In today’s highly charged political and social environments, effective leadership requires generous doses of self-awareness and empathy. Not to mention a high tolerance for criticism.
While some leaders invest heavily in efforts to help all their people feel welcome and valued, others say they’re intimidated into capitulating to a range of demands they regard as unreasonable at best or morally wrong at worst. No matter what a leader does, some will say it’s too much while others say it’s not enough.
Diversity is definitely a high-risk balancing act.
David Livermore can help leaders maneuver through this challenging terrain. He’s a social scientist and thought leader devoted to cultural intelligence and leadership. He’s worked in more than 100 countries advising leaders in Fortune 500 companies, nonprofits, and governments.
Livermore’s new book is Digital, Diverse & Divided: How to Talk to Racists, Compete with Robots, and Overcome Polarization.
Rodger Dean Duncan: What’s your response to someone who’s skeptical about a book about diversity written by a white man?
David Livermore: They’re right to be skeptical. There are aspects of our diverse, polarized world that are largely theoretical to me. I rarely experience the direct impact of discrimination and bias, and I wrestled with whether it was my place to write a book about it. But the research on cultural intelligence is increasingly applicable to the differences polarizing us. I hope my findings can be part of the solution. It also doesn’t seem right to put all the responsibility on those who are consistently marginalized. We all have to play a part in building a more culturally intelligent world. I do so with an understanding that my perspective has limitations.
Duncan: You point out that diversity experts are known for saying, “Break the golden rule. Don’t treat others the way you want to be treated. Treat others the way they want to be treated.” How does that play in a world where many people who seem to regard themselves as morally superior are so quick to apply derogatory labels to those who sincerely hold differing views?
Livermore: Modifying the golden rule is a good first step. It helps us remember that where we’re from and the cultures of which we’re part shape how we want to be treated. When we first moved to Asia with our kids, they would see something unfamiliar and say, “That’s weird.” My wife and I responded, “It’s not weird. It’s different.”
Another way to interrupt our impulse to see ourselves as morally superior is to engage in “first person perspective-taking”—looking at a situation through someone else’s eyes. If you’re talking to someone who thinks climate change is a bunch of political nonsense, try to see the situation through their point of view. It’s unlikely they don’t care at all about the environment. But if they’re struggling to stretch this week’s paycheck far enough to fill their gas tank, it may temper our tendency to view their perspective as completely ignorant or inferior.
Duncan: Your subtitle refers to talking to racists. Is it everyone’s responsibility to confront racists? And more to the point, doesn’t branding someone as a racist violate the “re-written” golden rule embraced by some diversity experts?
Livermore: This is a really important question. First, confronting racism is an opt-in activity. If you’re repeatedly on the receiving end of discrimination and bigotry, I make no assumptions about whether you should pursue talking to people who disrespect you. But I wrote the book for those who are looking for guidance on how to go about it
Your second question is harder. I’m a racist and you might be too. Hopefully I’m less racist today than I was 20 years ago. But in the words of Ibram X Kendi, “Racists deny. Anti-racists reflect.” I’m not interested in labeling full groups of people as “racists.” I want to help all of us reflect on ways we might subconsciously view individuals from different racial backgrounds as less than ourselves.
I was recently talking to a long-time friend who’s one of the most accepting and compassionate individuals I know. But in the course of telling me a story, he said, “Did you hear that Jon just married a woman from Kenya? She’s Black but she’s beautiful.” Why does a highly successful, salt of the earth guy say something like that? I used it as a chance to ask him if he was aware of what he just said. As often happens, his immediate response was defensive. But over the course of a few minutes, he admitted that he had no idea where that came from. Those are the kinds of conversations and insights I’m interested in fostering.
Duncan: Much has been written about Emotional Intelligence (EQ). You write about Cultural Intelligence (CQ). How do the two differ, and in what ways are they interdependent?
Livermore: A young South African employee told me that his boss repeatedly tells him, “Look me in the eye when we’re talking. That’s how you show confidence and respect.” But this young man grew up in a Zulu home where his mother repeatedly said, “Don’t ever look your superiors in the eye. That’s disrespectful.” Emotional intelligence helps us read emotions in familiar contexts. Cultural intelligence gives us the tools to do so when the cultural context is unfamiliar.
There’s extensive research examining the correlation between EQ and CQ. Cultural intelligence is impossible if I can’t first detect and manage my own emotions and others like me. Cultural intelligence picks up where emotional intelligence leaves off. It allows us to accurately read people and respond in a way that is appropriate and effective in light of the context.
Duncan: How can Cultural Intelligence help bridge the trust gap between people with markedly different views on a “hot” topic?
Livermore: For 25 years, I’ve been answering a slightly different question. “How can cultural intelligence help bridge the trust gap between people in China and the U.S.?” or some variation of that. The implications of cultural intelligence are the same whether it’s trusting someone with a different passport or someone from our own family who disagrees with us about reproductive rights.
