After an incredibly difficult week at work, I shared with a friend the impact on my team and me.
I expected pity, or at least sympathy. My friend is warm and kind, and he knows the pressures of leading an organization. So I was surprised that he offered me. “You’ve been through worse,” he replied. “It will be easy for you.”
I asked what he meant, and he pointed to my life experience. He said that if I can survive daily racism and bigotry, then dealing with ups and downs in leadership should be a cinch in comparison.
This conversation is not going well for me, and I’ve spent the last few weeks trying to figure out why. Here’s what I know: While it’s true that people from marginalized communities suffer extraordinary hardships, and while science shows that minority individuals have deeper reservoirs in sustainability, it is also true that we have cultural biases towards sustainability that have a negative impact on us and our organizations.
For example, when leaders encourage resilience without considering the unique difficulties of marginalized groups, they may be creating conditions in which individuals feel uncomfortable speaking or acting about what they are suffering. This is compounded by the fact that, for many who come from the margins, it is common to normalize unnecessary hardship.
A good leader does not assume that their marginalized employees have superhuman strength just because of their identities. Doing so may be another way of dealing with other people and may result in failure to provide the necessary support.
In the exchange with my friend, we never had a chance to dig into the challenges I faced at work; what I believe is strength means I can overcome it through hard work and perseverance alone.
The strength has been so great that I honestly don’t think I’ll ever hear about it again. We have fitness workshops and workbooks; resilience shampoos and conditioners; chief resilience officers and corporate resilience awards. Some even have MANILA that the term is so overused that it no longer carries an understandable meaning. But when it comes to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), it’s important that we understand these biases and how they influence our decision-making—and in many cases, lead us to doubt and neglect.
Instead of throwing the baby out with the bathwater (while remembering that babies are resilient too) here are three steps leaders can take to adapt how we think about resilience to address these biases and the resulting in unfairness.
1. Develop a clear understanding of what is true strength and what is not.
In the initial conversation with my friend, he likened the racism I experienced to the hardships I faced at work. He also believes that the challenges at work should be less than the challenges I overcome every day. In a way, he was right. I have the experience to face adversity and believe that I can overcome this challenge.
But overall, he was wrong. He believed the thick skin I had developed from dealing with racism meant I could handle it too. For me, the challenges of racism are all the more familiar because I’ve navigated them all my life. The challenges of the job are new. Also, I don’t see them in comparison; they seem to be of different orders.
Perhaps most importantly, I can see something from my position that he has a hard time seeing. Because of his prejudices about racism and stability, he shut down the conversation before it started. He thought he knew where I was coming from, and that misinformation guided his response. He dismisses these challenges when I bring them up, which is hurtful and unhelpful – and it shows a misunderstanding of what real strength is.
This is what I told him after pondering it: Strength is not about gritting your teeth and suffering in silence, and it is more than developing a thick skin. Resilience is about our ability to find hope and will in the midst of adversity.
One way to explain your understanding of resilience is through the framework of resilience and growth. Survival speaks of endurance. Can we endure the hardships before us and live to tell the tale? In a corporate setting, the answer is probably yes. Most of us face some physical threats in our workplaces.
Progress, however, is a different matter altogether. It is not about the ability to cope with the pain, but about changing the experience completely. Development is about the quality of the work environment, the trust of team members, the support systems in place. In the context of our work, the driving force for resilience has to do with the quality of our experience – our growth.
Through our work with corporate leaders, we have identified four tactics to develop and strengthen resilience:
- Communicate with your surroundings again, even if you want to hibernate.
- Reframe your problems by focusing on the options in front of you.
- Rewire how you see yourself and your capabilities.
- Replenish energy by doing what brings you energy, as opposed to resting doing nothing.
2. Consider how shared challenges affect people differently.
The global shutdown that comes with Covid-19 disproportionately affects women. Data from the US Census Bureau show that when the global health crisis began, approx 3.5 million mothers living with school-aged children left their jobs to take care of their children.
As the pandemic continues, many companies are beginning to recognize the strain it is putting on their employees. Companies are offering new resources, including funds to support mental health counseling, remote workstations, and even exercise equipment. Their approach is well-intentioned: We will help everyone equally by allocating a certain amount of money to support each employee. What this approach does not recognize is that different people are affected in different ways by events in our world. So while some companies offer childcare support, only a few of the many able-bodied mothers across the country are able to return to work.
A disengaged leader may find that women don’t return to the workplace and shrug their shoulders. Many think it’s because women don’t have enough commitment to stick around. A good leader instead asks why, and then looks for obstacles that may be preventing people from progressing. We have seen many leaders take action as they learn about these obstacles. According to Care.com’s “The Future of Benefits” annual reportthe number of employers offering childcare jumped from 36% of those surveyed in 2019 to 56% in 2022.
A good leader listens to these different needs and dynamics on three different levels: personal, organizational, and systemic. A good leader will also ask what they expect from different groups while keeping in mind what is already on their plates. A good leader does not assume that people from marginalized backgrounds have a higher level of resilience. Making sure they meet people where they are can prevent them from dismissing their concerns, ignoring real problems when they arise, and neglecting to take necessary and appropriate action.
3. Don’t use perceived, individual strengths to dismiss real, systemic problems.
I had small children when the pandemic started, and for a long time, I felt that they were vulnerable: We didn’t know anything about the virus, and it was two years until they were vaccinated. We have no idea of the social and emotional impact of not going to school. And whenever we bring it up, someone shrugs their shoulders, and says “Well, kids are tough.”
Sure, kids are resilient in many ways, but this response also feels insensitive. Some people have the privilege of leaving the conversation there, and some parents adopt this frame as a kind of defense mechanism. But for many parents, including myself, that answer isn’t good enough. We are taking every action we can to create the right conditions to help protect them.
I see a similar conversation play out in corporate settings all the time. When bad things happen, whether it’s layoffs or layoffs or disagreements with colleagues, I hear leaders shrug their shoulders and say, “They’re fine.” I’m sure things will work themselves out in many cases, but I find myself thinking: “Wouldn’t you rather prepare what you can than just cross your fingers and hope for the best really?”
Often, we use resilience as a mechanism to place responsibility on the individual who is handling the problem rather than taking responsibility for the problem itself. At its worst, resilience is a corporate cop-out that enables us to abdicate responsibility to the person facing the fallout. Even worse, when that person can’t handle the pressure, we blame them and say they’re not strong enough.
Sometimes, the problem is not individual resilience but faulty systems that are broken. Humans have a tendency to attribute faults to the people around us. A good leader knows not to think that the problem is not only within your people; the problem may be in your organization, too. I have worked with many leaders who would point to their colleagues and say, “Betty is not mentally strong enough,” or “Gautam can’t handle the pressure.” Few leaders have the insight and self-awareness to consider their role in positioning their employees for adversity.
The hard truth here is that the two are not the same. It may be true that man and the system are flawed; When strength is needed, it can illuminate the inner nature of an individual just as it can reveal the inner nature of our organizations and our leadership. Perhaps we can also make these opportunities – as we ask our employees – to reflect on what we can change and improve so that stability is not needed in the first place.
Ultimately, the takeaway is this: There are biases embedded in our thinking and behavior towards fitness. Our best bet is to keep learning and growing, so we can set our organizations and the people we care for to not just survive, but to thrive.