When Office Politics And Racism Collide

Five ways CEOs can detect bias and racism and root out ugly behavior before it spreads.

Office politics, using power in a work setting to achieve personal gain, is poisonous to company culture. It can damage trust and shatter teams. It can devastate morale and traumatize high performers. The personal toll from office politics also has significant bottom line impacts. According to the American Institute of Stress, the estimated annual productivity loss because of stress-related factors could be $300 billion in the United States alone.

When it is tied to racism, the problem of office politics is even more troubling. In recent months, the spotlight cast from the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor has further exposed long-suppressed feelings about racial injustice. CEOs must consider difficult questions: What are the warning signs that racism has infiltrated the workplace? What happens when the ugly forces of office politics and racism intersect? What is the road forward for senior management and CEOs in rooting out office politics, bias and racism?

It is important to make clear some office behavior should not be construed as inherently negative or wrong. For example, competition can be beneficial. However, office politics that advances self-interest (putting personal needs before others) over common interests (improving team processes and enhancing accountability) is toxic.

The key for CEOs and senior managers is to create a fine-tuned radar to detect bias and racism and an action plan to root out ugly behavior before it spreads. Here are five considerations for CEOs:

• Collect data. Data is a valuable resource that can help a CEO identify, organize and create an informed response to negative office dynamics. Primary data such as confidential questionnaires and online surveys can help identify undesirable organization-wide behaviors or beliefs hiding under the surface. In addition, qualitative data such as individual or water cooler conversations can produce novel insights about negative work culture behaviors and biases. “Skip-level” meetings in which the CEO meets with professionals at least two levels down are a highly productive approach to collect qualitative data. Armed with insights, CEOs have a basis upon which to act on suspicious patterns and practices.

• Head off unconscious bias before it becomes obvious racism. Unconscious biases are attitudes formed outside personal consciousness and based on an individual’s tendency to categorize social worlds. Unconscious biases are prolific in society. Some of the most common are prejudices based on age, gender, name, skin color, culture and nationality. CEOs can head off unconscious bias by encouraging employees to recognize unconscious attitudes. There are many consultants who can provide bias awareness training with the benefit of an outside perspective. CEOs and a diversified management can also counteract bias through confidential and multi-layered hiring practices. CEOs do their organizations a great justice heading off biases at the front door.

• Encourage a positive dominant logic and engagement. In strategic management, dominant logic is the common way of thinking about business strategy and conduct. Research has shown that negative dominant logic, looking at making a profit or serving stakeholders in just one way is less successful than positive dominant logic, using enlightened approaches for achieving goals. Diverse thought and engagement are the key ingredients to positive dominant logic. Those ingredients are also tied to bottom line results. A 2018 report from Gallup, found highly engaged business units result in 21% greater profitability. CEOs set the tone for positive dominant logic in a formalized set of values, mission and goals.

• Seek to make amends from past errors. At Pepperdine Graziadio Business School we have a saying: it’s never too late to make amends. CEOs may be reading this and realizing past mistakes based on biases or outright racism (either within their organization or their own). Making amends is more than saying “I’m sorry.” It is reassuring the persons offended that the behavior will not happen again. In a classroom of C-suite executes we encourage students to treat everyone in life the way you wish you could have treated any wronged person.

Finally, good intentions are fruitless without a plan. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, poet, author of The Little Prince, and hero fighter pilot who perished in World War II said: “A goal without a plan is just a wish.”  By creating an action plan that addresses biases and racism in office politics and office culture, CEOs are rising to the best of their ability. Power politics, uncooperative peer competition, and win-at-all-costs personal gain can be overcome. Racism is ugly and dangerous, and it takes a powerful act of courage to confront this dark force. However, it is a great professional accomplishment and personally honorable achievement to set a fair, more inclusive course.