While COVID-19 has forced changes in our lives, the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis has forced the movement of a lifetime. It has spurred action we have never seen in this country, and it is bringing together people of all races, ethnicities, genders, and ages to work towards a unifying goal—ending the systemic racism and police brutality against black Americans.
Like COVID-19, racism is a pandemic. Biological pandemics bring together experts from around the globe in a united effort, with government support, to eradicate the disease. Racism, on the other hand, sadly continues to exist with the occasional conference or short-lived protest. Add the racial disparities of the COVID-19 response and its impact on communities of color, and the tragic truth of racism in our nation is apparent. Enough. The pressure of decades’ worth of oppression, hate, indifference, and bigotry towards black citizens of the United States has reached its breaking point. The people of the United States and the world are telling experts and governments “enough.” The eradication of this moral pandemic may finally be upon us.
Writing this final article of the series, I reflected on part one and the irony of how the same ideas to combat COVID-19 apply to eradicating racism. Let us mobilize our collective resources to rid ourselves of racism using lessons learned from battling the pandemic. Consider how you may have assessed your organization for COVID-19, and now do a similar assessment for racism.
- Priority One: Care for those in your charge. What is the plan for you and employees who may experience racism? (Are you ready to engage the offended and terminate the offender?)
- What are your touchpoints with customers/clients/students—those you serve? (What do you stand for? What is your values message to your stakeholders? Is it authentic?)
- Are you organized correctly for the circumstances? (Does your board, C-suite, or senior leader team reflect the diversity, the strength, of our nation?)
- What functions continue; what functions stop? (How will you bolster diversity and inclusion in your organization? Better yet, how will you remove the current culture and instead make diversity and inclusion organic?)
- How are you making and documenting decisions? (Will you be authentic and transparent in taking action?)
- Who else needs to know? (Is your values message transcending your workplace and reaching communities, the nation, and the world? Brands that do not stand up will suffer.)
Racism cuts across organizations and has severe impacts on teams, families, and individuals. Yet again, we need humanness—the quality of being human. Your high human skills are being put to the test. Your empathy, trustworthiness, respect…those critical elements of leadership are in full view. In previous articles, I posited the notion that when we get beyond the COVID-19 peak, you would imagine that your leadership, your humanness, is on trial. There is no need to imagine anymore. This movement has begun the trial. Will you be convicted?
A New Corporate Culture
The original title of this article was Strengthen Your Culture. Despite professional and personal efforts, that title revealed that I was too accepting of the current corporate culture. Enough. Leaders across the nation and throughout the world should be preparing their movement to make real change in the workplace. Diversity and inclusion (D&I) efforts have increased profits, employee recruiting and retention, and production. But it is time to change the fundamental way we do business.
Instead of making D&I the end goal, make removing the current culture the aim. Let the goodness of D&I be foundational to the values of a new common good that achieves a new corporate culture. Make it a culture that includes and supports everyone naturally. Experience shows that such change is institutionalized when people are promoted or selected for career-enhancing positions or development under a new paradigm. Aspirational? Yes. Achievable? Absolutely. It starts with a self-assessment of both you and your business.
Look back on your experiences and recall those times you were left out, dismissed, ignored, or ridiculed. How did it make you feel? Why did it happen? Was it your sex, accent, skin color, social status, ethnicity, beliefs, or educational background? Did it make you want to contribute your absolute best effort, or did it make you want to pack your things and move on? Did the experience create fear? Did you feel safe? Conversely, consider your privilege—not what you have, but when and why you do not have to worry about things happening to you.
As noted in part three of this series, trust is the counterbalance to fear. Trust partners with respect and empathy to form the foundation of humanness. Remember, you are on trial. What are your biases, and how will you contend with those feelings? How do you want your employees to feel? You want their best effort, so create an inclusive culture where they can flourish. Commit yourself to removing the behaviors that create fear. Approach problems with authentic curiosity, not accusations. If appropriate, acknowledge that there are some things you do not have to worry about, and make sure your employees do not either.
Nearly 70 percent of American employees are unengaged at work, a figure that rises to 90 percent worldwide. Why? Culture. Imagine, seven out of ten employees find their work to be a soul-sucking experience. Get culture wrong, people leave, and you are now facing an estimated turnover cost of $14K per person. If it is an executive or middle manager, expect a turnover cost equating to their annual salary. Combine a negative culture with the challenges of a crisis, and the stakes are too high to ignore.
Culture started revealing itself right about the time you made the first phone call or sent the first email altering the work situation for COVID-19. The national movement to eradicate racism pulled the curtain back on your culture even more. For those whose culture is rooted in trust, commitment, and the common good, they are likely faring well. For those who have culture wrong, leaders and employees are frustrated, the strategy is meaningless, and the struggle continues. Unfortunately, in those instances, organizations may crumble. You need a culture that thrives and is sustainable regardless of the crisis.
