Not too long ago, the board of directors of a well-known Fortune 200 corporation was out of ideas for how to deal with a difficult CEO.
The problem: At a time when this company was trying to increase the diversity of its senior ranks â€” and serve an increasingly diverse customer base â€” people complained that this CEO, we’ll call him “Ed,” was an “ol’ boy” who was chummy with his white male friends and dismissive of women and people of color who reported directly to him.
As a last resort, the board called Leslie Wilk Braksick, Ph.D., a behavioral scientist and consultant and author of the bestseller Unlock Behavior, Unleash Profits: Developing Leadership Behavior that Drives Profitability in Your Organization.
Braksick sat in on Ed’s next meeting to observe a roundtable update by his team members. She observed that his body language, speaking style, and overall communication with the white males on the team were exemplary â€” encouraging, empathetic, constructive, and supportive. But when minorities tried to participate, the result was much different. “When the female team member and the African-American male spoke, Ed couldn’t have been more different,” she says. “He stared at the ceiling, put down his pen, and interrupted.”
When the board had approached him previously about such behavior, she says, he was angry and felt the accusations were unjustified.
Taking the emotion out of discrimination
Too often in situations in which people are being discriminated against, we react emotionally and label the discriminators â€” such as “ignorant jerk,” “too loyal to his own people,” or “too aggressive.” That’s often done incorrectly, “versus,” Braksick says, “helping them to understand their own behavior and its impact â€” and what is needed to be successful or better in the company.”
Braksick, cofounder and chairman of The Continuous Learning Group, recommends a behavioral science approach, which relies on objective, fact-based statements of what really happened, “what a person says and does.” She explains, ”It does not rely on things â€˜behind the eyeballs’ â€” such as intentions and values. It is only by pinpointing the key behaviors that people can understand what is wrong or right in what they are doing â€” and how to get even better.”
After the meeting, Braksick met with Ed “and in a very objective, caring and nonblaming way, I shared the specific behaviors he exhibited, even in that two-hour meeting, that could lead others to infer that he was preferential toward white males and not supportive of women and persons of color,” she says.
Together the pair discussed the impacts of his behavior versus his intentions; together they discussed how others could interpret his actions. Right away, the CEO expressed “appreciation and relief for helping him to understand the unintended impact of his behaviors â€” and for the importance of understanding how our words and actions can be interpreted by others,” she says.
Ed made almost immediate changes in his behavior and “over multiple situations, over time, his credibility improved, in particular with younger and more diverse leaders within the organization,” Braksick says. Meanwhile, Ed’s small behavioral adjustments made a huge impact on his team’s attitudes, morale, and performance â€” dramatically and instantly.
“[His team] thought I was a miracle worker,” Braksick says. “They could not believe the dramatic transformation in his behavior toward them.”