Category Archives: racial tension

“Ruthlessly realistic”

“Stop pretending.”
“How did they treat you?”
“No such thing as color blind.”
“Being comfortable being uncomfortable”

These are strong words that capture the essence of a TED talk I want to share with you. Mellody Hobson says that mentioning race is the conversational equivalent of “touching the third rail.”  It can feel risky and people don’t know how to respond.

As leaders, Hobson says it is important for us to step bravely into the conversation about racism and discrimination at work. Acknowledging the realities of discrimination and overcoming our fear of talking about it is the first step to creating inclusive workplaces.

Join over 2 million people and take a few minutes to watch and listen to her 2014 TED talk.

It’s hard, but we need to be “color brave, not color blind.”

Todd Thorsgaard


Can you hear me?

Are you reacting differently to these quotes? Would it be different if they weren’t attached to the photos or attributed to a specific person?

This isn’t a new phenomenon but it seems to be getting worse. We are not very good at listening to people we perceive as different from ourselves. That makes it hard to build inclusive work teams, share diverse points of view, and leverage the strengths of everyone on your team.

The founders of Living Room Conversations want to help people actually listen to each other rather than debate and talk at each other. Recently a number of leaders at several of our campuses have used the Living Room conversation agreements and topic-specific conversation guides to tackle the tough topics of status, privilege and race with diverse groups of faculty and staff.

Conversation Agreements

  1. Be curious and open to learning
  2. Show respect and suspend judgement
  3. Look for common ground and appreciate differences
  4. Be authentic and welcome that from others
  5. Be purposeful and to the point
  6. Own and guide the conversation

The actual conversations become structured “deep listening sessions” that include an orientation to the process, intentional time-keeping and facilitation and a closing period. An example of the status and privilege guide can be found here – Conversation Guide.

I can attest to the almost magical listening and sharing that occurs during a living room conversation. People stop interrupting each other, they smile as they hear the stories others share, and they are surprised by how easy it is to share their own story with people who are actually listening to them.

When we asked participants after the conversations the majority responded that they had not changed their personal points of view but they now could see more common ground with their colleagues, despite their differences. Further, there was universal support for more dialogue.

Using a structure to help people actually listen to each other can provide a starting point for greater inclusion, in the workplace and beyond.

Todd Thorsgaard

Fueling innovation through diversity

In his 2016 book, Driven by Difference, David Livermore makes the case that high-functioning, diverse teams outperform homogenous teams. However, he says diversity by itself doesn’t contribute to organizational success unless it supports your organization’s mission. And, he adds that unless leaders leverage diversity’s potential, it can actually erode performance and productivity.

So how can a leader leverage the potential of diverse teams? The secret is to minimize conflict while maximizing the informational diversity found in varied values and experiences. To overcome inherent frictions among diverse team members, Livermore says a leader needs to develop their workforce’s cultural intelligence or CQ.

Drawing on success stories from Google, Alibaba, Novartis, and other groundbreaking companies, Livermore identifies key leadership practices and elements of cultural intelligence that fuel innovation:

CQ drive: Build a desire to learn about other cultures and a willingness to adapt.

CQ knowledge: Cultivate appreciation and understanding of cultural differences.

CQ strategy: Be aware of the perspectives and ideas of different people and how their viewpoints affect the work of teams.

CQ action: Adjust to cultural differences and leverage diversity into results.

Leaders can increase their teams CQ by encouraging curiosity,  listening, respect and “perspective-taking” among diverse team members. Drawn from real-life examples, Livermore demonstrates that innovation is fueled by cultural intelligence and the ability to see things from others’ perspectives. Encouraging employees to consider their co-workers’ points of view and to mix their colleagues’ perspectives with their own can pave the way to developing innovative solutions that borrow from many ideas and work for everyone.

What advice do you have for increasing your team’s or your own cultural intelligence?

Anita Rios

Connections and inclusion

As an introvert I am not always comfortable making connections at work, even though people naturally listen to me and accept me. After all, as a white male I am a member of the dominant culture and I am automatically included. The same is not true for employees with a diverse background or from a non-dominant culture. They struggle to be included.

A recent article, Diversity and Authenticity, in the March-April 2018 Harvard Business Review highlights that “decades’ worth of studies have shown that similarity attracts – a phenomenon known as homophily.” The study focused on the reality that “disclosing elements of one’s personal life and forming social connections are easier within one’s own group than they are across a demographic boundary like racial background.” In other words, it is easier to hire a diverse team than it is to ensure that everyone feels included.

The authors suggest three strategies to break down the barriers to inclusion.

