- Talent Management
Over the past two years, the United States has been plagued with high-profile police shootings, primarily of young Black men. Of course, these incidents are not new or unique. Police units across the United States have been struggling with racism for years. The question is simple: Why can’t they change? That’s precisely the question Barbara Armacost, a Professor of Law at the University of Virginia, posed in a recent Harvard Business Review article. “The only effective mechanism for addressing police brutality is top-down, systemic reform of the police organization itself,” writes Armacost. “This includes introducing community policing; training officers in de-escalation skills and the use of non-lethal tactics; increasing the diversity of departments; improving data collection and public transparency; and enhancing the screening of police recruits. So why have most police departments failed to embrace these reforms?” The problem facing American police units, however, is also one found in other sectors.
First, Armacost suggest that U.S. police departments are failing to change because they continue to blame individuals not organizations: “Departments blame ‘rogue cops,’ not organizational culture. Often, you will hear police chiefs or other spokespeople referring to a small number of ‘rogue cops’ in cases of brutality. In reality, these claims are nearly always false. While claims of police abuse do tend to cluster around a relatively small group of police officers, those officers tend to repeat their abusive behavior with impunity. Repeated brutality that is not addressed by higher-ups is a systemic problem, not a problem of rogue individuals.”
The same problem can be found in many businesses. When a compliance error occurs, when there is a security breach, when productivity is down and when sales slump, individuals all too often are targeted as the problem. In reality, major problems rarely to blame on a single person or even unit within a larger enterprise. When things go really wrong, organizational problems are typically to blame but of course, it’s easier to place the blame on an individual than to take a long, hard look at one’s entire organization.
To return to the police department example, Armacost observes that another problem concerns perceptions and interpretations. As she explains, “There’s no question that police officers routinely face threatening situations requiring split-second, life-or-death decisions that affect their own safety…And yet at the same time, police brutality resists reform because police assume a certain level of violence will be necessary in the situations they face, and the law gives them the benefit of the doubt when applying force. The way officers interpret and employ violence is structured around these notions, which impedes their ability to appreciate and correct errors.”
Again, the same holds true in other work situations. If one assumes that it’s simply normal to always experience a sales slump at a certain time of year or that one can’t avoid a certain percent of employee turnover due to the industry (e.g., many service industry companies work on the assumption that a high percent of their employees will leave after just a few weeks or months), then change is stalled and not because change is impossible. In such cases, change is stalled because management has accepted something as given that is not necessarily true.
In the case of police violence against Black communities, Armacost observes, “Institutional racism is rarely addressed.” But as she further observes, “Changing the culture of an organization is hard; law enforcement no exception. Addressing racial bias — an intractable result of years of structural and societal racism — is especially difficult.”
Again, the same holds true in other organizations. Whether you’re a tech company attempting to address your race-base in hiring or an investment company attempting to raise the number of women on your senior team, examining your institutional culture is critical. It means asking, what is it about your culture that may be promoting the problem? Last year, one tech company—as it was attempting to raise the number of women on staff—decided to hold a frat house themed keg party for staff (it was later cancelled when women on staff noted that this was precisely the sort of workplace culture issue that was keeping women away). More recently, PayPal advertised a panel discussion on gender equality featuring 6 men and no women speakers. In this case, the company later issued a statement insisting the panel was actually about male allies working to promote gender equality (that part of the panel agenda was just left off the original poster…sound suspicious?). The point is simple: Workplace culture isn’t an afterthought when it comes to diversity and social change.
So what’s the formula for organizations that are stuck? According to Armacost, the formula for getting unstuck involves taking responsibility (not blaming individuals), avoiding calcified perceptions of what is and must be, and being self-reflexive about how your workplace culture may be promoting the problems in question.