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Changing Racist Behavior

Dear Crucial Skills,

Do you have any resources related to the Influencer model for dealing with racism in the workplace?

Dealing with Racism

Dear Dealing,

This year alone, employees from four organizations approached me about handling racist incidents including nooses hanging over lockers, swastikas painted on doors, hate language written on bathroom mirrors, and racist epithets used during large meetings.

I’ll use our Influencer model to show how an organization can set and enforce a “zero tolerance” standard around racism.

Determine the results you want. In dealing with such a nebulous problem like racism, it’s important to focus on one result. I recommend your result be to create and maintain a safe and productive work environment that is free of intimidation, threats, or harassment.

Identify vital behaviors. Focus on the behaviors that drive your desired result. I recommend two vital behaviors:
1. Eliminate racist actions, including behaviors that any member of the organization finds intimidating, threatening, or harassing.
2. Promote inclusive actions, including behaviors that support diversity in the workforce.

Build a six-source influence model. Racism is supported by a set of beliefs, behaviors, norms, and structures. The solution must be similarly comprehensive. Our research shows combining at least four, and preferably all, of the six sources of influence creates a solution that is ten times more likely to lead to success. Below are four sources of influence organizations combating racism might choose to target.

Structural Motivation: Reward respectful behaviors and punish racism. For example:

  • Establish a zero-tolerance policy for racist talk, writing, and symbols. Make it clear that violators will be terminated as well as prosecuted.
  • Use performance reviews and promotion systems to track and reward people for eliminating racist actions and for promoting an inclusive workplace.

Social Motivation and Social Ability: Use formal and informal leaders to enforce social norms of zero tolerance. For example:

  • Have senior leaders take strong actions that show their commitment to eradicating racism. One of our clients found slurs written in a men’s bathroom. Senior leaders brought in private investigators who swept for fingerprints and interviewed employees. The investigation convinced everyone that leadership was serious about eliminating racism.
  • Identify opinion leaders from diverse job titles, departments, seniority levels, and racial groups and have them evaluate, endorse, and partner with managers to lead the initiative.

Personal Ability: Build awareness, share experiences, and teach skills related to eliminating racism and furthering inclusiveness. For example:

  • Expose subtle forms of racism—actions that may be unintentional and yet hurtful.
  • Train people in how to confront and report racist incidents, and make sure they understand their responsibility to report these incidents.

Personal Motivation: To change behavior, make racism a moral issue. People must cringe when they witness or learn of situations involving intimidation, threats, and harassment. Here, the most powerful strategies are those that demonstrate the personal toll of racism. For example:

  • Make the connection between racist actions and violence. Frame the issue in terms of morals and safety.
  • Find formal and informal leaders who can tell stories about how racism has impacted their lives.
  • When staffing facilities, departments, and projects, have people from diverse backgrounds work together to build understanding and empathy.

I’ve used the six sources of influence to brainstorm a wide variety of strategies. Now I call on you to build on the ideas I have here. What have you seen that worked in combating racism? I look forward to learning from you all.


You can learn more insights and skills like this in Crucial Influence

22 thoughts on “Changing Racist Behavior”

  1. Elizabeth

    You’ve tackled a difficult issue, which is commendable. It’s obviously very important, and yet, as you say, “nebulous”. Yet you use the concept of “zero tolerance”, which to my mind doesn’t allow for any gray area. If there is really to be *zero* tolerance of “racist talk”, how are you going to define racist talk, recognizing (as you do later) that some subtle forms of racism are “unintentional and yet hurtful”? Is making a statement that contains some subtle racist assumptions that the speaker has never questioned going to be a firing offense, even if the speaker doesn’t intend to hurt anyone? Definitely, someone who uses a noose or a swastika to intimidate others should be summarily fired, but that’s pretty far from zero on the scale!

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that I perceive an unresolved tension in your article between two different outcomes–holding people accountable for malicious actions through strong punishment, on the one hand, and trying to expand the consciousness of people of good will (but some degree of ignorance) to a more inclusive mindset, on the other. If you tell everyone to report anything that might possibly be racist, with the understanding that the person who is guilty of the offense will be immediately fired, wouldn’t that make it more difficult to achieve the latter goal?

