“White guys won’t work here anymore.”
“What? What do you mean?” I said to a friend of mine who heads talent for a multinational technology company. I was shocked to hear that, as her company had a great reputation.
“This month, I had two white guys from Texas turn down great offers because the company wasn’t diverse enough. I never thought I’d see the day when white guys in a job search, and in a recession nonetheless, are saying they need women and people of color on their teams.”
“Holy cow! I just got chills.” I exclaimed.
“I’ve been harping on this for years,” she replied. “I’ve been telling our CHRO that the time would come that we’ve fallen too far behind in creating a place that attracts diverse talent.”
That time had obviously come, as now 90% of white men place some value on DEI, with 42% who believe it is very or extremely important to them (Center for Talent Innovation, 2020). Unfortunately, 55% of all employees (and 45% of white employees) believe that racism at work has damaged their relationship to their employer. Now, 4 in 10 white employees avoid employers who don’t take a stand against racism (Edelman, 2021), far exceeding the 25% tipping point threshold (Centola, 2020) required for a belief or behavior to penetrate an entire population.
As older workers retire and hand the reins to younger ones, and as frontline managers, new hires and customers are increasingly more diverse, companies must be places where everyone feels like they belong, that their contributions matter and that they can thrive. If that's not the case, news travels and it becomes hard to fill roles, e.g., half of younger employees (aged 18-34) now avoid employers who don’t take a stand against racism (Edelman, 2021).
Traditionally, attracting new diverse hires meant recruiting at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), providing mentorship, forming ERG’s and paying living wages. Today, these are simply table stakes. Deep down, today’s workers want to be a part of something that matters. They want to join mission they can easily find on Maslow’s Needs Hierarchy or the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, and to be on a team where all people belong and can do their best work.
Of course, these concerns have always mattered to women, and people from the LGBTQIA+ and BIPOC communities. Now, it matters to almost all of us. If the table stakes aren’t there, which we can easily tell from industry gossip, the company’s website and Glassdoor ratings, we’ll keep looking. If the board looks like a yacht club, we’re moving on. If we don’t get the sense that there is a powerful mission, and a culture of inclusion and warmth on the team, we either leave or undermine our company through petty squabbles at work and trash talking to our friends and family.
Companies have tried to fix the symptoms of a culture that lacks purpose and belonging with individual interventions like apps, free food, mentorship, and volunteering opportunities. Ultimately, these tactical point solutions fail to produce substantial and sustained results because they sit on top of a pile of dysfunction. From the underlying biases (privileging whites and men), culture (always on, impress the boss, similarity bias, no purpose activation), and systems (profit principle/quarterly earning reports, performance reviews, quotas), work generally dehumanizes and separates people.
We are experiencing a whole system failure, but few companies recognize it. Most companies still think that more individual interventions are the answer to the ongoing systemic failure. We can’t ice cream social our way out of a toxic culture. We can’t app our way out of anxiety. We can’t pill our way out of a crap boss. We can’t hire our way out of turnover. We can’t blog our way out of racism.
We can’t deck chair our way out of a hull breach.
We need to think holistically about the problem.
It’s time for a new way.
There is no such thing as an individual human - like the bison, we are a herd species. We exist by, for and through each other. We need each other and always have. The neuroscience of empathy reveals that when one of us suffers, we all suffer (APS, 2017). Although we all have freewill and a unique purpose, they exist within the implicit wholeness and connection of our families, communities, companies, ecosystems and species. As such, all internal people activities now must be re-imagined with a holistic and social approach.
How can any of us be truly well when one of us is suffering?
A few innovative companies, such as Coursera, have begun to swing the pendulum from the eagle to the bison, seeing the increasingly number of dependencies between DEI, L+D, wellness, talent and culture and that each needs to be reimagined and inform the other. For example, wellness strategies need to be informed by DEI, as it is well-established that systemic racism is a public health issue (CDC, 2021).
Accordingly, Coursera is dissolving HR silos and is actively crafting new ways to care for the whole person and community. Wellness initiatives will now be informed by and amplify priorities of DEI, CSR, Talent and L&D. L+D will now adopt an inclusive/ social/ wellness/ culture-forward pedagogy. Talent, workforce planning, policies for hiring, performance management, promotion and compensation will include culture, DEI and learning goals. DEI strategies will address more than biases and behavior change, but are also woven into product development, marketing, culture, learning, and wellness.
It’s still too early to tell the results, but at least they are asking the right questions and thinking holistically, systemically and socially. Before we explore the particulars of what it looks like when the pendulum swing towards the bison, let’s do a thorough audit of where the pendulum is starting from. Of course, most organizations are somewhere in between the eagle and bison, however its illustrative to explore where we've come from and where we're headed.
