What Happens When You're Defensive and Dismissive

Be willing to accept criticism and be vulnerable

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It shouldn’t take scores of people mobilizing in the streets in order for marginalized folks’ voices to be heard. A common refrain from marginalized people is that they refuse to remain silent. They want their grievances to both be acknowledged and addressed.

Government and corporations find themselves seemingly caught off guard during this current climate of global civil protests. Curiously though, executives and other leaders repeatedly say they’re sorry they didn’t listen to their employees or that they didn’t know various groups of people felt marginalized, ignored, hurt or worse.

All of this indicates that there is a significant issue regarding process. One of my academic mentors told me when you have a bad outcome, then you likely have a bad process.

Ultimately, creating an inclusive mentality requires a person or organization to consistently critique itself and be open to change.

The first step then is to examine your culture, more specifically, the inclusivity portion. How welcoming are we of people who are different from us? How much does everyone feel valued? How much do we value contributions from all people? How do we respond when we commit offenses against our peers and colleagues?

Before we continue, we must make a valuable distinction between inclusivity and political correctness. I operationalize inclusivity as acting in a way that widens the tent, consciously behaving in a manner that tries to make as many people as possible feel included and valued. Conversely, political correctness is acting in such a way that you won’t get into trouble. In other words, inclusivity is a core value whereas political correctness is an expedient behavior without much substance to back it up.

If our culture is inclusive, then we celebrate difference and solicit as many perspectives as we can because our goal is to expand our base, not narrowly cling to a restrictive vision of how a few people think something should be. From an inclusivity perspective, diversity is not a box to check; rather, diversity is part of the core product. And for businesses, diversity is often correlated to increased profits.

How can you correct a problem if you don’t know there is a problem? Even if we practice an inclusive mindset daily, we’re still going to forget people or commit offenses toward people (I know I do). When adversity hits, then you’ll know the inclusivity level of your culture. If the culture is strong, then people feel more likely to speak up. This is a good thing. For example, researchers Stephen Stubben and Kyle Welch found that companies with a strong whistleblower culture experience lower amounts of government fines and lawsuits.

You have to want to know where you’ve gone wrong. You have to be willing to accept criticism and be vulnerable. The criticism likely isn’t that you’re a bad person or a bad company; rather, you fell short in a certain way and try to do better.

However, too many people just don’t want to know or ignore the evidence brought to them. In feminist scholar Nancy Tuana’s taxonomies of ignorance (which is a must-read in this current environment), this is called “willful ignorance.” Tuana defines this as “a systematic process of self-deception, a willful embrace of ignorance that infects those who are in positions of privilege, an active ignoring of the oppression of others and one’s role in that exploitation.”

Management’s current cries of “we’re sorry we didn’t listen” or “we’re sorry we ignored you” ring hollow under this framework because systems were designed to replicate dominant ideologies at the expense of inclusivity and respect. Essentially, leaders were willfully ignorant of marginalized people’s suffering because ignoring the suffering allowed the leaders to run their companies in a manner that made the current power structure comfortable.

That said, the easy part for leadership has been done. Many bosses have apologized. Step 2 is creating processes that make all people feel valued and included, which is a significantly more difficult task.

The hard work accompanying Step 2 must come directly from management as management originally created the repressive structures. Executives have to demonstrate they are no longer willfully ignorant and that inclusivity is now a core part of the organization’s mission.

Marginalized groups should be rightly skeptical of diversity initiatives as they often don’t lead to sustained meaningful changes. For example, identifying why certain groups leave an industry earlier than others or why few members of specific groups ever make it to the top or stay there are essential to addressing problems with inclusivity. Another academic mentor told me: “If you treasure it, measure it.” Reward the people whose behaviors are consistent with the culture you seek.

Ultimately, creating an inclusive mentality requires a person or organization to consistently critique itself and be open to change. If we’re defensive and try to dismiss people’s grievances or sweep things under the rug, then we’re working to assuage our own feelings at the expense of someone else or many someones. If we’re inclusive, we can acknowledge our faults and work to create a better environment that benefits everyone.