filed under Cultural Change, Diversity Leadership, Key Concepts & Conversations.

Collusion is a strong word.  As it relates to diversity and inclusion, collusion means, “cooperation with others, knowingly or unknowingly, to reinforce stereotypical attitudes, prevailing behavior and norms.”*

If someone says or does something that crosses a line – say, they make a disparaging comment about some person or group based on some characteristic of that group like ethnicity or gender – and I look the other way, I am complicit in the line-crossing. I am colluding. Same goes in a company, professional association or other group.  If there is a systemic practice that excludes or adversely affects some group and I remain silent, I am colluding.

Collusion has never been a simple thing.  My colleague Kristin once told me about a time she observed a large man verbally abusing a waitress with ethnic slurs.  Then a young student of diversity herself, Kristin could not bear the thought of colluding. She confronted the man about his behavior.  He waited for her in the parking lot and followed her to her car.

Battles must be carefully picked.  Sometimes it’s a choice assignment, a promotion, a key relationship or even a career that is at stake.  Sometimes it’s physical safety.

What’s new

Since Kristin was a student, the lines have changed and behaviors have become more subtle.  Multiple factors have contributed to these changes, among them:

1.  The field of diversity and inclusion (D&I).  Over the past 20 years, the field has advanced awareness of bias and its detrimental effects in companies and communities, not just on people, but on the bottom line. Costs of turnover, lost productivity and lawsuits have been enough to move things forward in some ways. However, behavior – individual or institutional – that is controlled by the threat of punishment is only temporarily suppressed.  It is not really changed. Unless positive behavioral alternatives are experienced and consistently rewarded, biased behavior just goes underground and re-emerges in new, more subtle forms.

2.  The Internet.  With vast freedom of expression and endless opportunity for anonymous commentary, the Internet blurs many lines. This is one great place for bad behavior to pop out in new ways.  Plus, “hits” and comments are the currency of the Internet so editors, bloggers and discussion managers have little incentive aside from their own ethics to responsibly exercise their delete buttons.

3. Current U.S. culture.  Politics and the public conversation of our day make the lines progressively harder to discern.  In his 2003 book, The Assault on Diversity, Lee Cokorinos describes an “ideological convergence between the anti-government theology of the libertarians and the ‘states rights,’ anti-constitutional fundamentalism of the traditional segregationists…” (p.29).  Cokorinos describes ways in which, even at the time he published, this blend had come to dominate political, legislative and judiciary processes as well as the media.  This is the cultural context in which we operate today.

What next?

There are ways to help individuals develop the skills necessary to recognize and respond to various types of bias in themselves and others; there are ways to teach alternatives to collusion.  However, even the best new skills and behaviors will only be maintained in a culture that supports them.  Diversity and inclusion practices must go beyond pot-luck celebrations and annual training if they are to truly create that type of culture. Drawing attention to this issue can be, well…  like confronting a big bully before you head to the parking lot by yourself.

Decades of data show that innovation, excellence, competitive edge, sustainability – just about any types of success that matter to companies, communities and societies – are furthered when differences are effectively brought together in service of a shared purpose.  Yet businesses today are not all bringing different people in or together as effectively as is needed.  To be sure, this is not a small undertaking. It requires shared understanding, substantive accountabilities and sustained systems change.

The alternative is decline:  where there are no checks on in-group and out-group dynamics, positive results are always diminished.

Contact us for more information on addressing bias, providing alternatives to collusion and creating positive cultural change in your organization.
* Alyn, J. (2010). Diversity Terminology.

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