allows them to keep their competitive edge and their workforce “on-mission”.
  • Front-line managers have been taught to fear giving up control over personnel decisions and workflow. They believe this would put their teams’ outcomes at risk, endanger their reputation, and threaten their jobs.
  • Meanwhile, many front-line or specialist staff members are so scarred from their perceived lack of control that they fear holding any at all. They fear taking ownership over their work and the outcomes of their team. Employees in such a state often feel that diversity initiatives that ask them to take on additional responsibility and ownership are simply a proxy to control them even further, and for good reason.

Traditional diversity & inclusion teaching (whether it focuses on race, gender, or some other aspects of identity) has danced around the problem of institutional power and control for decades, yet consistently wielded power through mandatory programs and HR processes.

Diversity officers and would-be innovators are constantly managing up, finding new ways to introduce the same core concepts in new and exciting ways that excite executives enough to have them invest in their initiatives. Senior executives are constantly pushing down top-down change initiatives and goals to try and resolve bottom-up problems.

While the internal pyramid of hierarchy forces decision-makers to compete against so many other priorities, time pressures, and perspectives, internal change becomes piecemeal at best and fails to address the underlying culture that produces inequitable outcomes and toxic culture.

This is what the fear of losing control does to an organization. It amplifies entropy.

Without authentic governance and shared power in decision-making, the only other option for an organization to organize itself through some version of the “myth of the hero(ine)” who raises everyone else’s level. Everyone else is left to rent their power from these mythical leaders in such a hierarchy.

Most of our organizational systems for internal governance and shared power break because they are rigid and rely on too few connections to hold the structure together. But change management (designed with diversity and inclusion in mind) is uniquely suited to repair these fissures with new, flexible connections — not just to give colleagues the power to address issues of race and gender inequity in the workplace but to give employees the power to address any occasion when they feel they have a solution but do not have the power to introduce it.

Diversity and Inclusion Requires Accountability and (Culture) Change

If diversity describes the representative ways we can “count people” and inclusion is making people count, then we need equity, as it measures how well we are actually doing in both of these regards. We also need transformational change management that helps us reveal and let go of the assumptions (sometimes fundamental assumptions) that are hurting our organization.

Effective diversity and inclusion work turns the mirror on ourselves and how we make decisions. That makes it difficult work primarily because it requires us to move away from the normal “achievement” framework of organizational success (e.g. self-reliance, “get it done”) and trust that surfacing, revising, adopting, and practicing new principles (e.g. The Four Commitments, “how we do this is more important than what we produce”) will lead to success.

Instead, there is a constant refrain that we hear from leaders of organizations who won’t allow themselves to invest their time and energy into diversity and inclusion, who won’t give up the power to make decisions and let those closest to the problem guide them.

It sounds a lot like this:

“I don’t want us to start playing politics.”

Leaders can’t seem to stop treating politics as if they were a dirty word.

It is a terrible disservice to our communities and organizations that our notion of useful political speech has become so far removed from the notion of good governance that it creates an inability for us to speak anything of substance to power at all.

Politics simply describes the processes we use to determine a set of agreements — a contract — under which a community can be made and sustained. It follows five decision points that all groups living and working together must answer for themselves and agree to:

  1. How will we gather to agree on decisions?
  2. Who will be allowed to make decisions on our community’s behalf?
  3. What kind of decisions will we agree to allow them to make?
  4. How will those agreements govern how we live and work together?
  5. How we will hold one another responsible for upholding those agreements?

Politics is the ongoing refinement of a social contract for the construction and maintenance of a community — and organizations are both communities unto themselves and part of a broader patchwork of communities as well.

There is nothing inherently wrong with workplace politics. Our workplaces simply have yet to create the structure and space necessary for our colleague’s voices to be seen as positive force for good.

When NFL players determine that they, their loved ones, and their fellow community members are severely afflicted by not only police brutality and racial inequality, but by the inadequate responses to these injustices, they use their right to free speech to create a dialogue where once there was only silence. At the very least, such an expression points out, as the progenitor of this current protest movement has said, “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way.”

This is bigger than (my job). It would be selfish for me to look the other way. This attitude is the essence of transformational leadership. This is the attitude of someone who realizes there is something is so problematic with our social contract that it, in turn, affects not only our work but our humanity, and takes decisive action to address it. Wouldn’t all employers want more colleagues who think and act like that, even if they don’t immediately relate to the premises of their reasoning?

They should, because the various social contracts we hold, whether they are explicit or implied, are the process of selection on which our institutions actually evolve and grow. Not cash flow. Not assets. Not market share. Not brand. The strength of an economy and a company is found in the quality of its workforce. Engagement wins.

Organizations, like governments, rise and fall on the agreements (both explicit and implicit) made between colleagues. Our colleagues require fair and transparent methods for making promises to one another and they also require our willingness to be held accountable to those promises. The essence of politics, of the social contracts that bind us, is found in self-awareness, honesty, and collaboration.

The current political circus that aggrandizes tweet-happy, news-cycled, dark-money-funded, plutocratic pols in our state and federal government offices today is a severely corrupted form of politics, one devoid of self-awareness and collaboration. Their version of politics is the result of equating money with speech and gerrymandering our voter bases into artificial communes of political extremism. This leaves precious little space for nuance and thoughtful civic engagement.

But our institutions of commerce and social impact are different. They are still malleable and they can greatly benefit from the development and maintenance of a living social contract.

Organizational leaders and NFL teams alike have a massive opportunity to harness the promise of political speech and personal ownership if only they are courageous (and creative) enough to engage these assets with care.

— — —

Chris Conroy is the founder and principal officer of Conroy Talent & Associates, LLC (CTA), a workforce design firm dedicated to leveraging the natural human strengths of autonomy, integrity, diversity, inclusion, and equity to build workplaces people love. CTA is focused on delivering phenomenal talent recruitment as well as organizational management systems as a service to organizations of all kinds.

You can reach him on LinkedIn, via email at, and on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

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