Carnegie Mellon University

OK, You Say You Are Listening—Now What?

written by
Eric Anderson

Eric Anderson, teaching and interacting with his students

Eric Anderson is a tenured associate professor in the Carnegie Mellon School of Design and a Senior Associate Dean for the College of Fine Arts. For more than 20 years, he has taught user-centered design thinking, strategy and innovation. Anderson is a past president of the Industrial Designers Society of America (IDSA), and a member of the IDSA Academy of Fellows. He wrote this personal essay in 2020. It was published in Design Management Institute magazine, a publication of this leading international design organization headquartered in the United States. We are proud to share his thoughts.

OK, You Say You Are Listening—Now What?

Have you lost touch with seeing, respecting, and intentionally supporting the success of your black and other underrepresented employees? Now imagine that, in order to contribute to your bottom line, those same employees have, over time, lost touch with their authentic selves and their purpose within your organization. If so, you’ve lost their unique contributions to your business.

The recent uprisings across the U.S. and across the world, in response to another senseless killing of an unarmed black male, have awakened many across the spectrum of the human race. These spontaneous actions are specific to the death of George Floyd and are symbolic of the incomprehensible lack of equity, inclusion, and basic humanity for black and brown people. The urgency now seems clear. The demand, once again, is social change!

However, while the reverberating cry of Black Lives Matter began with focus on the relationship between policing and the black community, it brings attention to broader social relationships, especially within business communities. Let us not forget it was a business transaction that triggered the cascading events: Floyd was accused by a teenage cashier of passing a counterfeit twenty-dollar bill before that cashier called police. So, if you are a business or institution watching from the sidelines and exercising “an unholy alchemy of risk management, legal liability, and trustee anxiety,” as authored by Jason England and Richard Purcell in a recent publication denouncing the “toothless response” of college leaders, the message is clear: check yourselves.[1]

Race is just one dimension of diversity and inclusion (D&I), but it is an obvious one. It is also a constant reminder of the unresolved historical injustices that continue to send tremors across the familiar fault lines of society. There are now inspiring examples of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement—for life, equality, and respect for cultural differences. Where does your organization stand? Are you aware of your fault lines, and are your D&I efforts addressing them with the necessary urgency?

My goal here is to contribute to the value argument for D&I by offering factors to consider for those working to make positive change within their business cultures. Additionally, I include perspectives of the black experience because, especially at this time, it is critically important that our voices be distinct. In doing so, the challenges and opportunities are more directly exposed.

I acknowledge that some points may be true across other underrepresented groups as well.

Valuing D&I Beyond Functional Goals

According to “The PwC Diversity Journey” report, “85% of CEOs have said that having a diversified and inclusive workplace population improved their bottom line.”[2] More specifically, research by McKinsey & Company in its January 2018 publication, “Delivering through Diversity,” shows that “companies in the top-quartile for gender diversity on executive teams were 21 percent more likely to outperform on profitability and 27 percent more likely to have superior value creation. Companies in the top-quartile for ethnic/cultural diversity on executive teams were 33 percent more likely to have industry-leading profitability.”[3]

Such data is now regularly reported across many industries and is a motivating factor for why organizations strive to embrace cultural change. However, for black employees the numbers are moving so slowly that you might not notice. McKinsey reports that “Black Americans comprise 10 percent of US graduates but hold only 4 percent of senior-executive positions”. This is lower than the numbers for Hispanics and Latinos and Asian Americans.[4] It is even more challenging for black women, who have trouble just getting in the pipeline. Black women who look to be promoted to first-level managers “face more obstacles and a steeper path to leadership, from receiving less support from managers to getting promoted more slowly”.[5] A participant in the PwC report remarked, “organizations talk about diversity, but I do not feel opportunities are really equal for all.”

What I learned—as a black, male designer with 30+ years of experience inside large and small corporations, who served as president of an international professional design organization, and is currently innovating as a professor and university leader—is the power of statistics to both enlighten and mislead.

Having a diversified workplace might imply that your business is inclusive of cultural and social needs; however, I don’t know this to be true for many black professionals. Regardless of the type or size of an organization, the struggle for black inclusivity can be lonely. This happens when diversity and inclusion function as nouns, not verbs—becoming abstracted concepts of a strategic plan, or a charge that is celebrated for merely existing rather than being practiced. The consequence is a lack of clarity, agreement, and guidance for individuals or teams in fully valuing, embracing, and supporting human and cultural differences. This is unproductive and unsatisfying, and it doesn’t unleash the complete opportunity for innovation.

