Thinking the Unthinkable logo Thinking the Unthinkable logo

George Floyd death: how it forced leaders to tackle racism

by Nik Gowing & Chris Langdon

Filed under Next Gen / Diversity of Thinking

The extraordinary global anger after the killing of George Floyd in Minnesota on May 25 caught leaders off guard. It rightly ignited the largely suppressed issues of diversity, inequality, and above all race. Leaders have been shocked. They should not be.

It is well beyond shock. In just a few days the videoed murder by a policeman, watched by three other officers, has shot those issues to the top of the global political agenda.

The speed has not only caught many leaders off guard. It has also revealed how many routinely marginalise consideration of deep and burning resentments among a sizeable percentage of their populations who believe they are ignored.

Simmering fury has boiled over in literally hours. The scale of anger is unprecedented from every community. To many it had been unthinkable. But suddenly the national histories of inequality and racism are centre stage.

For example, a significant part of the wealth which fuelled Britain’s industrial and intellectual success in the past has been exposed as being funded by slavery. The history was there in books and films and in academia. But it was largely undiscussed among the wider public.

The history was visible in the form of statues of historic figures who were revered at the time. No more. A number of these figures have dark pasts are which are deeply unacceptable by current standards. Suddenly the pain and injustice, which continues to simmer for many decades and centuries, has been exposed as raw and deep, especially for black communities.

COVID-19 has this year already highlighted the deep fault-lines in society.

Members of the BAME community are disproportionately affected by both death and increasingly the huge levels of job losses.

At the same time, the diverse workforce in the British National Health Service and the role of key workers – many of them from the BAME community - has been rightly celebrated.

Diversity and inclusion are among the top five themes that we have identified in our Thinking the Unthinkable research. Our rigorous data analysis draws on more than 2,500 pages of confidential interview transcripts with leaders and Next Gen leaders and hundreds of informal conversations.

Over half of our data files include mentions of diversity and inclusivity. There are 300 plus references. Our key finding is the need to diversify and broaden our current conceptions of diversity and inclusion.

Our analysis suggests that there should not be a focus on a single aspect of diversity, such as race or sex - important as they are. Inclusion in terms of disability, religion, age, geographic and social background, and also neurodiversity, are also important.

A diversity of views and ideas - having people with different skill sets and thinking - is vital. Diverse and inclusive teams are less likely to be prone to groupthink if – and this is often a big “if” - the organisational culture fosters diverse thinking.

At high speed leaders need to listen to views that they may feel uncomfortable with. They must not just be polite. They must act. Why? Our research shows that leaders consistently fail to take note of evidence that is both unthinkable and unpalatable to their conformist thinking.

One of our interviewees, Yvette Williams has given excellent advice. She is a campaigner for justice for the victims of the Grenfell tower block in West London that burned out leaving 72 dead almost three years ago to the day, on June 14 2017. She urged those in power not willing to confront the suppressed realities to: “Be honest and be open to change. Be diversity brave rather than diversity blind. Be proactive rather than reactive on diversity and inclusion.”

“Look at their (leaders’) attitudes and behaviours first otherwise you lead in the wrong direction. People are tired of talking and frustrated that no impactful actions happen. Don’t just focus on increasing representation numbers; focus on how you make people belong to your organisation. Raise the collective standard in your organisation especially about how people engage. Begin by listening to those who feel marginalised and ‘include’ their expertise in finding solutions.”

In this week’s webcast Nik Gowing and Chris Langdon reflect on the global anger that the killing of George Floyd has provoked.

Leave a comment