Who’s not at the table?

Did you know that women with diabetes are 44% more likely than diabetic men to develop coronary heart disease? Neither did anyone else, until a recent research study was released.  In fact, there are a lot of things that we don’t know about women and heart disease, according to the American Heart Association.

Since coroheart researchnary heart disease is a leading cause of death for both men and women in the U.S., how did it happen that early research included almost no studies focused on women or minorities?  I’m fairly sure no group of white male doctors deliberately said “it’s easier to focus our research on white males, so let’s just do that.”  Rather, I believe they didn’t think about it at all.  They looked around at who was at the table, and assumed that their findings would apply to everyone. We now know that’s not the case.

One of the most challenging leadership tasks is to examine our assumptions about who is at the table, and to seek out those voices that may not be represented. That’s one of the reasons why stakeholder analysis is so important.

I’ve frequently been part of organizational change efforts in which the leaders say they’re open to feedback and suggestions.  And I believe they really mean it.  But at the same time, I’ve talked to line workers who have information that would be helpful, and no real means to share it.  The student services workers who spend every day with the students may be in a good position to comment on how a policy change will impact registration. Students themselves would certainly have opinions. But without a good plan for proactively seeking that information, a management team may make policy decisions without it.

Next time you’re leading a change effort, ask yourself who else you can talk to. Who is impacted by the change, but not at the table?  Find the people who may be opposing the change and listen carefully to their concerns.  It may not change your direction, but you may learn about potential problems early enough to address them more easily.  Or, like the heart research community, you may discover that key assumptions need to be re-examined.

–Dee Anne Bonebright




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