Your workplace culture is not what is written on the walls. It is the total of what happens in the halls and on Zoom calls. It is your team’s behavioral and performance norms. Culture is those things that are encouraged, discouraged, accepted, or rejected and anchored in unspoken behaviors, mindsets, and social patterns. Assess your organization’s level of commitment and how it aligns with the strength of the common good—vision, mission, goals, values, standards, and strategy. The intersection of the common good and level of commitment reveals the type of culture being cultivated in your organization—compliant, chaotic, contingent, or empowered, as shown here:
- A well-defined common good and a low level of commitment is a compliant culture where leaders use coercion to gain desired behavior. It is a carrot and stick type of approach.
- A poorly defined common good and a low level of commitment is a chaotic culture characterized by toxic and dominant behavior.
- A poorly defined common good and a high level of commitment is a contingent culture where teammates typically have great chemistry and rally around an informal, undefined common good. They have an implicit understanding of what is important, but with growth and changes in people, the implicit common good begins to fade.
- A well-defined common good and a high level of commitment is an empowered culture where there is a high degree of trust. Leaders can think and act strategically because their middle management, the heart and soul of their organization, is strong. Behavior is the same whether the leader is present or absent. Managers have their guideposts and make decisions because they know they have the trust and support of their leadership. Leaders talk and live their values and will not tolerate indifference to the organization’s common good.
Assess and Articulate Culture
Where do you see your culture? Given the current national movement to eradicate both racism and COVID-19, what do you stand for? As you shape your new normal, people are looking TO you for guidance and AT you as an example, more than ever. Espouse values to strengthen your common good while increasing your level of commitment to move towards an empowered culture. Here are three steps to help you assess and determine a path for your culture:
- Get a detailed understanding of your current culture by asking yourself and others a series of questions. Be honest and vulnerable. Plot your answers on the Culture Archetypes Chart, and as you do, decide what employees you are going to ask to answer the same questions. Do not let it be your clones or besties. Have the courage to seek those you trust and who think differently than you.
- Do leaders walk their talk?
- What are the “unwritten rules” for success?
- How do leaders respond to conflict, feedback, and missed suspenses?
- What motivates employees?
- Culture should be rising to the top of your priority list, so delegate other priorities so that you can work ON your business. Along with your C-suite, engage your middle management. Studies prove that corporate culture and employee engagement go hand in hand. With employees’ help, craft your new manifesto—those elements that will be the foundation of your common good. Make your values explicit.
- Like promoting a new strategy, promote culture. It is one of the three legs of the stool, the organizational trinity, if you will, along with strategy and leadership. And remember, your microphone is always on, and someone is always watching. Be authentic and human, and let that openness be your competitive advantage.
Values are more important than ever. Employees want to feel good about the work they do and why they do it. Remember, employee disengagement and turnover are a silent killer; they are the highest costs most companies face. Hire and promote people who demonstrate a commitment to your common good—vision, mission, goals, values, standards and expectations, and strategy.
Unanswered questions, soulless video calls, briefings, empty predictions about return dates, and budget cuts have filled the past three months. Add in the past few weeks, and the country has been overwhelmed with heartbreak, fear, frustration, confusion, and indignation. The sadness and uncertainty are gut-wrenching. Enough. As a veteran, I recall often hearing that we do not see color; we see Army green. I understand that we fight for and with each other—but no, I see you. I see your color and all the good things that you represent and contribute to our nation. I celebrate you.
There is good on the horizon. You have the right tools to lead your team through these crises and create the foundations to prosper in the new normal of distributed workplaces. We will eradicate COVID-19, and with our collective energy, spirit, and humanness, we can end racism. As you align your internal compass, think about your team. Think about what you and they celebrate. Be a guiding light of certainty. Whether your employees return to work or you emerge out of COVID-19 as a distributed workplace, champion a culture where the common good will reign. Champion a culture where diversity and inclusion are as organic and natural to the collective mindset as revenue streams and inventory. It will take time, and you should be ready to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Recall the adage, evil triumphs when good people look the other way. Enough. Not today, COVID. Not today, racism. Not today, not any day.
Read The Crisis Life Cycle: Part One, Part Two, and Part Three.
Jeff Marquez, founder of Marquez Leadership, Culture & Strategy, LLC, helps business, government, and nonprofit leaders and teams create a sustainable culture of excellence. A retired Army officer and former senior executive with the federal government, he served on the National Security Council as the director of continuity policy and acting senior director for response policy. He led the team that developed the successful US drawdown from Iraq in 2011. In Hawaii, he led the transformation of United States Army forces in the Pacific. He also served as a chief of staff in the federal government. He has led continuity and infectious disease planning actions across the last two administrations.
You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, (703) 472-7514, or https://strategicleadersacademy.com/jeff-marquez/.