Last week, as I drove my children from one activity to the other, my mind drifted as I sat at a red light. The topic that grabbed my attention doesn’t come to mind at the moment, however what happened next has stuck with me.
Movement in my peripheral vision, the cars next to me, taking off to get where they were going, snatched me back to the moment. Immediately, I put my foot to the gas and “hustled” to make my left and get out of the way. As I drove on, the moment of urgency carried me back to a lesson from my father, Pa, a Panamanian fount of simple nuggets of wisdom.
Back then, he drove and I sat in the passenger seat, always excited to play co-pilot. We sat at a red light. As soon as the light turned green, a driver several cars back – HOOOOOOOOOOONK! — leaned on their horn. “Come on, man,” I sneered, “the light just turned green.”
As my dad drove on, he quietly asked, “You ever noticed it’s the guy five or six cars back that honks?”
“That’s because he’s the one who doesn’t know if he’ll make the light. The guy who’s first in line knows he’s gonna make it. The second guy, too. But the guy in the back needs everybody else to move if he is going to make the light.”
Something struck me as I drove along, thinking of my father’s words. I mean beyond the fact that all drivers, in his mind, were guys. It struck me that his lesson about the psychology of the road, one I’d obviously absorbed as I hurried to make up for the second or two I’d wasted, was really a lesson in managing privilege.
Across dimensions, there are ways in which we find ourselves “first in line” in our organizations. Times when, as a member of an insider or privileged group, it is clear that we will “make the light”. Gender… Race… Physical Ability… Sexual orientation… Educational background… We know, both anecdotally and statistically, that unearned advantages can play a role in individual career advancement, as well as the profile of the workforce or even the C-Suite.
Generally, we tend to focus on the areas in which we are that fifth driver, acutely aware of our disadvantage and the privilege others “enjoy”. The key, though, to creating, fostering and maintaining an inclusive environment is in intentionally and effectively managing our behavior when we are a part of the privileged group.
Neither my father nor I had done anything special to be first at those stop lights, as we shuttled our children around town. We were not superior drivers or traffic tacticians. That was simply the position in which we found ourselves. At the same time, the fifth or sixth driver in line hadn’t done anything to deserve her, (It’s a new day, Pa) position. That was simply the position in which she found herself.
The order in which we arrive at the light is often not under our control. However, what is very much under our control is our behavior once the light turns green. In that moment, the lives and livelihoods of our colleagues, our collective experience of “traffic”, are profoundly impacted by the PATH we chose to take.
“Oooh… I love this song.”
The apathetic driver truly couldn’t care less about that fifth driver in line. Before they even notice the light has turned green, much less move their car, they finish finding the right radio station, and maybe – Tsk tsk… “Like” a friend’s Facebook post. They operate, entirely, in and from the contained universe of their car, unfazed, perplexed, or even annoyed by the honking of those whose path they block.
Within our organizations, the apathetic driver is content to ignore and enjoy their privilege, no matter the cost to those around them. On a personal level, we may find this attitude and the behaviors it drives, unpleasant. The business reality, though, is that the apathetic manager or executive is a liability.
- When the apathetic driver engages in “hire like me” practices, organizations do not secure best talent, and are placed at a distinct competitive disadvantage.
- When the apathetic driver makes inappropriate jokes or comments, they open the organization to lawsuits that can cost thousands, if not millions, of dollars, in settlements and/or legal fees.
- When the apathetic driver makes little or no effort to diversify the profile of who is “at the table” or even “in the room”, they damage engagement, which in turn damages productivity, and, in turn, the bottom line.
In short, the apathetic driver can destroy our organizational commute to success.
“Isn’t it a shame that fifth driver won’t make the light?”
The sympathetic driver cares. They really, really do. They look around their car at all the cars, recognizing that so many could be driven so well and so far, if only given some open road. One problem, though: They don’t move!
- When the sympathetic driver thinks, “We really should have more diversity around here,” the workforce gets no more diverse and the best talent still lands elsewhere.
- When the sympathetic driver doesn’t like or is offended by an inappropriate comment or joke, but does or says nothing to change the culture or, at least, discourage the telling of the next joke, they may protect their self-esteem, but they do nothing to protect the organization from liability.
- When the sympathetic driver laments the relatively monolithic profile of who is “at the table” or even “in the room”, no additional perspectives are heard, no additional innovation is driven, and no additional revenue shows up in the bottom line.
The sympathetic driver wrings their hands, brokenhearted that the fifth driver won’t make the light, oblivious to the fact that the fifth driver would be far better served by the sympathetic driver placing those hands on the wheel and clearing the path.
“How many cars can we get through this green light?”
The empathetic driver, sitting in the first position, drives with the fifth driver in mind. “If I were in that fifth car, I would want these other cars to move”. And so they do move, maximizing the chances that the fifth driver makes it before the light turns red… again.
- When the empathetic driver recognizes a lack of diversity in the workforce they shift hiring practices, whether through recruiting in new spaces and places or revising job criteria to reflect the true requirements of the role and not what the organization is used to seeing.
- When the empathetic driver doesn’t like or is offended by an inappropriate comment or joke, they address the incident appropriately, whether public or privately, in the moment or at a better time. In doing so, they help to foster a culture that is mindful of the impact of language, while clarifying the definition of and making room for appropriate humor.
- When the empathetic driver recognizes the relatively monolithic profile of who is “at the table” or even “in the room”, they call it out for the organization and take whatever steps they can to address inequities. They drive change that gets new faces seen, new voices heard, and improved business results, based on the power of diverse input.
Apathy, sympathy, empathy… On our Diversity & Inclusion journey, there are different PATHS we may choose. Ultimately, though, our colleagues and our bottom line are best served by empathy. So, give yourself the green light and give the green light to all the drivers around you. Who knows…? You may find yourself in the fifth car someday.
The Kaleidoscope Group