My intention in writing is to highlight that, while any president’s diminishing and disrespectful words have impact, there are things we can each do that will have far greater importance. This is not to condone or set aside his comments — he was at it again on Twitter this week — nor is it to deny that words have real power, or that disrespect of others, for any reason, has real consequences. However, while we are understandably troubled by words, actions of substance always speak louder and last longer.
We spend a lot of time talking about diversity and inclusion and a lot of time focusing on the “right language” to use. U.S. companies spend about $8 billion every year on diversity and inclusion training. But despite all this talk and all this money, there has been little real change. We know that abuses of power and toxic cultures are alarmingly prevalent — in churches, gymnasiums, schools, offices and conference rooms throughout the country. We know that sexual misconduct is all too common and that too many who know about it say nothing or cover it up for too long. While the news is always shocking, none of it is new — although perhaps it is finally getting more attention.
The most dramatic stories — just like the most salacious words — sometimes distract us from another long-standing reality. Women and people of color are treated differently simply because we are different. There simply is not a representative number of women or people of color in positions of influence, impact and leadership in business, politics, religion or the social sector. The representation of women in American boardrooms is still staggeringly low at less than 20 percent. Among Fortune 500 chief executives, there are fewer women than men . . . named James. Nearly 90 percent of all executive directors or presidents of nonprofits or foundations are white. In a leading global company such as Google, 70 percent of the workforce is male and only about 6 percent are black or Latino. These statistics are the rule, not the exception.
Why should we care? Because when we diminish, disrespect or underutilize talent and brainpower based on someone’s “appearance” or “style,” we get below-average results. My own experience in building high-performing cultures has convinced me that diverse teams of people who respectfully challenge one other’s thinking and value different points of view produce more ideas, more options, more innovation and better results. Data from a McKinsey & Co. study supports my experience:
●Ethnically diverse organizations are 35 percent more likely to outperform their competitors.
● “Companies in the top quartile for gender diversity are 15 percent more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians.”
●In the United States, for every 10 percent increase in racial and ethnic diversity on the senior-executive team, earnings rise 0.8 percent.
Women reading this will nod knowingly, perhaps with a tinge of resignation or even despair.
The vast majority of men I have worked with have been truly well-intentioned and respectful. So men reading this may throw up their hands and say, “I’m tired of talking about this and tired of being the bad guy.”
We won’t change things substantively unless we change our mind-set. When talent is squandered, when human potential is crushed, when someone’s spirit is broken, we all lose. When I counsel organizations on diversity and inclusion, I always start somewhere else entirely. As the statistics amply demonstrate, most of the money spent on diversity and inclusion training is wasted. I focus organizations on achievement and excellence, not sensitivity and “being nice.” Teams discover that to accomplish more and perform at a higher level, they need to include others around the table. When people learn that diversity is in their own self-interest, not just the morally right thing to do, behavior changes and real inclusion begins.
So, am I disappointed that our president does not exhibit role-model behavior? Yes. Do I detest the language he uses to describe all kinds of people, including women? Without a doubt. Does his language perpetuate and exacerbate long-standing problems? Indeed. While this is the unfortunate reality, the rest of us have plenty of work to do that can make a real difference. And that work will have a bigger impact over time than the president’s Twitter feed.