Not too long ago, I was asked to sit on a diversity and inclusion panel at a conference to offer my thoughts on these topics in front of a few hundred people. My colleagues on the panel represented a vibrant rainbow of the human spectrum: Black, Latino, Woman, Disabled, Veteran, Gay, Asian, and more.
Why was I, a white male executive, on a diversity and inclusion panel? Read on, friends.
The group of us had prepared in the days prior to be asked questions by a moderator, and we had planned to speak in turn according to a loosely-defined script. We were each miked-up, headed out onto stage in front of our audience, and we were individually introduced by our moderator with a brief professional biography.
From there, things didn’t quite work out as we had planned. This was, for the most part, perfectly OK. The panel hit a passionate groove; the dialog was dynamic and interesting; but topics got covered in an organic manner, rather than in the manner in which we had planned. Discussion ranged from racism to sexism to classism to sexual orientation discrimination, and all of the sort of stuff that you expect in a diversity and inclusion discussion. Forty-five minutes in, most everyone on the panel had talked.
Except for me.
Inside, I had developed an unexpected uneasiness about people who were left out of this discussion, and I, too, began to feel a desire to go off-script.
I opened my mouth and started to talk, but it sounded to me like my microphone was no longer working. I humbly asked:
And something quite unexpected happened. Three hundred people laughed. Laughed!
It took me but a second to figure out why: it was clear from the room dynamic that most people thought I was not there to speak as a person of diversity, but rather as a token white male executive, and that my comment about my microphone was a moment of irony. But you see, my biography did not include the fact that I was gay.
In that moment, I chose not to focus on that. Instead, I offered an observation that I want to offer you now, about what I consider a common and unwitting form of discrimination that I have come to call invisibleism.
Most of the panel — and the audience in the room that day, for that matter — had been focused on a discussion about discrimination against things that are relatively easy to discern, such as race, gender, age, and sometimes class. Gender identity and sexual orientation are always part of these discussions too, but at events like this, there is a general proclivity against discussing them because they aren’t so corporeal as the others, and people don’t like to have lengthy public discussions about things that involve a potential lack of clarity. These topics are called “delicate” for a reason!
Because of my background, I have developed a sensitivity to willful ignorance of people’s invisible traits, and I asked the audience to consider not just what they see, but what they do not see.
When you look at a person, you may instinctively be able to discern their race, their age, and even their gender (the latter having become something less clear as times have progressed, of course).Your reactions to these characteristics are what will classify you as a racist, ageist, or sexist.
But what about your reaction to characteristics like these?
- Psychological conditions (Depression; Borderline Personality Disorder; Bipolar Disorder; ADHD ; Anxiety; Panic; Postpartum depression; PTSD; Insomnia; Dementia; Sleep disorders; Narcissism; Autism spectrum; Asperger’s; OCD)
- Addictions (Alcohol; Narcotics; Gambling; Eating; etc.)
- Personal biases (which themselves are invisible) (Sexism; Racism; Ageism)
- Illness (Cancer, etc.)
- Life changes (Loss of loved one; New child; Newly married; New job; Fearful of losing job; Recent terminal diagnosis; Recent recovery)
- Pressures (Children; Marital stress; Financial stress; Doctor appointments)
- Family situation (Married; Divorced; Children; No children; Widowed)
- Self-confidence level (High/willing to be wrong); Average; Low/pretends to know everything)
- Relationship with boss (Good; Mixed; Bad; Is the boss)
- Happiness with occupation (Loves it; Ambivalent; Hates it; Loves it too much)
These all take quite a bit more work to discern. How do we discern them at all? I can assure you that if you practice the foundational values we discuss on these pages, you will improve your ability to do this:
- Vulnerability & Humility: We show our own weaknesses and make it clear that we understand our role as humble creatures in a large universe; others are more likely to open up to us.
- Empathy: We take the time to look deeply at people and consider the variety of reasons they respond to the world and our interactions with them; we develop an ability to more accurately read between the lines to see what might be going on in their world.
- Patience: This takes multiple conversations over time!
- Compassion: We develop trust by going out of our way to help even when it might be an interruption.
- Curiosity: We invest the effort to care to find out what’s really going on with a person.
- Commitment: We don’t give up on all the above.
- Willingness: Most importantly, we are willing to do all of the above because we know this will help us better serve that person’s needs.
How often do you do all of the above in order to better understand a person?
If you are eliciting requirements — and as I stated in my third post here, all jobs involve eliciting requirements to one degree or another — and you do not do these things, I suggest that you might be an invisibleist. This is as deep and harmful a form of discrimination as any other, and it has arguably caused much unaccounted damage to humanity over the centuries.
The next time you find yourself angry when a person disregards your idea, declines a meeting with you, or uses a cell phone during a meeting, how will you take inventory of what might really be going on?
Let’s play out a scenario:
Imagine that you are on a Scrum team presenting in a Sprint demo, and your Product Owner is distracted, texting on his cell phone.
How would you handle this?
- Ask him to stop using his cell phone.
- Pause the demo to wait for him to finish texting.
- Take him aside afterward and respectfully ask him if he could avoid that in the future.
Those are the most common answers I hear in regard to this scenario. Which one would you choose?
I will share with you that I once served as Scrum Master for a team where this happened. What if I told you that none of these responses would have been remotely appropriate or helpful for the situation at hand?
What if I told you that your Product Owner had a son who was in the process of contemplating suicide?
You didn’t expect that, eh?
This is invisibleism at play.
It is possible to cultivate a workplace where invisibleism is addressed with the same vigor we apply to racism and other forms of discrimination. Study the culture at companies like Auticon, a company that specializes in hiring and cultivating autistic talent in a powerful way to provide top-tier software quality assurance services, for starters.But most importantly, apply our eight foundational values, and always — always — look deeper for what you are not seeing. Do not settle only for what you can see.
There is a power in every position that a human being can have along a multitude of spectrums. Will you commit to slowing down and searching for it?
And the next time you see a white male executive sitting in a diversity panel, what will you think?
Music for this post: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3o-iZ_GfTTs.