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One of the reasons I believe the “diversity conversation” hasn’t gotten farther in the last 30 years is fear. I believe that fear comes from people’s negative experiences in the past with “diversity conversations”, and from anticipating negative experiences in the future if we find ourselves having those conversations. I’ve noticed that the heart of both fears is often some combination of “guilt and shame, anger and blame”, and once such “downstairs brain” emotions get triggered, it’s challenging to get our “upstairs brain” back online.

Triggering people into guilt, shame, anger or blame was a common tactic, or unintended consequence, in some diversity and anti-racism trainings in the past, and in some settings it still is. Poor facilitation and unclear or non-inclusive goals were some of the causes; lack of resolution, lack of clarity and unresolved trauma have been some of the effects. Another effect is that today there is a great deal of conversation about creating “inclusion” and “inclusiveness” in organizations and teams, and more and more diversity programs and initiatives are being renamed “diversity & inclusion” or just “D&I”. But while the intention is good, the truth is that oftentimes such initiatives are not an expansion of diversity into the new, necessary territory of inclusion, but an attempt to leave the “diversity conversation” behind.

By “diversity conversation” I mean frank yet constructive, healing, goal-oriented, business-relevant conversations about the ways we are different and — especially — the ways that inequity plays out along human differences like race, ethnicity, sex, social class, gender identity, age, language, disability, etc. Talking about inequity means talking about power and historical injustice. This is uncomfortable for most USians because our young nation was founded on ideals of equality and justice, and therefore we prefer to believe our issues with inequity are minimal at worst. Arguably, compared to some parts of the world (but certainly not all!) this may be true. But not only is pretending that power differences don’t exist or play out in our lives and organizations unrealistic, this blindness keeps us stuck, creating tension, impeding creativity, reducing productivity, and sabotaging the recruitment and retention of quality employees. This blindness gets in the way of brilliance and excellence — which are the point of D&I in the first place.

Inequities — and pretending they don’t exist — also contribute to a climate of silence, overdeference, fear, and instability, just like they do in societies at large. Such a climate is toxic to brilliance and excellence. And, even more troubling, the more we deny the existence of power inequities, the more they go “stealth” — underground, into the subconscious where it becomes even more difficult to awaken awareness and change behavior.

Some may still believe that emotions, whether upstairs brain or downstairs brain, have no place in the workplace, but that belief doesn’t keep emotions from showing up at work or driving behavior. In fact the evidence points to emotion playing a critical role in effective leadership and decision making, and increasingly around the world, more and more people are looking for leaders who have, and express emotions. Emotions are powerful sources of information and as such should always be explored for their source and their message.

When it comes to the emotions of guilt and shame, there is a key difference in their messages that is vital to distinguish when contemplating “diversity conversations. In her enlightening research on guilt and shame, Dr. Brené Brown describes the difference this way:

  • Guilt focuses on a behavior. It says, “I did something bad.” A response might be, “I’m sorry, I made a mistake.”
  • Shame focuses on oneself. It says “I am bad.” A response might be “I’m sorry, I am a mistake.”

Guilt is uncomfortable but it’s adaptive. Guilt tells us “your behavior here is not matching your values or who you want to be.” It inspires us to own our behavior, to take responsibility, and to change. Guilt provides us with helpful information. Shame is maladaptive (and in fact is linked to a variety of dysfunctions from behavioral health issues including addiction to bullying and other forms of self-and other-directed violence). Shame leaves no room for change or growth, only a negative self image. It encourages and reinforces a victim identity and victim behaviors. Shame provides us with unhelpful — and inaccurate — information about a situation and ourselves.

This has a direct correlation to diversity conversations. Often what comes up for people when their poor behavior is pointed out in such conversations is to become defensive. This defensiveness is an adaptive response to a mistaken interpretation — that the self is under attack! But the self is not under attack, the behavior is. Or at least that should be the goal, and not the shaming or humiliation of an individual for their mistake. Food for shame, according to Brown, is secrecy, silence, and judgment. I would say secrecy, silence, and judgment are also food for oppression. Environments like these are breeding grounds for negative emotions and maladaptive behaviors — not to mention violence, aggression, passive aggressive behavior.

Sound familiar? Sound like a place for effective communication, innovation, productivity, excitement or inclusiveness to flourish? How about brilliance or excellence?

We need to get rid of shame, and get comfortable with guilt. We need to find ways to hear feedback about our behavior as just that — feedback about our behavior that we should change. And we need to find ways to give feedback about others’ behavior that doesn’t attack their personhood, but encourages responsibility and change. Of course we fear conversations we’ve had little or no experience having, and seen few or no examples of these going well! But this fear is reduced with practice and building a portfolio of small successes, just like when we learn any other new skill.

Once we learn how to use guilt positively and eliminate shame, we can continue to build skills around how to talk to each other, and talk frankly and constructively about human differences like race, gender, class, age, and how we’d all like to be better understood and treated. Awareness is only the first step, learning new skills and taking action (over and over) must follow!*

REFLECT and COMMENT! How can you use guilt to motivate your own positive behavior change? What will you do today to reduce the shame in your environment or your team?

** Update 10/23/15: Check out this new study that shows guilt is good and shame is not: People Prone to This Emotion are Better At Reading Facial Expressions.

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