Our second roundtable on Race

Matt Dean




Our second roundtable discussion focussing on having conversations about race was just as thoughtful and productive as the first. I want to keep pushing the conversation forward and have identified both some key themes and questions to direct the next discussion.

1. People aren’t expecting perfection.

None of the black or brown voices at our roundtables, or that I have heard on social media, are expecting people to get this right immediately. Small steps is a phrase I am hearing often. Provided that in the interactions you have with someone from a different background you genuinely try to relate to that other person. People in our roundtable were genuinely understanding that many of their colleagues may not regularly interact with someone of a different colour and for them work is a more mixed environment than home.

The first question I want to return to in our third roundtable is ‘what does it look like when you are trying to relate genuinely to a person of colour?’ I may be able to suggest a possible answer following a couple of conversations specifically on this subject. It appears to me that problems may start whenever the person from a minority background senses that there may be some negative connotation – normally related to a stereotype – attaching to their aspect of difference.

A related point that I don’t want to lose from the roundtable was that latitude will continue to be offered provided people don’t get distracted, provided they keep their eyes on the prize – the underlying issue of unfairness and exclusion. We were warned against focusing our attention on sideshows like the banning of reruns of particular TV shows. If you’re running an organisation, ask yourself the big and difficult questions: ‘why after we have focused on this issue for X years do we not have anyone black on the board?’' If you lead a team, think about how each of them will be experiencing fairness and inclusion right now.

2. Transformation has to be self initiated

Sustainable behavioural change is hard to achieve and the catalyst for that change must be generated within each one of us. We have consistently heard in both roundtables phrases like 'It’s not for me [as a black person] to tell them what self-reflection they need to do.'  We identified in the first roundtable the idea of informal accountability groups to guide your self-reflection. The second roundtable wanted to see these accountability groups as involving all voices. Perhaps that may not always be possible, perhaps we have to trust people to find the right support for their self-reflection.

Certainly one thing that we happened across in the first roundtable was that an important part of that self-reflection should focus on identifying your why; why it is that you want to have conversations with your colleagues about race. This will make it far easier for you to have successful conversations. To adopt Simon Synek’s famous mantle, when you are selling an idea – always start with your why. It’s far easier for the other person to connect emotionally with you.

3. This is bigger than work, it’s about us becoming better human beings

The notable phrase was used in the roundtable ‘it’s not going to end well if we outsource our growth to our employer.’ That’s not to say that the employer doesn’t have an important role to play. Clearly an employer can benefit from having more inclusively minded, more well-rounded employees. The question for discussion at the roundtable is probably a perfect one to discuss at a time when many workers are working remotely: ‘how do employers best support their employees in their personal growth in relation to issues of race.’

However, we have discussed in both roundtables that not everyone in the workplace accepts the central premise of #BlackLivesMatter. As was said in the second roundtable: 'the backlash started as soon as the resurgence started.'  Some of the workforce genuinely do not see racism and believe they are working in a meritocracy. An important supplementary question could be: ‘how does the organisation best support those employees to initiate self-reflection and growth in relation to issues of race.’ 

4. The organisation’s role in creating safe spaces and policing bad behaviour

In our second roundtable we talked at length about what we could learn from cultural initiatives in places like the health and airline industries. Having done some reading and watching about Just Culture, the central themes seem to be a focus on identifying the underlying causes of a problem rather than simply on the individual and the mindset that the incident happened because of that individual.

In our discussion we were clear: someone who intentionally desecrates a safe space with racist language deserves punishment. And we must learn from such events. If we are going to learn, we need a well understood framework. Adapting the sorts of thing already developed in Just Culture for our ends, a framework could look like this:

  1. Does there appear to be ill intent?
  2. Was the behaviour clearly contrary to existing rules (and norms of behaviour)?
  3. Could others equally have done it? This will normally require analysis of the training given to everyone and to the supervision/leadership applied in the circumstances.
  4. Were there any mitigating circumstances?

Speaking as a lawyer for a moment, some consideration is going to need to be given, as it is in the criminal law, to different levels of intent: at some point recklessness – lack of consideration – becomes actionable.

I would love people to come to the third roundtable having done some homework: having looked at some of the cultural models used around safety and speaking up to answer the question: ‘how do organisations best direct their efforts in the creation of safe spaces whilst at the same time policing bad behaviour?’


5. Leaders must lead on race, could their primary focus be on making the conversations easier?

There has been unanimity of view in both roundtables and in the many conversations my colleagues and I at byrne·dean are having with senior leadership about #BlackLivesMatter: the onus is on the (predominantly white) leaders of organisations to lead on these issues – having encouraged a diverse range of voices to speak to them and having listened honestly to those voices.

A view that captured the mood of the second roundtable was that it was when senior leaders look for radical solutions in this sort of area that they are at their best. It’s likely that those solutions, if they are going to generate change, will feel wrong. We discussed examples at the roundtable such as: not employing people who have done an internship at our firm. Surely that’s half the point of internships – they are a two week (six week, or whatever) interview process. Yes, but if most internships go to relatives of clients or friends of people in the firm and if the group of interns is predominantly white, how will you make any progress against your objectives of increasing diversity in the firm?

I am also deeply indebted to my colleague Katie Driver for suggesting something really important that leaders could focus on: making change easy. Katie references the EAST model for behavioural change that government departments look to – make it Easy, Attractive, Social and Timely. Easy is the bit that she stresses here: we know how we navigate away from a shopping website if it’s one click too clunky. How much more challenging is it going to be to make it easy to have the hard conversations about racism and bias?

The question here I think is ‘how do our leaders communicate the work around this in a positive and forward-looking way that people will feel they want to engage with?’

Our third roundtable will hopefully take place early next week. I need to check on the availability of a couple of people. Please let me know if you would like to participate – whether as an active participant or as an observer – in this way we might be able to encourage a wider audience. 

We ask for participants to donate towards Amos Bursary or the charity or non profit organisation of your choice supporting Black causes.

Email matt.dean@byrnedean.com