  2. Elizabeth

    (I guess I should add that I’ve found the concept of “zero tolerance” problematic in other contexts in the past. It seems that there’s usually either some question of what exactly constitutes “zero”, which flies in the face of the term, or else someone sooner or later comes up with a case where the policy was enforced with results that seem ridiculous to the average person.)

  3. Sally

    We have the opposite problem in our office. There is an individual who claims we are being racist whenever we try to discuss problems with her work. She spends most of her day conversing with other staff and avoids doing her own work. Other minority staff do not feel that management is the problem and often complaint that this individual distracts them. Any time management tries to sit down with her to discuss her workload or behavior in the office, she becomes dramatic, shouts to the entire staff that we are being racist and bullying her, and files a human rights complaint. Our HR office has tried to explain to her that we are mearly trying to understand what is preventing her from getting her job done and articulate what actions she thinks are racist however, she then claims that they are racist as well (even though they are minorities.) It has driven office productivity into the ground. Management has become fearful of her due to all the Human Rights complaints. The other minority staff in the office have withdrawn as they are fearful of being connected to her. The superviosr of the office has become ineffectual in dealing with her and the rest of the office and has asked everyone to just keep to themselves.

  4. Jan Katz

    Dealing with racism, sexism, and other -isms involves the process of bridging the gap between “I and Thou” (Martin Buber). The perception of ‘otherness’ creates an unsafe environment. The Crucial Conversations techniques can bridge this ‘otherness’ gap without bringing in the private interrogators.

  5. Rachel Peterson

    You have some good ideas for dealing with the presenting symptoms. Much like taking the medication Prilosec to help you with your heartburn. Unfortunately medication only masks the symptoms it does nothing to cure the underlying problem. Just because you convince people that it is beneficial to cover up or hide their racist feelings doesn’t mean that they are gone from the mind or the heart. Usually when a person buries something it comes out in other ways. Making rules doesn’t change that.

  6. Rachel Peterson

    PS-I should also add that racism that is based in ignorance is different that racism based in anger. Ignorance can be taught a better way. Anger needs to be dealt with and helped to find a better way.

  7. Dan Yoakam

    In addressing the issue of racism, it may be that we are trying to tackle the wrong issue. Especially when people are willing to sacrifice one of our fundamental freedoms, the freedom of speech, under the guise of fighting racism. When you encourage an organization to “not distinguish between racist behaviors that happen on the job and those that happen outside of work.” The implication is that we must surrender our freedoms and allow someone else to dictate what we can and can’t think, and by extension, what we can or can’t do.

    In a work environment, the issue is not what color is my skin, but do I meet the expectations of the job. Regardless of skin color, we can all give accounts of times that we have felt discriminated against, or have been the victim of some real or perceived injustice. To allow poor performance due to the race of any employee is just another injustice that breeds contempt among coworkers.

    I believe the underlying issue is really that of mutual respect. If we can make the expectation to be respectful to each other despite our differences, then that fights extremism in all of its forms whether it is race, religion, sexual orientation or political affiliation. Further, this allows us to address performance issues without fear of the “race card” holding us back.

    We must keep the lines of communication open in order to try to understand each other, the differences in our cultures and the way we perceive things differently from one another. And there will be times that we disagree, but we can disagree in a respectful way.

  8. CS Enfield

    At my company we celebrate diversity. Each month we recognize a different group in our team meetings. Each year we have a diversity celebration and serve food from different cultures; this is very popular. We have speakers on a variety of topics about once a month; participation is voluntary.

  9. John Carey

    Thanks for the great information!

    I do however have an issue with the idea of eliminating actions that ANY member finds intimidating. I was in an organization where we could not have “Brown bag” lunches (a training event at noon where you brought your own lunch) because in the long past someone hung a brown bag on a door and only people with lighter skin than the brown bag would be allowed in. I maintain that if you have to explain the purported offense to 99.9% of the audience, that you really need to spend your time focusing on more blatant and real offenses.

