This article is about management, racism, and change.
I once had a client who complained that his people couldn’t be trusted to perform.
“What happens when they make mistakes?” I asked.
“We retrain them,” he answered.
“What does that mean?” I persisted.
“Their manager goes over the process with them,” he said.
“But don’t they already know that?” I questioned.
“Well, you’d think so, but if they don’t do it right, then–”
“So you assume the reason they’re not following the system is that they don’t know how. Do you find out?”
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“Do you unpack with them what actually happened?”
“Um, no,” he said, and at that moment he began to learn how to manage. When he saw that he wasn’t interested in the root problem, he could become interested in it.
By now, nearly everyone has seen at the horrific footage of officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on George Floyd’s neck. What seems lost in the aftermath of the murder is the question: instead of kneeling on his neck, why didn’t the officer handcuff him? Why didn’t he restrain him in some other way in which he was trained?
Because it’s not a training issue. The cop knew better.
I don’t know the cop, so I can’t call him racist, but on that day he sure seemed to be.
Racism is an enormous, serious problem, I agree. But I see an even bigger one that’s overlooked. The root issue is that we, as a society, have a change problem. We’re dangerously slow at it. We decided in 1964 to treat each other better than this.
The Rodney King riots were 28 years ago. The Columbine shootings, 21 years ago. Scientists knew about global warming in the 1930s.
If we learned about touching hot stoves this slowly, none of us would have fingers.
Our slowness in change as a society is a reflection of our slowness as individuals. Cigarette smokers make an average of 10 attempts before they successfully quit. The best drug addiction treatment centers boast success rates of 30% at best. On average, a woman leaves an abusive man 7 times before she leaves for good.
I get it, change is difficult. We all know this. What are we doing about it?
Is studying change mandatory like the 4 years of math we’re sentenced to in high school? That would be a start.
Ultimately how we relate to change is a psychological issue, not a training one. But given that psychology is only about 120 years old, it’s taking a while to catch on.
I support the activism around the tragic death of George Floyd. I support the restructuring and retraining of police. I also don’t think it’s nearly enough.
What I most support and teach is that every human being looks at their relationship to change. It’s the most important relationship you have.
There’s no such thing as a society. It’s a group of individuals. When you collect a group of people with change-issues, you get a society with long-standing problems.
It’s no mystery.
Where is “systemic racism”? It’s not a binder filled with action plans to make sure non-white people are disproportionately frisked, pulled-over, incarcerated, and killed by police.
Sure, there are policies here and there that must change, but the system that’s broken is not the police force, it’s the human psyche. In the case of racism, it’s the part of the human psyche that’s afraid of people that are different than they are and are so existentially terrified of life that they need an in-group and an out-group to feel safe.
In a 2017 interview with Ira Glass, politician and unapologetic xenophobe Pat Buchanan illustrated what I’m talking about.
Buchanan: As I say, if you go back to 1960, the melting pot worked. The melting pot stopped working.
Glass: I don’t know. When it comes to this country, when you make the argument of… our country was better off when we were majority white and Judeo-Christian?
Buchanan: I think majority European, right.
Glass: And why is it better? Just lay out the case. Why is that better?
Buchanan: Well, maybe it’s preference. I feel more comfortable. I’m a homeboy, and I feel more comfortable with the folks you grew up with.
That was Buchanan’s case. Only that it’s more comfortable for him (setting aside the irony of calling himself a “homeboy”) I understand. I grew up in an all-white town. I’m more comfortable around white people, too, but I don’t hold that discomfort as anyone’s problem but my own, and I surely wouldn’t try to make it public policy.
The root of racism is the same as so many other problems: the inability to turn towards one’s discomfort and accept change.
So the problem can’t be completely eliminated with knowledge, or skills, or training. The issue is a lack of maturity. Maturity, for me, means proactively looking at where you’re immature and doing something about it. Maturity includes adapting to change and doing the right thing when it’s uncomfortable to do. That’s what I help people do.
If you’re frustrated by how long it’s taking for society to change, well, you know the deal: change yourself first. That’s where you have the most control. What change are you having difficulty accepting?
Perhaps when embracing discomfort is a deeply held, culture-wide value, perhaps when the standards for becoming a leader include maturity and authenticity, perhaps when we can all look at our broken psyches and take responsibility for them, change can happen quickly.
Until then, may we all have the patience to endure.