As a former co-director of a master’s program on innovation, I have experienced another way that diversity and inclusion can be misread—when there is particular focus on cross-disciplinary teams. The program brought together students from around the world from disciplines of design, business, and engineering, with the goal to better prepare hybrid thinkers and doers in innovation practices. This was successfully achieved through cross-training students in the fundamental knowledge of the other disciplines in order to bridge discipline knowledge and cultural gaps. It also demonstrated the value of an integrated discipline culture where students were taught that innovation could best be achieved through the integration of all three disciplines—that each had a particular and necessary value to offer. In hindsight, what was missing was the same attention to social culture. I suspect that many graduates would rate their inclusion experience low, but, sadly, they may have been prepared well for the social and cultural isolation in many workplaces.

From my experience and research, I have identified the following actions to consider to support deeper analysis of D&I efforts and move organizations past the goal of “improving” toward a culture that is transformative:

  1. Distinguish between Diversity and Inclusion. Diversity and inclusion are often used synonymously, and this is problematic. As hard as it can be to achieve diversity, inclusion is really hard and needs the appropriate attention. I embrace the definitions of others who have described diversity as “the range of human differences,” and inclusion as “the act of creating the conditions for valued differences to exist.” In my experience, a culture that works to be inclusive, before and after a hire (recognizing inclusion is not a destination but a process), creates a platform for trust-building and an exchange where contributions can be valued, where professional development is more likely supported, and where maintaining identity is embraced. These goals and values aren’t easily measured through reductive quantitative means, which seems to be the normative approach.
  2. Don’t manage diversity; leverage difference. As much as industry research reports support the profitability of having a diverse culture, authors like Pamela Newkirk provide a sobering history of diversity in the workplace.[6] In her book Diversity, Inc. she communicates convincingly how and why this billion-dollar industry is littered with failures on the return on investment. Her references and analysis provide suggestions for correcting past and current mistakes. Alternatively, in his book The End of Diversity as We know It, Martin Davidson[7] offers a different framing for why some companies are successful and others are not. Davidson writes that “traditional approaches to managing diversity in organizations—Managing Diversity—approaches are less than effective in our new global marketplace.” Instead, what he proposes is “Leveraging Difference”—“defined as taking action within an organization to use people’s differences to help the organization achieve its strategic goals.” I have seen how well-intentioned diversity managing efforts can distill into obligatory mechanical actions and work against the organization’s goals. Davidson’s approach, in concept, aligns with a human-centered design approach versus social engineering. In essence, Human-Centered Design (HCD) is an approach that works to identify, understand, interpret, and respond to the needs, wants, and desires of people in the context of culture and environment. This progressive approach provides opportunities to generate new understandings about the complexities and differences that affect individual and team performance and satisfaction.
  3. Establish policies after understanding the people. Numerous D&I policies are established with the best of intentions but fall short because they lack connection in meaningful ways to the people they intend to serve, and consequently, ill-form the culture they desire to shape. HCD tools and methods can be used in support of humanizing organizational policy and culture and can be used to move beyond mere compliance—the difference between being diverse and inclusive or just being colorful.
  4. Empower an innovative culture. The business value of D&I is the potential to have underrepresented people contribute new insights that lead to innovative outcomes which set their organizations apart in growth and/or quality from the competition. However, there is a real struggle between the underrepresented people becoming overly acclimatized to the organizational culture where their personal authenticity as a contribution to work is lost. This point is illuminated in a study by Laura Sherbin and Ripa Rashid, which found that “37% of African-Americans and Hispanics and 45% of Asians say they ‘need to compromise their authenticity’ to conform to their company’s standards of demeanor or style.” Their research on women in the science, engineering, and technology industries shows that “regardless of gender, acting ‘like a man’ can provide an advantage in becoming a leader in these fields.” They note: “What a waste of employees’ energy, let alone their employers’ diversity dollars.” My past experience co-leading the master’s program on innovation—with students of multiple cultures and disciplinary backgrounds—observed that an innovative culture doesn’t happen simply by assembly; it must be carefully curated and nurtured. This involves understanding not only obvious personal talents but also the uniqueness of cultural perspectives. Creating an appropriate environment where a balance is discovered between organization cultural values and those of your employees is a hard but necessary effort to enable greater contributions.
  5. Define the purpose for change. A clearly communicated purpose for change supports the goal. As a participant of D&I committees on the university, college, and department levels, I see first-hand the struggle with articulating the why. Leaders seem to find it easier to identify the who, what, when, where, and even how. The why requires deeply uncomfortable discussions and answers that are unpredictable but that require commitment. Consequently, D&I efforts can lack strategic depth and, subsequently, implementation can happen across the organization in uneven and problematic ways. On D&I efforts, I hypothesize that organizations are positioned in one of three categories:
    1. For compliance: There are some requirements or advantages in hiring diverse people but little or no desire for culture change. Here, people are unable to operate or perform authentically and are forced to adapt to a culture that is the antithesis of inclusion.
    2. To enrich culture: The realization that the organization is operating well but would be more advantaged or competitive in particular ways by adding new perspectives and experiences. However, unless there are suitable representations of diverse people, the desired attributes they bring can, over time, become diminished or lost, with the result being acclimation of existing cultural practices and attitudes versus an inclusion of their own.
    3. Change culture: This is the hardest and scariest for organizations. There is a courageous decision that your organization is not meeting its mission. You seek people to bring specific expertise and qualities to transform the organization.