Although HR folks are, in general, incredibly thoughtful, kind, self-aware and compassionate, the systems and culture in which they operate are paternalistic, individualistic, allopathic and dehumanizing, echoing the paternalism and exploitation that our settler colonialist nation had/s towards First Nations' people and those we enslaved.
Employees are regarded selfish, interchangable children who leave everything important to them, e.g., their love lives, souls, families, communities, faiths, and nation, and that impacts their life, e.g., ongoing socioeconomic dynamics such as flat wages, skyrocketing housing and transportation costs, police brutality, climate change, income inequality, political corruption, and systemic sexism and racism, at the door to the office or zoom room.
Eagle HR has spent the last 30 years attempting individual interventions to address collective failures. It assumes that if we’re uneducated, we simply need to learn information from superior beings - experts and trainers. If we’re unwell, a pill, program, app or therapist is the answer. It assumes there is nothing unique about any of us, that we are tabula rasa, a blank slate, without any endemic purpose.
This results in insecurity about our worth and value to the company. It has us hedge our bets, play cover your ass (CYA), put in face time and withhold our best ideas and dissenting opinions for fear of losing our income, housing and healthcare. It has us see our efforts as insufficient, our emotions as bad, our failings as moral and personal, and ourselves as always needing to work hard, or at least maintain the appearance of working hard.
As you might imagine, a people strategy so deeply dehumanizing, does not serve us well and is marked by high levels of stress, burnout, disengagement and employee turnover.
Let’s get out our magnifying glass and see what’s going function by function:
Eagle Learning and Development
Eagle L+D treats us as individual students who learn from experts in live or virtual classrooms. We are given information and are tested on it. We pass or fail and sometimes we get a certificate or badge to put on our intranet or LinkedIn profile. Unfortunately, we forget 90% of everything we have learned within 7 days (PLoS One, 2015), so it is fair to say that a great portion of the $446B global L+D spend (Beroe, 2019) is wasted.
Further, eagle L+D allocates resources in an elitist fashion, with cheap and boring e-learning for frontline employees (who are typically more female and diverse) and expensive training programs, off-sites and 1:1 coaching for executives and high-potential leaders (who are typically more male and white), and thereby edifying existing inequities.
Eagle Diversity, Equity & Inclusion
Eagle DEI typically includes hiring quotas, mentoring, ERG’s, anonymous reporting systems, and one-time bias and discrimination trainings. It separates diverse populations into ERG’s, creating insular personal networks (MIT, 2021) and edifies the pattern of othering, secrecy and mistrust between groups. It also typically has the same ethos of treating people like children who are behaving or performing poorly. Underlying assumptions include:
While mentoring is desired by, and impactful for, diverse candidates, it actually reduces their tenure (MIT, 2021). Eagle DEI does indeed educate people, but because it is not centered in purpose, folks don’t see inclusion as an expression of their purpose, but rather as something exogenous to it. It also doesn’t create high-trust connections between diverse people, so it produces conscious and unconscious resistance to diverse groups and DEI initiatives as a whole.
As we’ve explored, the $8 billion DEI spend (McKinsey, 2017) has resulted in neutral to negative outcomes over the last 2 decades, wasting $8B per year and millions of hours of people’s time every year.
The eagle way of developing culture is not to develop culture. It’s frequently ignored and when it is acknowledged, it is an afterthought or deprioritized. Sure, ice cream socials, holiday parties, volunteering, townhalls and happy hours do have some benefits. They are excellent opportunities to take a break from the routine, and when done well, are a great way to recognize people’s contributions and foster common purpose. However, these rarely involve intentional relationship development beyond ice breakers like “two truths and lie”, treasure hunts, three-legged races and bingo.
But relationships do indeed form at work and culture does indeed develop - “wherever two or more are gathered”. Without being explicitly addressed and cultivated, insular packs form around the lowest common denominators of race, gender, and sexuality, similarity bias, grievance, passive-aggressiveness and nepotism. All you have to do is stand up on a chair at your next company event and observe who is talking to whom. White sales folks talking to white marketing folks. Asian engineers talking to Asian engineers. Black customer service reps talking to black customer service reps. HR ladies talking to HR ladies. And those with the most power holding court in the corner with their HiPos (folks designated as high potential).
This results in a culture of disparate tribes, resistance to change, and edifying existing exclusionary power dynamics (Journal of Personal and Social Psychology, 2002).
