Three Legs to the Stool

Like most of you, I’ve been watching the ongoing energy around diversity and inclusion, forming my own opinions about what’s working and what’s holding us back in our journey to create a more just and inclusive society. As time goes on, it appears that we need three Ps to make significant and long-lasting change: Protest, Policy, and Power.

We’ve all seen the hundreds of protests unfolding across the nation. These protests provide momentum, energy, and a sense of unity around critical issues and values. I am not talking about the looting, violence, and property damage I associate with riots, not protests. Large gatherings of like-minded people making their voices heard to those in power is an American tradition. It’s part of who we are and we know how to do it right!

Of course, we all know that protests may start the change, but they can’t make it stick. It takes effective and well-crafted policy to channel the energy and intentions of protests into effective action. Our thinking evolves and changes over time. Our government should reflect those changes in the legislation they pass and the policies they pursue. We haven’t seen much of this in action with Congress and our leadership in recent years. Still, as more of us raise our voices, make visits to our representatives on Capitol Hill, and show up to vote, we will encourage Congress to solve problems rather than stake out philosophical positions.

Most people believe these two elements are all that’s required to effect change on these issues. They disregard a third important element in any meaningful and permanent social change – one that affects how fast and how transformative any conversion will be. There’s a third leg to the stool: Power.

Like it or not, most of the levers of power are still held by Old White Guys (OWG). Over time, they have shown very little interest in loosening their grips on politics, law, economic structures, or ownership. Anywhere critical decisions or investments are made, you will see a preponderance of White male faces – maybe a slightly smaller proportion than 40 years ago, but still far too many to even create the illusion of diversity and inclusion.

This amount of power in OWGs hands means that they will control the speed of any meaningful change. Ultimately, change is inevitable for everyone and those in control can alter the shape and speed to serve their own interests.

If we want to make lasting change, we must engage OWGs in a way that makes them want to join the cause. Very few business leaders wake up in the morning and say, “I want to spend a lot of money and invest a bunch of my time to change the world.” Our messages and interactions must be shaped in a way that their engagement will – at a minimum – not threaten their societal or economic positions. This is a very tough task.

Still we must try.

Fortunately, there are practical examples where this was accomplished. One close to me is the triple bottom line – economy, employees, environment – of the Profitable Sustainability Initiative (PSI). PSI showed business owners how they could simultaneously improve the environment, support their employees, and strengthen their operations. The approach provided a new way to look at business situations and create holistic solutions to tough problems which simultaneously reduced the company’s environmental footprint.

The same can be done around diversity and inclusion. We face systemic knots that require persistence, creativity, and coordinated brainpower to untangle. The OWGs will follow pathways that allow them to engage in ways that allow them to do the right thing and not jeopardize their businesses or income. OWGs understand when actions like these align with their interests and that alignment enables them to accept change more readily.

If you are a leader pushing for social and economic justice, you must pay attention to the OWGs and construct arguments beyond versions of “It’s the right thing to do.” They will respond to discussions, engagement, and actions that align with their goals. Shouting in the street and working to change laws will not cause OWGs to support your cause. Listening, understanding, and addressing key objections will strengthen your initiatives and speed up needed change. Ignoring this group will hamstring your efforts to move quickly and effectively.

It’s time for rapid improvements in our performance on both diversity and inclusion. Aligning our diversity and inclusion efforts in a way that OWGs can support will accelerate needed change and make it more permanent!

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