Among the “in” and “un” words you’ve been seeing recently are “injustice,” “inequity,” and yes, “unrest.” Here’s one more for you to consider: “uncomfortable.”  

Business leaders often take pride in their ability to navigate the things that are uncomfortable for others. Leaders must learn to be skillful risk-takers. Leaders are called upon to make difficult decisions that impact the lives of others or lead difficult conversations that others are unable or unwilling to have. We ask our leaders to deal with the uncomfortable – the problems. So, leader… How comfortable are you with the problem of “systemic” or “institutional racism?” 

I’m not talking about illegal acts of racial discrimination that result in termination at your workplace. No, I’m referring to the idea that our social and political institutions reflect disparities regarding wealth, income, criminal justice, employment, housing, health care, political power and education, among other factors, thus creating a system that will always prevail on the side of the group that has created it – the group that made (and makes) the rules.

Are you uncomfortable yet? Rest assured the protests that are occurring are meant to confront you with an uncomfortable truth – that’s the point. As a precursor to the question, “What do you expect me to do?” some leaders may cling to the idea that their employees should leave their opinions at the door. “Work is for work – isn’t this a personal issue?” “Shouldn’t this be handled at home or by HR?” This is BOTH an individual issue AND an everyone issue, and no, it cannot be left at the door. It’s incorrect and unfair to expect or even believe that your employees can turn off the rest of their life simply by punching in for work. Work does not occur apart from life.  

What are you doing about institutional racism? 

It’s time to get uncomfortable. You may yearn for a time when things “settle down,” but this feeling reinforces both the problem and the need for change. Now is not the time to rest. You too must summon the courage to un-rest. You are being told the status quo is unacceptable. How will you respond? There are uncomfortable conversations that need to happen and difficult decisions to be made. Dear leader, make sure you understand them. 

You alone might not change the world, but the world cannot change without you.  

There are many possible business solutions for you to review: conduct unconscious bias training, consult with or hire a Diversity & Inclusion officer and develop a plan, share a public statement renewing your commitment to equality, make a corporate donation to a non-profit that works toward racial equity or match the donations of your employees, etc. None are bad ideas, but how will you know the right answer for your company? You need to understand the problem before you solve it your own way. How can you learn?

How should you be leading your people right now?  

Get even more uncomfortable. As you begin this period of un-rest, invite others to join you. Your people are looking to you for leadership. Their emotions range from confusion to anger, from fear to sympathy. Here are ideas to get you started:

  1. Educate yourself as much as possible. For example, read a book on the topic of race. Yes, doing this can and will make a difference – as it recently did in the case of Doug Parker, CEO of American Airlines when he interacted with a black flight attendant on a Southwest Airlines flight (story here).  Here’s a list of books to get you started. Self-education is critical. Consider this: Many have searched their heart in recent weeks, and after finding no hate for people with black or brown skin, have exonerated themselves and left the conversation. In doing so they have failed to learn the complexity of this issue or how it extends far beyond individual prejudice. Accept that you need to learn more about this. As you move forward, it is imperative to know what you stand for and why you’re standing for it.  
  2. Communicate with your employees, even if you’re not sure what to say or how you feel. Silence isn’t an acceptable response. It’s up to you to understand the right forum for discussion in your company, so align with your leaders and internal communications lead. Encourage employees to share ideas on what to do and set an example by doing so yourself. Don’t rely on your black employees to vet your communications or create a plan of action but do involve people of all backgrounds into the conversations so you can form next steps together. Consider your long-term plan, not just what you’re going to do in the next 30 days or until the next crisis or issue arises.  
  3. Don’t risk doing the right thing at the cost of doing nothing.  You won’t have a perfect answer, and your actions won’t please everyone.  That said, the worst thing you can do is move forward like nothing has happened because in doing so, you have said the “old way” is good enough. It is not, and that has once again been vividly, and horribly demonstrated. Go back to your personal values and your organization’s core values. How do your values guide what comes next? Revisit your strategic plan – Are diversity or equity initiatives a priority? Make sure your discussions result in actions.  

To un-rest is to become intentionally uncomfortable, to view the world through another lens and learn a silent history. It is exploring beliefs that challenge your own and accepting that how you understand the world is one perspective of many. To un-rest is to remain vigilant, to be influenced by the needs of others and to take actions that move us closer together, not further apart.

What will you do next?