Moreover, the role "office mom" is typically not part of anyone’s title, so it gets assumed by or "voluntold" to lower status folks (New York Times, 2021). Typically these are white women, who add these responsibilities onto their already packed schedules and unbalanced workloads. Without any time, staff or budget to think it through, at best it gets done quickly and expressing the tastes (food, music, activities) and unconscious biases of the white women in charge, further edifying the dynamic that culture doesn’t matter, because it’s done poorly, driven by someone with relatively low status, and/or it doesn’t include everyone, especially remote workers. This dynamic is part of what causes remote workers to have 50% fewer work friends than workers in offices (Olivet Nazarene, 2018).
At its worst, this becomes an opportunity for "office moms" to send the shit downhill by allocating budgets for Fourth of July activities, but none for Juneteenth or Pride, for Christmas and Hanukkah activities, but none for Diwali, Eid or Kwanza.
The ethos of eagle wellness is “Work is hell. Eat some broccoli, exercise, take a pill and get back to work.” It is reflective of our allopathic sickcare industry, that addresses the symptoms of our atomized, poorly/micro-managed, soulless and dehumanizing workplaces. It labels and stigmatizes mental illness, psychological languishing and physical illness, and produces a culture of denial and victim-blaming.
It treats the crisis of connection and fulfilling work as an individual failure. It assumes if we are not healthy and happy, we are broken, and unable to take the pressure. So, it doles out tips, tools, podcasts, apps, hacks and pills to get us back on the job, but doesn’t give us what we actually need to cure our malaise, burnout, loneliness and languishing - purpose and belonging.
Research shows that individual interventions designed to increase happiness and improve mental health may actually make us more lonely (Mauss, et al, 2012) and unhappy (Mauss, et al, 2011). In this way, eagle wellness is indistinguishable from an agricultural veterinarian, whose job is to make us just well enough to be exploited.
As work and money are the top causes of stress (Statista, 2017), it should be no surprise that few turn to their abuser for comfort. Despite 97% of us being unhealthy (Mayo, 2017) and 84% of us being stressed (APA, 2021), and our great need for support, only 24% of us make use of wellness benefits (Gallup, 2015).
Although a handful of great, award-winning wellness programs exist that are part of a holistic culture of purpose, transformation, connection and health, most wellness programs face the Sisyphean task of marshaling comparatively little time, power and budget to combat the perfect storm of hyperindividualism, overwork, and inequity.
The eagle way doesn’t work, and likely never has. To make matters worse, the pandemic exacerbated many of these dynamics. According to a June 2021 Gartner study (Gartner, 2021):
Of course, like nearly all dynamics in our nation, women, children and communities of color were disproportionately impacted. Despite poverty rates reaching all-time lows because of pandemic assistance, those who are most vulnerable suffer the most, e.g.,
As I mentioned, most HR folks are generally kind, inclusive and heart-centered, and there are multiple bright spots, swinging L+D, DEI, wellness and culture pendulum towards the bison. So this isn’t an indictment of HR professionals, but rather an indictment of the manner in which the eagle pervades our business logic, our corporate structures and people processes. It’s an indictment of the logic that says systems are not to blame for systemic issues. It’s a rebuke of victim-blaming that results from throwing apps and intranet tips at systemic problems. This is a call to end the madness.
If our nation didn’t have a noble purpose to be a place of flourishing, equity and unity, to be a democratic and multicultural beacon for the world, we could avoid responsibility for this systemic oppression and chalk it up to “man’s inhumanity to man”. But we do indeed have a noble purpose, so treating people in this way, lacks moral imagination and is out of integrity with our nation's purpose.
It’s time for the bison.
Instead of treating people like selfish children and then blaming them for perishing in a toxic culture;
Instead of driving people apart through elitist and ineffective L+D approaches that presume there is nothing unique about people and ignores the transformative power of purpose;
Instead of driving people apart through anonymous reporting systems, paternalistic mentoring programs and one-time compliance trainings;
Instead of driving people apart by allowing similarity bias to ensconce geographic, racial and political tribes; and
Instead of driving people who suffer mentally and physically into shame and isolation by telling them they are on their own to fix their broken selves with apps, pills and therapy,
Let’s treat them like adults with souls, families and communities; let’s bring them together, empower them to activate their purpose at work and nurture their shared humanity.
To do this, we must think holistically and get at the source of what people need to flourish - meaning, connection, care, and believing they matter and are apart of something that matters. The bison way is one relationships versus the eagle's outputs, of covenants versus the eagle's contracts. It is about establishing our personal covenant with our unique purpose, and with each other around a shared mission. It is the way of nurturing a healthy culture where each of us can activate and fulfill our purpose and enjoy rich connections with each other.