Cultural intelligence uses what academics call the “contact hypothesis,” which basically says that under the right conditions, direct interaction with your Other produces more tolerance and less prejudice. Posting propaganda that supports your view does little to change anyone’s mind, much less build trust. But talking together and seeing that someone with an opposing opinion is not a malicious, ignorant imbecile helps us take the first step toward trusting someone with different views on a hot topic.
In addition, cultural intelligence helps us see that what builds trust for me may be different than what builds trust for you. When I help executives apply this across borders, I exemplify it by telling a U.S. businessperson how important a dinner meeting or drinks “after” work” are for building trust in places like Japan or China. But I tell the Chinese businessperson that follow-through and written agreements may be most important for building trust in places like the U.S. or Germany. Similarly, when interacting with someone who disagrees with me about a hot topic, I have to determine what is most important in building trust with them—research, stories, individual rights, collective good, etc.
Duncan: What are your tips for navigating a conversation that’s potentially polarizing?
Livermore: Start by finding out whether they’re even open to the conversation. Research repeatedly shows that preaching at people who are closed to a different perspective is not only pointless, it can actually make them more emboldened. I often start with a simple question: “Would you be open to considering a different perspective?”
Next, there’s compelling research that working together to address a shared problem is an essential part of overcoming polarization. You have to zoom wide enough to get to a problem you can agree on but not so wide that it’s meaningless. If you and your friend are polarized on debating “People need to stop resisting arrest” versus “We just need to defund the police,” zoom wider to something like “Innocent people shouldn’t be shot.” Can we agree on that?
Then, zoom back in on your different perspectives. Focus the conversation on understanding what needs to change. Explore the “how” rather than just the “what.” Individuals are more willing to open their minds to alternative approaches when they are asked how their preferred policies or solutions would work rather than just ranting about what’s wrong with the other side’s approach.
Duncan: Many people feel that their organizations are getting on the DEI (diversity, equity, inclusion) bandwagon more as a response to political and social pressure than out of genuine commitment. What effect are those mixed messages having on the workplace?
Livermore: This is something I’m really concerned about. A growing number of executives whisper to me behind closed doors, “DEI is becoming a black hole. No matter what I do, it’s never enough.” Many are quietly pulling the resources they dedicated to support DEI two years ago.
If the commitment is simply rooted in optics and placating social pressure, it’s worse than not doing anything at all. For example, many organizations have jumped on the bandwagon of mandating unconscious bias training for everyone. But research repeatedly shows that unconscious bias training by itself has little positive impact. Worse yet, can make things worse for underrepresented groups.
On the other hand, those of us promoting DEI efforts need to take on the perspective of organizational decision-makers. It’s easy to criticize the C-suite for not doing enough, but to what degree have we linked the DEI priorities to the larger mission and goals of the organization?
Duncan: When they don’t get their way, some political figures and social activists seem to “play the race card,” apparently wanting to shame or intimidate into submission people with opposing views. What effect does this behavior have on the cause of diversity and inclusion in our society?
Livermore: I think this is related to your previous question. One reason we see organizations stepping back from the commitment to DEI is because in some cases DEI programs seem to be perpetuating divisions and intolerance rather than supporting inclusion and equity.
Diversity is a reality for all of us now. We’re all engaged in “cross-border” work. We need to move beyond shame and blame DEI training to giving people the skills to work effectively with people who have diverse viewpoints and backgrounds. That doesn’t mean we shy away from tough conversations and doing the hard work. But the organizations that are serious about this work treat this like they do any other strategic initiative—they develop a coherent plan with measurable outcomes for which everyone is held accountable.
Duncan: How can people stay true to their values at work while also being “flexible” and empathic team players?
Livermore: It’s in vogue to tell everyone to bring their true selves to work. I understand the sentiment, particularly for individuals who have spent years cloaking their sexuality, politics, or natural hair style at work. But in reality, each of us has to figure out how much of our true self belongs at work. I behave differently with my wife and friends than I do with professional colleagues. Does that mean I’m inauthentic? I don’t think so.
The key is for an organization to develop norms that are expected of everyone. Employees don’t have to compromise their personal and cultural values to be part of a culturally intelligent, inclusive organization. But everyone needs to flex their behavior to work together to accomplish the organizational objectives. The organization needs to be explicit about its norms when recruiting staff and everyone should be held accountable to adapting to those norms.
Duncan: Are you optimistic we can overcome polarization?
Livermore: Yes! There are no quick fixes, but through a grassroots movement of culturally intelligent individuals and leaders, we can do better. Some 82% of Americans agree that hate speech is a key problem, but 80% also agree that political correctness has gone too far. More than six in ten Americans are concerned that the country’s refugee screening process is not tough enough to keep out possible terrorists, but the same individuals believe people should be able to take refuge. Most of us want solutions to these kinds of challenges rather than endless arguments. I hope my work can play one small part in how we pursue that together.