    And Southwest Airlines was taken to court because a steward said, “Enie Meenie Minie Moe, pick a seat, we have to go.” On any given day, anyone can be offended by anything you do. There are people who make a good living highlighting real and supposed offenses – to me they lose their credibility when they take on these lesser causes.

  10. Blue

    CS, I must say that I’d hate the diversity celebration, because I’m deeply in the closet myself. It would be harder for me to remain there if people expected everyone to fly their flags. I would feel unsafe and would probably quit, before it’s too late and everyone would know my personal issues.

    Overall, I think the right way to go about it is to expect respect from all parties in all things regardless of their backgrounds and opinions.

  11. Deb Mcquilkin

    I had a similar problem when working in a government office where I was the only “Majority” person in administration, and the staff was 40% “majority”. I found it difficult to do my job without being considered racist for trying to make any changes in expectations or policies or to enforce the ones we had. I eventually left.

  12. Ron Shenberger

    I appreciate your comments on rasism. I would broaden the topic to include the bullying which has occured in the schools as well as work environments. I consider it a lack of moral leadership when people who run organization were bulling knowingly occurs fail to take a no tolerance position. I note two recent news reports where young children have taken their own lives as a consequence of being bullied.

  13. David Maxfield

    I love getting these responses. The newsletter format limits us to a small word count. We often feel as if we’re writing Haiku answers to Epic questions. Your thoughtful additions allow me to reach for a more nuanced and complex response.
    First, Elizabeth and Rachel are absolutely on target when they differentiate between accidental (often subtle) forms of racism and the more intentional (often blatant) forms I focused on in my original response. I hope you’ll take a minute to read the article, Silent Judgment, which I co-authored with Joan Reede, MD, the Dean for Diversity and Community Outreach at Harvard Medical School. (
    In the article we identify several subtle, unintentional kinds of actions that can cause us to be labeled as bigots.
    One crucial distinction is intent. Is it a blunder or an attack? Are we embarrassed when we realize how we’ve come across, or are we happy to have scored a hit? When the intent is positive, then education is the answer. People don’t want to be rude to each other, but can use a dose of skills. As John Carey points out, this education should be a two-way street. Hopefully, people who share mutual purpose and respect can decide whether the phrase “brown bag” is okay.
    Another crucial distinction is degree of harm. Are we talking about hurt feelings or are people being verbally threatened and physically attacked. I used the example of leaders bringing in private detectives. This was in a town where racially motivated violence was common. It did not feel like an overreaction. Of course the Influencer approach is to involve “all six sources of influence,” so you can imagine that a lot of dialogue, education, new policies, and the like were used in addition to the detectives.
    Sally points out that employees sometimes claim they are being discriminated against, when it’s really all about their performance. Managers need to hold people accountable for their performance. Managers shouldn’t use “fear of being called a racist” as an excuse for not managing. As Dan Yoakam said, the issue isn’t skin color; it’s whether I meet the expectations of the job.
    I’ll finish with another point Dan Yoakam makes. Free speech and racism can come into conflict. And, in the workplace, we usually give up certain rights to free speech as a part of our employment contract. In judicial language we have “the right to autonomy,” which allows us to enter into contracts that abridge our other rights. As a result, most organizations have confidentiality policies; most don’t allow us to criticize the firm or its leadership—at least not in print; and many will fire us if we represent the company in a way that hurts its reputation.
    Having a policy regarding racist talk and action—even talk and action outside the workplace—is well within an organization’s legal rights. Finding that a manager is a member of an internet hate group is grounds for termination—even if he or she is a model citizen in the workplace—because it hurts the organization’s reputation or brand.
    However, we should never expect rules, enforcement, and punishment will, by themselves, change hearts and minds. They only touch Source 5 of our Six Sources of Influence. When our goal is to change hearts, minds, and behaviors, then we need to employ all Six Sources.

