This post is part of TED’s “How to Be a Better Human” series, each of which contains a piece of helpful advice from people in the TED community; browse through all the posts here.
What leaders do matters far more than what they say.
Creating workplaces that work for everyone is about far more than public displays on social media, diversity recruiting initiatives and one-and-done anti-bias and anti-harassment training. I’ve been leading diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives for nearly two decades — I am currently the chief people officer at Vice Media Group — and I’ve been really excited to see that there is a very special energy in organizations when employees feel seen, heard and valued and when they feel they can contribute, collaborate and perform without judgment or retaliation.
It keeps organizations from feeling dark and heavy, it keeps the mistrust out of the air, and it keeps talented employees from leaving your organizations and worse. It creates the highest levels of innovation, creativity and collaboration.
I want to share with you three actions that you can take so that your organizations are places where fairness, justice, equity and inclusion are the experience of all.
I know firsthand that not everyone is willing to look in that mirror.
The first is to hold up a mirror, the second to act on what you learn, and the third to persist despite your discomfort.
#1: Hold up a mirror
In one of my first jobs as a credit analyst at Moody’s, I was lucky to find an ally and a mentor who was willing to put up a mirror in front of me. I was also strong and brave enough to look in that mirror. The mirror told me I deserved to be there. It also said I needed to face my fears and my discomfort.
But I know firsthand that not everyone is willing to look in that mirror. When I worked at Google, I vividly remember one meeting where I was set to share our first diversity hiring strategy. I laid out a detailed proposal of what it would be like to reimagine our hiring process, and it was supported by an exhaustive analysis of the hiring experience of Black and Hispanic software engineering candidates.
My team was so excited to present bold and innovative ideas, including significantly expanding our hiring markets and rebuilding our interview process. But after hours of pushback on our suggestions and a repeated line of questioning from my manager about the root cause of our inability to hire more Black and Hispanic software engineers, I blurted out, “Racism! The root cause is racism! Our recruitment process was designed with a racist lens, and we need to re-examine and rebuild every stage of our hiring journey if we are to achieve different outcomes.”
The room went quiet, the discomfort was palpable. This was the mirror no one wanted to look into and the truth no one wanted to see but it was the truth being reflected at them and they chose not to act.
Privilege is the ability to be able to look away, to not act when you are confronted with your bias and complicity.
#2: Act on what you learn
Awareness without action means nothing. We have got to act on what we learn. Here’s the thing about looking in the mirror. It fundamentally requires you to recognize your personal, cultural and systemic sore spots. You are going to have to reflect on your identity in relation to someone else, and you’re going to have to ask for feedback that you may not want to hear.
You’re going to have to build new muscles, including the ability to interpret new information, to sit in ambiguity, conflict and discomfort and to figure out what you will do when you witness bias or when you discover that you have been perpetuating the bias all along. This work comes with pain, conflict and discomfort but if you want to drive change, you’re going to have to work through that discomfort.
Many of us want to change conditions in our workplaces but sometimes we don’t know how to do it. We get stuck and get worried about getting it wrong. Are we going to mess this up? Are we not going to do enough? It’s that place where many of us often dwell, that paralyzing place of fear and anxiety where we numb ourselves into inaction.
Privilege is the ability to be able to look away, to not act when you are confronted with your bias and complicity, but sitting in awareness is not enough. You’re going to have to act on what you learn, and you’re going to have to persist through that discomfort.
When I worked at Disney, I was part of a group that helped launch our first women’s initiative. That first week when we were planning our programming for Women’s History Month, I took a bet that paid off. I sat in a room of mostly white women and realized that the lens through which we were looking at the advancement of women left out the experience of women of color, women like me.
I knew what it was like to feel left out and excluded from white social networks and that even when I was invited, there was always this unstated understanding that I was there to fulfill a quota, not there to share my whole truth. But I had an opportunity to change that. With all of the corporate charm and courage that I could muster, I proposed leading a bespoke event that would focus on the workplace experience of women of color.
By this point in my career I had gained confidence and earned credibility as a corporate leader. But even then I knew that I needed to frame my recommendation as a limited-risk proposition. How much attention could this program possibly garner? How many women of color could I possibly bring together?
Well, it was one of the most attended programs that month. We hosted a panel with top female executives of color in the entertainment industry, and the event was open to all employees. It was a no-holds-barred talk about the barriers they had faced moving up in their careers. It was by women of color for women of color. To this day, the women of color who attended recall that experience as the first time that many of them felt seen, heard and valued.
I’ll never forget the manager who called me up to say, “Hey, Daisy, I have no idea what you just did but this young woman on my team just came back from your event with a pep in her step that I have never seen before. Please do more!”
Some of us know there is danger in doing so, so instead we let go of small parts of ourselves. We let our courage shrink, and our voice diminish.
#3: Persist despite your discomfort
Had I not acted on what I knew women of color needed to experience in the workplace, we would have never moved beyond the pervasive blind spot of women’s programs only catering to white women, instead of removing barriers and clearing the advancement path for all women. But again this work is hard, it is challenging and full of discomfort.
When we move past our discomfort, we get to the place of true change. But for some of us, we know that change comes at a high risk. Some of us know there is danger in doing so, so instead we let go of small parts of ourselves. We let our courage shrink, and our voice diminish.
I have been beaten into submission so many times that I have forgotten the count. I have been layered under toxic managers who have put up roadblocks to my success, taken ownership of my ideas and questioned my value on a daily basis even as I was actively working to bring more seats to the table. I have had to fight to keep mine but I persist.
I refuse to give up and I know that you can too. I know we all can. Creating workplaces that work for everyone is hard, complex and at times emotionally triggering but it is necessary. It is about reducing the undue burdens and the marginalization that we have allowed to exist, that we have tolerated for hundreds of years to a place where the emotional energy is vibrant, where employees feel that they are valued, that they matter, that they are essential. When they walk in every day, knowing that they have a clear path forward.
We can do that if we hold up a mirror, if we act on what we know and if we persist despite our discomfort. This work requires all of us to work harder. It takes daily actions like questioning the lack of diversity on your team, refusing to tokenize Black, Indigenous and people of color, and standing up against injustices in your workplace.
If we all start being the allies we want to be, to show up and for our colleagues, to do the work, we can drive lasting and meaningful change.
This post was adapted from a TEDxPearlStreet Talk. Watch it here: