In early April, 2015, Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks, reflected on the fatal shootings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and tried to do right. He introduced the “RaceTogether” campaign as a way to get people talking about race relations in the U.S. Unfortunately, this well-intentioned effort turned into a PR nightmare.
More unfortunate than that, however, is that in all the hubbub that followed, The Conversation never got off the ground. Rather, pundits talked at length about the failure of the campaign, the supposed damage to Starbucks’ brand, and the trend of corporate leaders becoming champions for social good. Then, as quickly as the campaign was launched, it seems to have been forgotten.
Before the whole incident becomes nothing more than a business school case study, let’s talk. Let’s talk about what we can learn from the Starbucks’ experience and how we can, at last, get The Conversation started.
Pick a comfortable place – your office, lunch room, meeting room, even Starbucks would work, as long as you’re in a location that’s quiet and friendly and have given yourself enough time to not feel rushed.
Allot adequate time – take your time to build a safe, welcoming dynamic among participants, and allow them to tell their stories and share their experiences at leisure, without rushing. Build in enough time for the group to discuss, reflect, validate, and offer support to one another.
Explain the goals – let participants know why they’re talking about diversity. Share the finding s about direct correlation between diversity and financial success. In their report, Diversity Matters, McKinsey & Company studied 266 public companies across a range of industries in Canada, Latin America, the UK and the U.S., and found “Companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity were 35% more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians.
Identify the many ways in which people differ – You might say, “We live in a diverse world. Only some of our differences are visible, like skin color, gender, ethnicity, height or weight, physical disabilities, and age. Others are not, but still affect how we feel or are treated: ethnicity, socio-economic position, sexual orientation, virginity, use or non-use of alcohol, allergies, depression and/or emotional illness, intellect.”
Set expectations – Try to be completely transparent here – explain that conversations about diversity and bias can be tricky, but the goal is to tease out experiences of feeling different or excluded and identify ways to create a more welcoming, diverse and compassionate community.
Create safe space – So that everyone can feel comfortable sharing their experiences, have the group set up their own Ground Rules. You could give them a list of your ground rules, but it’s not as effective. When the group helps to establish the rules, they feel more a part of the process. The following rules should be on your list – if your group does not think of them, you may want to add a few of these yourself:
Distribute “OUCH” cards – Developed by Dr. Devona Williams, author of the Spice of Life Diversity Training Tool, OUCH cards let discussion participants visually signal if someone’s comment has been hurtful, without interrupting them.
The trick is to provide meaningful questions and prompts that will draw out experiences of feeling different, build mutual understanding, and identify ways of creating a more welcoming community. For instance:
Personal experience prompts
“In their shoes” prompts
Envisioning a better tomorrow
In an effort to make these discussion topics more accessible and inviting, Office Oxygen collected them and had them imprinted on a “Diversity Thumball” – when using the ball, whoever catches it responds to the prompt under their thumb.
Even with discussion prompts that are structured to promote positive conversation, rather than spark controversy, interactions can become emotional. Expert diversity facilitators suggest a range of techniques to ease difficult situations.
As challenging as it can be to start a conversation about diversity on a small-scale, doing it on a national scale is exponentially more difficult. I applaud Mr. Schultz on his bold and brave effort, which he said, “was to stimulate conversation, empathy and compassion toward one another, and then to broaden that dialogue beyond just our Starbucks family to the greater American public by using our scale for good.”
I, for one, am not ready toss out the #RaceTogether initiative or call it a failure. As a nation, we can and we should start talking more openly about diversity. Inspired by Mr. Schultz, who called us to action, we now have the tools and resources to do so– maybe not when we’re in the queue at Starbucks–but definitely after that first cup of joe.