  14. lynne smith

    In my company we have no noticable racism and i think this is because we promote women and men of all races to positions of authority. That is the best statement a company can make to show it supports diversity and will not tolerate racism.

  15. Judith Berry

    A conscious effort that supervisors may want to consider is to notice in a meeting whether the minority employee is the only one who does not get the chance to finish a complete sentence or thought. In other words, when the minority is cut off, the supervisor can say, “will you restate your question, I did not hear your complete thought, I think I like where you are going and would like to hear more.”

    Another another note, this example is when employees have been called to a meeting to do a run through or dress rehearsal for preparation of a larger meeting. In this situation the entire group is reviewing PPT slides, handouts, etc. and the minority employee begins to ask questions or contributes comments and recommends, the majority staff then begins an interuption of the minority speaking by turning his/her body to everybody except to the minority and say, “The VP wants to make sure that you proofread this Bob.” The statement sounds pretty innocent until that statement is repeated three other times during the meeting only when the minority speaks. The minority ascertains that the majority employee was allowed to say, “Shut up and your opinion is not valued.” During the meeting, the highest ranking executive in attendance should work hard to get the minority included in the conversation again. This can happen by the executive simply saying, “There is a lot of synergy in the room and I want to make sure that we get all of the recommendations recorded, Barb (minority employee), can you repeat what you said about XYZ, I did not get your complete thought down on paper. If there is a notetaker, the executive can also say, “And, notetaker will you also make sure that you get Barb’s suggestion.” By using these two statements together will give the other employees the message that the hidden racism is not tolerated.

  16. Greg Owens

    I was very happy to see you take on this important and timely issue. It is a difficult thing to discuss and is often handled poorly or not at all. I strongly recommended that organizations consider the Undoing Racism training by The People Institute, which has a 30 year history of training in how to develop and support anti-racist practice and policy. Most organizations believe that personal and interpersonal acts of racism are the only level that they can address incidents, but there is a need to consider and train in the institutional and structural nature of racism, and how it has and continue to benefit one group over another. I sent in a note a year or so ago to ask if Vital Smarts had anything that would help to address this through the crucial conversations and confrontations training and was told that you had not specifically dealt with the subject. I am encouraged to see this response and effort.

  17. Veronica Froelich Adams

    Hear hear! for the Greg Owens’ comment above regarding the great work of the People’s Institute.

    I had a concern reading Mr. Maxfield’s well-intended piece on racism that placed diversity education low on the list of solutions, when it should be at the top. As others have pointed out, there is a difference between unconscious blunders and unintended insensitivities by majority groups, and hate-filled behaviors. There should be zero tolerance for the latter, for sure. But the latter is generally rather easy to identify, and far less common than the former — And so, without such a diversity “crisis,” most institutions never deal with the education that could create a truly welcoming and thriving environment for all. The unconscious structural nature of the “isms” that Mr. Owens referred to is what needs to be seen in order for it to be transformed. Majority groups rarely are able to discern that easily for themselves, for they are the creators of their “norm.”

    It the unconscious behaviors of well-meaning people that are so insidious and pervasive, the countless “micro inequities” that occur every day in the most workplaces — that build up and can cause people of color and women and elders and people with disabilities and gays and religious minorities, etc. to “over” react at times out of frustration — Which then causes majority groups to shut down, avoid them, walk on eggshells, resent, etc.
    The education piece, well done, by groups such as PI (or my company), would help so very many workplaces to avoid this unnecessary cycle of hurt feelings and miscommunications and conflict in the first place. It’s important to get diversity trainers who go beneath the surface to look at this deeper level. Unfortunately, most diversity training does not, and therefore little is learned or accomplished, and mutual frustration remains, entrenched.

    It was the “Seeking Safety” piece which was also posted yesterday that contained an especially big gap that deeply troubles me as a diversity trainer. The staff referred to in the article was mostly “not white” who, we were told, are frequently subjected by the mostly white patients to racial slurs and epithets. The counsel offered in the article was directed to the people of color and how they should deal with it. — What about the white staff there (even if there aren’t many of them)? They are in the best position to be “allies” to their colleagues and, when they witness such abuses, to let white patients know that racist behaviors are not acceptable. That is the most effective tool for combating any of the “isms”: When men call other men on their sexism, it’s far more effective than when “over-reactive” women do it. When straight people call out others on their homophobic comments, and so on.

