If you have a teenager in your life, you’re probably already familiar with the video-sharing social media app called TikTok and perhaps the K-pop musical genre, as well. If not, the recent fervor over the turnout in this past weekend’s rally by President Donald Trump has likely introduced you to them.
For those unfamiliar with what transpired, Trump predicted that his rally would attract enough supporters to fill the 19,000-seat BOK Center in Tulsa, Okla.
So confident were organizers that his campaign planned for overflow events outside of the arena. By early last week, things looked promising for a huge turnout, with the Trump campaign reporting that over 1 million ticket requests had come in for the event scheduled for a city of just over 401,000 people.
As it turns out, both TikTok users and K-pop fans engaged in their own form of social commentary in response. For background, the rally was planned for the weekend of Juneteenth and in a city that was the site of a racial massacre 99 years ago. Hosting a rally there was viewed by many as particularly tone-deaf during this time of global social unrest.
Over the last few weeks, videos posted on TikTok began to morph from fun musical or comedy snippets, with people showing off their smooth dance moves in one-minute segments, to increasing numbers of posts by individuals of all ages taking a stand on racism and bigotry. The decision by the Trump campaign to hold a rally when and where it did turned up the volume on such protests.
One TikTok video in particular, posted by 51-year-old Mary Jo Laupp of Iowa, became a call to action for supporters of the Black community, whose voices have become increasingly central in the discourse on social justice since the death of George Floyd. In it, Laupp suggests that people support the Black community by signing up for tickets to the Trump rally but not actually attend.
Her video went viral, and the idea was picked up by K-pop fans. According to users, their efforts sabotaged the Trump rally, where news coverage showed thousands of empty seats.
Your company may not have its own internal TikTok-like app, but opinions and experiences have a way of going viral within your company, especially opinions about how you lead during a time of crisis. What employees think gets shared inside and outside of the organization and shapes your reputation and that of your company.
What are your employees saying and feeling about how you as a leader are responding to the growing social unrest in our country? How informed are you about the cultural environment that all employees are experiencing daily, especially minority members of your team? In what ways are you demonstrating interest, concern, support and empathy for the employees most impacted by social injustice?
During this challenging time in our country’s history, I, along with other SmartBrief columnists, have offered suggestions about how to navigate this delicate terrain within your organization. We’ve searched for the right words to say, the best actions to recommend and the most compelling personal experiences to share so you can increase your capacity to lead at a time when it’s most needed.
Upon reflection, however, perhaps it would be helpful to understand the actions that leaders should avoid:
1. Making assumptions
Don’t assume that, because you’ve talked with some African American employees about discrimination and racism, you’ve developed a comprehensive understanding of what all minority employees have endured, or even a sense for how bad things can become. This is a complex set of experiences that are as varied as skin tone, economic level and hair texture.
While there will be employees that recount similar incidents of generalized discrimination inside and outside of the organization, there will be others whose lives have been peppered with a level of racism that is extreme. Hate is not equally distributed.
2. Ignoring the past
Educate yourself on the history that underpins the experience of minority employees. Without this foundation, you will struggle to fully appreciate how diverse employees might be perceiving your leadership and overlook the disproportionate impact that certain decisions you make might have on them. There are numerous books, movies, videos, organizations and museums that will help you establish an appreciation for the history that has brought us to this current moment.
A few good places to begin learning are: “The New Jim Crow,” by Michelle Alexander; “How to be an Antiracist,” by Ibram X. Kendi; and “I am Not Your Negro,” a documentary film by Raoul Peck based on James Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript “Remember This House.”
The National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C, while physically closed for the pandemic, also offers a comprehensive and moving education on the Black experience.
To be clear, the recommendations offered here are to increase your understanding of African American employees, but to lead in a global economy, you’ll need to develop depth and breadth of knowledge about many racial groups and cultures. Obtaining this education is not something to delegate to your inclusion and diversity head. It’s every leader’s responsibility. You can’t lead what you don’t understand.
3. Manufacturing false hope
Since Floyd’s death, many CEOs and boards have issued statements of renewed commitment to creating inclusive work cultures. Some have made financial donations to external minority organizations in an effort to underscore their pledge. While all of this is laudable, be prepared to back up your commitment with action.
This isn’t likely the first time your employees have read or heard leadership espouse a belief in the value of all employee groups. Have they seen any real change in the complexion of your organization? If not, expect skepticism. African American employees may be concerned that your renewed commitment is temporary, especially if they do not witness a swift, significant and sustained change in your company’s recruitment, development, retention and upward mobility practices for people of color.
It also essential that your organization sets leadership objectives for I&D and measures results across all diverse groups. There is a debate at the moment about whether diverse groups in the organization should be measured as a monolith, or whether they should be uncoupled and progress with each group measured separately. That is a choice that each CEO should make, so that she or he understands the specific progress the company is making with each diverse group.
What gets measured gets attention. What gets attention gets accomplished.
4. Underestimating demographics
Within the next 25 years, the majority of the US population will be composed of Hispanic, African American and other racial minorities. That same trend is predicted for Europe by 2050. Not only are these demographic factors important to consider when developing the cultural environment inside your company, they also significantly shape the fate of your business because the complexion of your customer base is steadily changing.
In order to thrive within this demographic shift, how you lead an evolving workforce, how your company develops products and offers services, and how you live the inclusive values the company espouses will all come under close scrutiny. Your actions will affect profits. Taking issues of inclusion and diversity seriously now prepares you for the changes you’ll experience in the next decade.
Regardless of where you are in your leadership journey, each challenge, each crisis is an opportunity to earn trust and a moment to build legacy. This is such a moment. What will you do with it?
This article was first published in SmartBrief on Leadership, June 2020.