We must avail ourselves to the research and an emerging set of best practices, which we'll explore in greater detail in the next chapter, to come together to serve an aligned vision, empowering cross-functional teams to achieve common goals and objectives, and actively nurturing care, trust and autonomy. This means multiple business and people metrics. No single business unit or function can address belonging, inclusion, productivity, flourishing, innovation, wellness, employee engagement or attraction/retention. They all must align in order to create true systemic and culture change.
With this orientation and the powerful mechanisms for unleashing purpose and belonging at scale, let’s imagine how the bison way could look and feel by function:
Bison Learning and Development
Work is a source of community, self-discovery, fulfillment, and professional growth. People view their organization as a place where they activate their purpose, belong, continually learn, do their best work and develop authentic relationships with diverse peers. Learning is sourced in purpose and values, happens in the flow of work versus at an offsite or in a classroom.
It’s delivered in an egalitarian fashion, where people at each level in the organization, in the office, cafe or at home, come together to activate their purpose and values at work. Because it is delivered over time, the concepts and skills are reinforced, build upon each other, are translated into action and are retained in the relationships as norms and habits as institutional knowledge.
Work is compassionate, inclusive and forgiving. It doesn’t punch white people on the nose and label them as racists. Rather, inclusion is baked into everything the company does, from people development to culture to product development to sales to finance to marketing. As purpose, empathy and inclusion are the foundation for diverse relationships, collaboration, hiring, development and promotion, diverse peers learn skills together, share their experiences, purpose and values, empathize with and respect each other, and form diverse, lasting and authentic relationships.
Work is a fun and authentic community. People feel like they belong, can bring their whole self to work, and genuinely like the people they work with. Peers across differences and departments regularly learn together and develop a sense of the organization’s mission, history, structure and the interdependence of the various departments and geographies.
They each activate and share their purpose and values and find their unique connection to the organization’s mission and values, resulting in a 333% increase in alignment with the organization’s mission (Kumanu/Harris, 2021), 50% more meaningful work relationships (Imperative, 2016) and 7.4 month increase in tenure (BetterUp, 2019). The result is a dynamic culture and 3x return to shareholders (McKinsey & Co., 2020).
We recognize the transformative power of relationships and the healing power of community. We nurture relationships as the foundation of leadership, learning, inclusion, culture, and health. We cherish our relationships and lean on them, as they are an endless well that heals many forms of suffering. They are the foundation of our joy, growth, comfort and laughter.
Work makes us happy and healthy. Research suggests that nurturing thick culture through connection, caring and contribution is the key to social and emotional health (Ford, et al, 2015). When peers develop high-trust relationships with each other, they share their fears and anxieties (96%), and discover new perspectives on their challenges (94%) (Peele, Asbaty, 2020). The deep connections and check-ins in their peer groups empower them to complete their stress cycles and avoid burnout (Nagoski & Nagoski, 2019).
Especially in light of the trauma related to the pandemic and racial justice movement / white backlash, group / interpersonal interventions can be a meaningful driver of post-traumatic growth (Anxiety, Stress & Coping, 2021).
By activating their purpose, they improve their emotional regulation (+538%) and resilience (+529%) (Kumanu/Harris, 2021), resulting in 32% fewer doctor’s visits and 61% fewer hospital overnights (Harvard, 2014). These diverse relationships also empower social integration, a powerful driver of longevity resulting in employee life spans that are 10% longer, and increasing the likelihood that employees reach the age 85 by 41% (Journals of Gerontology, 2020).
When combined with the 7+ year longevity bump from purpose (Journal of Psychosomatic Medicine, 2008), together we upper reaches of longevity and vitality.
Guided by the Bison
With a powerful, dieable why, a clearly communicated vision, a culture of purpose, belonging and autonomy, work now has the potential to re-humanize us and drive national renewal. Guided by the bison, we shape business units as communities. We develop roles and souls. We build a legacy via our products and customer success. It begins and ends with people - people on purpose and in deep relationship to each other and the power to create and experiment. It is mutual concern and common cause. It is recognizing that for any of us to win, we all have to belong and co-create.
Before the pandemic this may have sounded like warm fuzzy platitudes, however in the stark relief of the pandemic, the bison has revealed itself as essential, as food for our souls and the soul of the nation. With this picture of where you and your organization might be headed if you choose to be guided by the bison, let’s take a deeper dive into the twin drivers of flourishing: purpose and belonging.
Chapter 5 Summary:
Chapter 5 Reflection Questions:
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