    Again, it is very concerning to me that the responsibility for addressing the racism seemed to be placed mostly on the shoulders of those who were being targeted by it. And that’s why it never stops. Because (when we are able to recognize it) we whites don’t take on racism directly as our collective problem that we need to deal with, whites talking to other white, it goes on and on and “eludes” us.
    Same thing with sexism and the glass-ceiling: well-meaning men don’t use their influence with other men, learn to better discern sexism, and intervene when they do. And so it goes with all of the “isms.”

    I am glad for the opportunity to share back in this forum.
    I am concerned however, that there were such big missings in these pieces that has now been read by so many in your audience, many of whom won’t have the opportunity to learn of these important distinctions and the deeper education and awareness building that is so greatly needed. I’m sure Mr. Owens and I would both be happy to contribute in future Most Vital Conversations on this topic.

    Veronica Adams
    Riding the Wave Training & Development

  18. Rick Quinn

    I’m not sure I entirely agree with your approach on this issue, I do applaud you for approaching this sensitive issue. “Changing racist behavior” as a goal has as it’s focal point the negative, frightening, slippery group of overt and covert behaviors called racism.

    A more effective focus and goal statement might be to “build cultural competence”, which has as it’s focal point, building and competence and a skill set rather than the stifling of unwanted behaviors. With that goal in mind using the Influencer model pretty much as you’ve laid it out in the article is a great way to begin doing the same work from a (pardon the use a an overused buzz phrase here, but it fits) strength based approach. What do you think?

  19. Brian

    How refreshing to read respectful dialogue about this issue! I work on a college campus in a conservative state, and this is very challenging. Moreover, with colleagues, we have many complicated layers of understanding and intention.

    I think it is important to not only deal with the cosmetic, such as celebrations and such, but looking at our histories, experiences, pain, privilege, and oppression to help people understand what they don’t experience.

    Its really funny (and by that I mean uncomfortable) when I’m participating in diversity education, and as a hetero, white, able-bodied, 6’5 man, when I express something that acknowledges the existence of systematic oppressions such as racism, people from dominant groups respond. When someone from a non-dominant group expresses the same idea, often in a more articulate and researched way that I, people often shut down or respond disrespectfully.

    In my organization, it has been amazing to see the results with our students when other student leaders break through some of the perceived barriers of diversity education (its not my fault, I didn’t cause this, I treat everyone ‘the same’), and really start to understand that this sort of work is not about automatically disregarding the life struggles we all face, but that ‘privilege’ is really just a way to qualify those terrible things people in dominant or over-represented groups are spared from suffering.

    Thanks again for the sincere and committed dialogue.

  20. Pat Burger

    Great dialogue! I would add the National Coalition Building Institute as a resource. They have been doing eliminating oppression work for over 20 years. They stress the need to hear people’s stories and not use blame when confronting oppressive remarks. Their training in concert with Crucial Conversations would be really powerful.

    Thanks to all for your thoughts.

  21. Mary Beth Petersen

    This is an excellent example of eliminating a negative force in the culture. Do you have an example of using the Influencer 6 sources to promote a positive force in the culture? Thank you. MBP

  22. Laura

    Prejudice is a part of all people…racism- is a rare event.Prejudice is generally based on ignorance, bad experiences, or lack of exposure to different cultures, values, opinions, etc. My personal prejudice could be people that wear corduroy or people who wear parkas in the summer. There is racial prejudice, but that isn’t racism and that isn’t the major prejudice that most people carry today. Racism, exhibited by Hitler, Stalin, Mao, etc., is based on the need to downgrade or eliminate others so that he/she can feel better about themselves– so in a nutshell, racism is more likely to be about self-hatred than pride or ego. Helping see value in everyone is the best way to move forward and eliminating the mis-use of the word racism is a start.

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