Learn to See the Matrix

There are maybe 10 early stage entrepreneurs in a room with the CEO of one of the biggest tech “startups” in the world. (Which company? Let’s just say, if I tweeted about this encounter, it would be very meta.) One of the entrepreneurs asks the CEO “how do you get your software engineers to really go above and beyond, to really put in the extra effort?” 

The CEO shares this tip: he comes back to the office after evening events sometimes, and walks around to see who’s there. He’ll stop and ask them what they are working on. He doesn’t tell them why, but at the next all hands meeting, he’ll make sure those engineers get their project recognized, make sure they have the budget they want, etc. 

As a mother with three small children, I immediately spot why this practice is incredibly harmful to the promotion of mothers/parents within their ranks: personally, I head home from the office about 5, make dinner and spend time with my kids, and after putting them to bed, I hop back on the computer (if needed) at home to solve a pressing problem in my startup. (I’m writing this now at 8:30 having just put my kids to bed). I would never get spotted by this CEO and my work (and I) would never get promoted. I am aghast, but the other 9 young, male entrepreneurs are smiling and nodding at this brilliant piece of management advice.

I have this insight, but in so many other areas I lack vision: I have never been incarcerated (or even detained by police), never been homeless. I am not a member of the LGBTQ+ community, or an immigrant or DACA recipient, or a victim of domestic violence, or a minority religion or ethnicity, or a veteran, or a person with a disability or non-neurotypical. There are many more identities that I don’t share, so that I can’t spot how policies and procedures might disadvantage or exclude folks. I am the smiling and nodding doofus in plenty of situations. When I later (hopefully) get educated, I cringe at my ignorance. But it’s just that, ignorance and not ill will.

There are many managers and executives out there who also have blind spots. In order to reach them and enroll them in the important work of changing workplaces to help everyone succeed and thereby increase the earnings and advancement of marginalized people, we need to understand where these managers are coming from, without judgement. If I were a hiring manager at a Fortune 500 company, here are some beliefs I might currently hold:

  • I am fundamentally a good person who tries to do the right thing.
  • I treat everyone the same, I only focus on their behavior when I make judgements
  • I would never intentionally dismiss or diminish a team member
  • The United States is fundamentally a meritocracy – you get what you work for. Racism and discrimination was a problem a very long time ago, but that’s in the past.
  • Everyone has to play by the same rules that I did and I earned my position here
  • The policies of this company are generally fair and reasonable
  • Businesses can only succeed when they enforce policies equally and it’s up to workers to meet expectations
  • People shouldn’t get a promotion or an opportunity just because of their difference, you should “always hire the best person for the job.” Very talented white people are being passed over for promotions and opportunities because of their skin color, and that’s not fair to them. Discrimination in the past may have been wrong, but two wrongs don’t make a right.
  • Calling me a “racist” is incredibly upsetting – it’s what I fear because I know that racism is wrong. So I need to avoid that label at all costs. The KKK is racist, not me.

If the manager or team members goes through implicit bias training of some kind (a frequent form of DEI initiatives), they may be feeling:

  • Guilty and uncomfortable if they realize they carry implicit bias
  • Unsure what to do differently, focusing on their personal behavior
  • Nervous, walking on eggshells

In order to enroll these folks in a new approach to changing policies and practices that are inclusive of many kinds of difference, I believe we need to meet them where they are. There’s actually something liberating about realizing you as a white person swim in racist waters of the entire culture – it means that it’s not about your heart and mind or your personal sin. That doesn’t mean that you don’t need to change your personal behavior (once you know better, you do better), but that it’s not about you as a good person or a bad person, but as a person who is part of a culture and is acting out what is learned and the fishbowl that is constructed by the rules of society. Once you come to see the construction, you can work to change it. You can be like Neo, and really SEE the Matrix.

If we focus on the racist waters – the rules of the game rather than the sins of  individuals, we can relieve some of that individual discomfort and resistance and enroll folks in changing them. Here are some tactics I’d like to try:

• Focus on company policies and practices that limit inclusion to positively impact talent acquisition and retention at every level

• Use data and technology to go beyond feelings to facts about applicant pools, retention rates and promotion rates and how to modify them

• Offer practical solutions based on the lived experience of current and potential employees who might be quite different from managers and executives

• Offer solutions designed for the “edge case” that actually benefit everyone

• Demonstrate the benefits of inclusion through measurement of decreased turnover to provide clear benefits

As a next step, I’d like to do some empathy interviews with HR managers and DEI executives to see what barriers and concerns they might have about engaging in this work.

Published by Sharon Schneider

Sharon Schneider is an entrepreneur, impact investor, philanthropy expert and strategy consultant to the next generation of social impact founders and family offices. Currently, Sharon is Executive Director of the Telluray Foundation in Colorado.

2 thoughts on “Learn to See the Matrix

  1. What you wrote reminds me of what I’ve read in “White Fragility” by Robin deAngelo, especially that racism is a system! You may want to check out her ideas to add to your own. Thanks for the honesty about your own experience. I think we’re all being challenged to “change our lens” and then act differently. Your idea to talk with HR managers, etc. is one worth pursuing. All the best!

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  2. Sharon, thank you for this post and I appreciated the discussion we had about it on our peer learning group call. Your opening anecdote illustrates how harmful practices are propagated and reproduced.

    You wrote: “If we focus on the racist waters – the rules of the game rather than the sins of individuals, we can relieve some of that individual discomfort and resistance and enroll folks in changing them.” When people weren’t involved in creating the rules, how do you get them invested in the idea that the rules can be changed and that they can change them? Are there particular DEI strategies you’ve found effective in helping people see the water?

    Your work to impact hiring practices and workforce development seems like it has the power to shift structures in these institutions. I’m looking forward to checking-in with you in a few months to see how things are developing.

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