  1. Structure – Introduce structure and clarity to team events to facilitate shared and equal opportunities to talk to all team members. Define roles and reasons for activities and clarify the expectation of non-judgmental listening.
  2. Learning – Role model and facilitate a learning approach to dialogue rather than a statement-driven approach. Research indicates that genuine curiosity and open questions make it easier to share stories across differences and make an emotional connection.
  3. Mentorship – Utilize informal “buddies”, mentors and employee resource groups to facilitate relationship building for both new hires and employees from marginalized groups. These more experienced colleagues can help break down social barriers, provide background information, context and make introductions.

Leaders can build inclusion by helping team members make connections across their differences.

Todd Thorsgaard

Common good doesn’t mean we all agree

conflictLeading for the common good isn’t peaceful. Agreement isn’t the goal. Paraphrasing writer Walter Lippmann, “when we all think alike, no one thinks very much.” To work together for the common good a leader needs to be prepared for conflict and embrace conflict.

Liane Davey, author of You First: Inspire Your Team to Grow Up, Get Along, and get Stuff Done, reminds us that for teams to be effective and work together they need to experience tension and disagreement, wrestle with it, push back, open up, share, listen and only then move forward. It’s not a quiet process and not what we often think of as good leadership. But think about the best teams you have worked on. Was it acceptable to have a different opinion? To raise a concern? Or to even get a little worked up about the problem you were addressing? I bet it was!

If you are willing to dive into the messiness of collaboration and conflict as a necessary element of moving towards a common good, Davey recently shared three ideas that leaders can use to help their teams embrace “productive conflict.”

  1. Define, discuss and understand the different roles and agendas of each person on the team. Take the time to ensure that everyone understands that each person has an  agenda based on their role and that each agenda is different. Not better or worse but different. And that it is normal for the different agendas to lead to conflict that is not personal but necessary to reach the best solution in the end. Make it OK to disagree based on their unique roles and responsibilities.
  2. Pay attention to style differences between team members. Use a tool or a facilitated discussion to clarify the different approaches team members use to learn, take in information, communicate, make decisions, or do tasks. Ensure that each style is described in a positive way and highlight the value that each style brings to the team. Finally, highlight how it is natural for conflict to arise due to style differences and that you expect people to leverage their styles to facilitate collaboration, even if it gets uncomfortable.
  3. Set ground rules on acceptable dissension. Have an open conversation and identify what behaviors lead to conflict that improves how the team functions and what behaviors actually destroy trust and teamwork. Describe what is acceptable and what is not acceptable and the process the team will use to hold each other accountable.

As nice as peace and calm can be, leadership is a lot messier and noisier – and that’s OK!

Todd Thorsgaard

Now what?

womens-marchMuch has happened since we wrote our last blog in December. I know my social media feeds are full of arguments, passionate points-of-view and a lot of ALL CAPS statements of righteousness or outrage.

All of this emotion, energy and disagreement also enters the workplace. The Minnesota Women’s March actually started at one of our schools, Saint. Paul College. Your people are navigating the current political landscape and you need to be prepared to lead during a very chaotic time. As nice as it may seem to just ignore all the divisiveness, true leadership demands that you step into the tumult and help your people work together.

To start the conversation we are going to share some ideas during February on how to lead for the common good. Specifically, we’ll be talking about:

  • discovering shared interests
  • managing conflict
  • truly listening
  • integrative leadership
  • servant leadership

Please share whatever ideas you have to help your people work together for a common good in the midst of raw emotions. Otherwise our teams may end up as divided as the couple cited in today’s Reuters poll – From disputes to a breakup

Before I sign off I want to share one hopeful picture from a blog I follow. A peaceful bike march in Paris with flags reading “Bikes not War.”

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Todd Thorsgaard

Stewardship and tragedy

scsu-rallyOne leadership competency that is always important is the ability to respond in the moment. I am going to take a quick detour from stewardship and share a powerful set of stories and images from the past week. This photo by @NickLenz captures what it means to be a leader in higher education. Students, faculty, staff, administrators and interim president Ashish Vaiyda all joined together for a rally this week in response to the stabbing incident in St. Cloud, Minnesota.

I have been proud to read the stories of how one of our schools has demonstrated true compassion in response to a tragedy and unwavering support of students and community members who are threatened because of their ethnic background. They all stepped up in a public arena and led a rally for unity. Afterwards they also hosted small group discussions.

I will let their words and pictures speak for themselves.

#StCloudUnited twitter feed

MPR News story

Bring Me the News story

St. Cloud Times story

Stillwater Patch story

KNSI radio story

Have a peaceful weekend.

Todd Thorsgaard