Addressing Realities

I am not alone in continuing to work at finding space to process, reprocess, and process again the latest events, and to organize my emotions, thoughts, and desires for change into questions that have naturally included my workplace. There are likely people in your organization that are doing the same. However, this is normal processing for black people, albeit this time, magnified exponentially. This process again surfaced questions of my inclusiveness, my areas of trust, my evolved understandings and perceptions—who can I collaborate with for change, and where can I best offer value in change? This thinking and ongoing action have certainly not been linear. It also doesn’t accurately convey the associative highs and lows of managing the necessary code-switching between work and outside realities, or the sometimes paralysis in contemplating next steps.

It has been enlightening to witness and learn how organizations that have D&I strategies in place discover they don’t have an actualized culture. Periodic quantitative assessment tools, though well-intentioned, have not been complemented well by qualitative ones to gain deeper insights from the people—those who are in a position to be the change agents. This means that leadership has been disconnected. Consequently, when a crisis happens, delivering communication responses or directing actions with confidence and assurance in a timely manner is hampered.

Having been employed for 23 years at the same institution—with many of those years in positions of leadership—I have been surprised to see that my colleagues remained, for the most part, silent. A couple responded over time and confirmed my suspicions that they didn't know what to do. They were having a hard time processing what black people have to deal with every day—some embarrassed that they hadn't understood more clearly before now.

If there is a silver lining in the tragedy of George Floyd, it is the response of the younger generations. Their relentless action in solidarity against social injustice and their willingness to join and lead peaceful protests represent the greatest hope this country has seen on issues of social justice in 50 years. They are increasingly informed, arguably more so than many of their elders, and undoubtedly paying attention to the players, including businesses. They are our future employees and leaders.

So, what now, white people? Some answers, in part, come from courageous black students from Carnegie Mellon University. They expressed their frustrations and anger of being “sick and tired of being sick and tired,” referencing famed civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer, in a town hall meeting. This was in response to leaders providing them an opportunity to speak from their hearts and minds regarding the George Floyd murder. In a stunningly honest, emotional but eloquent, clear, and painful set of unscripted statements, they called the university to action, delivering a robust list of questions and comments of which this is a sampling:

  • Are you an advocate when it’s convenient? If so, I don't trust you.
  • Get involved and stay involved. We don’t have the option to quit!
  • I have a hard time articulating to myself right now, so why should you expect I should be required to articulate to you?
  • Why are “we” bearing so much responsibility when we have no power?
  • Your apology can do nothing for me. What you can do is to make sure black people don't feel this way. 
  • Deliver on the promises of inclusion!

To be sure, present and historical social, economic, and political contexts inform strategies and the success of D&I efforts. It is also understood that these decisions vary across industries, by sectors, the markets they serve, geographic locations, and the scale of organizations. However, overall, recruitment, retention, and employee satisfaction of black people are issues plaguing even the largest resource-rich organizations—ones that have well-established D&I programs. D&I efforts must find sustained ways to acknowledge the value of black talent to their organization, hire them, and embrace their authentic cultural differences.

Designers (and yes, diversity is required here, too) should be considered important collaborators in D&I strategic planning and implementation. They have the expertise to apply human-centered strategies and methods to support a holistic approach for producing new understandings. Such outcomes lead to better-considered policies in care of desirable working cultures and profitable innovative practices.

As we experience a reawakening of social consciousness and a willingness to act on social injustices, more than ever, society desperately needs industry and academia to lead by example. When you assess your organization’s diversity and inclusion efforts, check: your strategy, your plans, your leaders, your teams, your human resources, your financial support, your progress, and your long-term commitment. Don’t just check the boxes.