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Featured Post: Racial Profiling – Judging a Book by Its Pages

  • August 31, 2009

by Andrés Tapia

It’s been a month since Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., a Harvard scholar, was arrested for alleged disorderly conduct. After all the noise what have we learned? And how can the Inclusion Paradox principles provide us additional insight into the dynamics that played out?

A quick recap before diving in: In mid-July Dr. Gates returned from overseas travels to find the front door to his home jammed. His cab driver helped him force open the door, but a neighbor spotted the commotion and, thinking she was witnessing a home invasion, called the police. When Sgt. James Crowley arrived to investigate, a series of events led to Sgt. Crowley arresting Gates for disorderly conduct, and leading him from his own home in handcuffs. Charges against Gates later were dropped, but by then the media had seized the story. A charged debate around racial profiling ensued. Beers at the White House between Dr. Gates, Sgt. Crowley, and President Obama calmed the situation, but did not fully address or resolve it.

Inclusion strategies require that we look at both power dynamics and crosscultural dynamics. So much of what we see addressed in a situation like this are the power dynamics. Judging a book by its cover. These are real and relevant especially given its controversial prevalence in its use in law enforcement. (See Susan Welch’s posting on the history of racial profiling.)

But even at the White House Beer Summit, with a crossculturally competent president, there was no known exploration of how cultural differences may have played a part as well. Judging a book by its pages.

In chapter 4 of The Inclusion Paradox I share the work of white sociologist Thomas Kochman who has done some pioneering work in looking at the cultural differences between African-Americans and European-Americans. In his book, Black and White Styles in Conflict, Kochman asserts that black and white Americans use two different communication styles for establishing trust: truth over peace or peace over truth. Though his book was written more than 20 years ago, Kochman’s more recent research corroborates what he identified back then: that while both blacks and whites are looking to establish trust in communication, each group interprets and demonstrates the value of “trust” differently.

Archetypically (meaning that by no means do all members of a particular cultural group would do this–an assumption that would lead to stereotyping,) African-Americans seek open and direct interactions, even to the point where vigorous disagreement occurs: truth over peace. The rationale is that, “I can trust a person who is this open — this honest — with me.” However, white Americans archetypically seek to establish trust with a more indirect style focused on achieving peace. When approaching a point of conflict, they might simply agree to disagree. Peace is sought and valued. Peace over truth. Their rationale being, “I can trust a person who defers his or her position for the harmony of the relationship.”

Given these differences, a white American with an indirect communication style might come away from an interaction with a black American demonstrating a more direct style, thinking, “Why is this person being so aggressive?” On the flip side, the African-American might come away thinking, “What is this person trying to hide?”

Clearly in the Gates-Crowley confrontation, Sgt. Crowley, operating from a power dynamic, was not in a peace over truth stance. But clearly his expectation was that the person he was confronting would operate according to that worldview. But Dr. Gates may very well have been approaching the situation from a truth over peace worldview. So what someone from his same cultural background may have interpreted as a heated, yet appropriate, response to a tense situation, someone from the dominant U.S. culture may have interpreted the same behavior as “disorderly conduct.”

This alternate approach to discerning why the situation devolved the way it did may explain how someone like Sgt. Crowley — who ironically had before this episode established a positive reputation for addressing diversity issues in the police force — may have missed something. At some level he has understood the power dynamics that play a role in racial profiling in his counseling other police officers. But he may not have understood that cultural differences may have also led to what many would interpret as “racial profiling.”

And all this at the Harvard Yard takes us back to our own back yard in the workplace.

We have found that applying a crosscultural lens to issues where the mix is not working well opens up new possibilities for dialogue, understanding, and constructive navigation toward a mutually satisfying solution.

Where could it be that misunderstandings based on cultural differences may be leading to misinterpretations of what is appropriate or inappropriate performance? How equipped are our leaders, managers, and human resource professionals to discern the difference between true performance issues and what could be cultural differences?

  1. Reply

    Thanks, Andres.

    This ‘peace over truth’ insight has so many applications. It’s what so many facilitators push for in calming conflict before it has an opportunity to become creative conflict. I think this mirrors the essential theme of your work, calling out differences rather than muffling them.

    On the other hand, I wonder if I would know in the heat of that moment to pause in the ‘hotness’ to understand whether the other person is seeing the truth that I am pushing. Could Dr. Gates have paused to see that his justifiable rage from his gut was getting him no where but into trouble? Could the officer have paused to see that his attempt to calm with reasoning was getting him nowhere but into a legal morass? Sometimes only heat can deal with heat and only calm can deal with calm. In the end, though, some moderating the scene with something more heartfelt on both of their parts would have been helpful. Hot action from the gut, and cool reasoning from the head just were not enough. Thanks.

    Bart Wendell, author of the upcoming book ‘Hot Leaders, Cool Facilitators: The Five Paradoxes of Leading Effective Meetings.

    • Reply

      Bart –

      I’d be interested is seeing how you lay out the dynamics in your upcoming book. Here’s what pops up for me: Given that circumstances can vary greatly with every possible interaction there are various approaches that may be the most constructive. Sometimes it would be cool meeting cool and hot meeting hot. Other times the most constructive could be countering with the opposite. Whichever approach one takes it could either be with a style authentically one’s own, or through a flexing approach to match the other person even if their style is opposite our preferred style.

      But the foundation to more intuitively and intellectually know what’s the best variation to use is to be crossculturally competent enough to read the situation in which differences are playing out, assess the options, and then have the ability to either lean into one’s own preferred style or to set it aside or take a hybrid approach.

      Ideally both parties are exercising this kind of judgment and doing reciprocal adaptations with each other.

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