Racial unrest in 2020 inspired many organizations to commit to transforming their workplaces for racial equity. Yet many of these companies have not been able to make meaningful change. What’s holding them back?
Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts will continue to fail until we address the root cause of inequity, exclusion, and injustice at work. Our traditional talent practices — including recruitment and hiring, performance management, career development, promotion practices, and progressive discipline — were created to support business fundamentals that extract through domination and control.
In the late 1970s, several economists promoted the idea that business leaders’ primary focus should be to maximize shareholder value by any means necessary. This thinking led businesses to pursue practices that shifted value away from employees toward shareholders, extracting more value out of people than they pay back to them. These actions are antithetical to equity and inclusion.
Instead of centering principles of extraction, organizations can embrace practices based in liberatory principles that change the shape of how we work together, moving away from the triangle of oppressive hierarchy and toward a circle of human connection and liberation. I believe we can use theories of liberation inspired by the ideas and work of Black feminists and other thought leaders of color to find an alternative way of working together so everyone can thrive.
Here are the ways businesses maintain extractive relationships with employees — and how they can transform their organizations using liberatory practices.
One of the ways people exert power over others is through defining the reality and norms that help create dominant and subordinate groups. Members of the dominant group are able to create the illusion of objectivity by selectively choosing ideas that benefit them and labeling them as objective truths. Those people define what is professional, what it means to “fit” in a workplace, and what is considered good work. This power allows bias to be embedded into work practices because the “objective” criteria are selected to benefit those in power.
We see this in action in performance management systems. Those in power define what good performance looks like by selecting “objective” measures that benefit them. For example, how “professional” or “strategic” someone is is typically based on the rater’s interpretation and can be used to “prove” inferiority and otherness of people with marginalized identities. This creates a false sense of objectivity and results in inequitable performance ratings and ultimately limited promotion opportunities for women and people of color.
The antidote to hierarchy is self-determination, where groups get to define their own reality. For example, Fannie Lou Hamer was a sharecropper who worked for Black people’s voting rights in the South in the 1960s. Hamer created the Freedom Farm Cooperative in response to white landowners evicting Black sharecroppers who tried to vote. Black farmers in the cooperative were able to access resources and become landowners, which was a pathway to voting rights and economic sovereignty.
To build on these ideas about self-determination, workplaces need to change who defines the reality of work. When I was COO at a nonprofit organization, I noticed that managers had a lot of power that shaped the career outcomes of the people they managed. For example, they had control over who was a good “fit” for a role, what work assignments were given to whom, how performance was evaluated, and who was ready for promotions. This power allowed them to define reality at the organization, and because of the bias created through this use of power and the structures that empowered biased decision makers, we were seeing inequitable outcomes for people of color and women in hiring, pay, promotion, and retention.
I implemented a strategy that aimed to shift decision-making power away from managers and toward the collective. For example, instead of managers deciding on their own what was expected in a role, I created a ritual that allowed each staff member to have a say in their expectations and annual goals. Managers became advisors instead of the arbiters of truth about role expectations. We also made changes to other decision-making processes like pay, career advancement, professional development, and more. We saw big shifts as a result: Our team became more diverse, we achieved pay equity, and we eliminated differences in promotion and retention along lines of race and gender.
People need access to resources to do their work, and the more power someone has, the more say they have in who has access to which resources. In extractive workplaces, there is inequitable resource distribution, with more going to the dominant group than the subordinate group.
The disproportionate flow of resources shows up in nearly every work practice. In recruitment and hiring, organizations’ recruitment pipelines and hiring decisions skew toward the dominant group. People of color and women have less power over resources, less authority, and less autonomy at work. They’re less likely to be connected to informal organizational networks, which decreases their access to information and opportunities, and less likely to receive constructive, developmental feedback, which further limits opportunities for growth.
Pay practices consistently underpay women and people of color for their labor. Pay inequity enables companies to extract more value from them than they return to them. In addition, white men, who hold most senior leadership positions in the U.S., are more likely to see potential in other white men, and subconsciously restrict developmental opportunities to that group.
Sharing power counters this by distributing control over resources to ensure everyone affected by resource access is part of decisions about it. Mariame Kaba is an organizer who focuses on transformative racial justice and dismantling the prison industrial complex. She advocates using collective power to make significant changes to the criminal legal system. In an interview, she spoke of an important lesson she learned early in her life: “We can’t do anything alone that’s worth it. Everything worthwhile is done with other people.”
Kaba’s work embodies what it means to build power collectively to change conditions that oppress. Her work in mutual aid is grounded in the idea that our fate is bound together, and that by building relationships and community, a group of people can act together to make changes to our world so that everyone can survive and thrive. Her work has shown the importance of resisting the idea of the lone hero — instead, change happens when a group of people brings their ideas to the table to co-create together.
In workplaces, sharing power looks like intentionally involving all those affected by a decision in the decision-making process. Research shows diverse teams make better decisions, and implementing decision-making protocols that focus on sharing power can foster more equitable and inclusive workplaces. In my COO role, I created a committee to make promotion decisions. Instead of relying on a single person or the leadership team to decide who got promoted, the committee included people from all levels of the organization, and we made career advancement decisions in ways that considered multiple perspectives. This shift resulted in more people being considered for promotion, more people being promoted, and eliminated the disparity of promotion rates across racial lines.
Dividing and Conquering
Exploitative power uses division to prevent people with less power from joining together to use their power collectively. Extractive businesses benefit when employees aren’t able to see their shared interests and collective power. Talent practices reinforce isolation and separation by emphasizing individual behaviors and creating practices that create the false idea that individuals are singularly responsible for results.
In truth, much of our work is interconnected, and the outcomes we see from our work are the results of our collective actions and the environment. Further, research suggests that groups outperform individuals when doing complex work. Despite this reality, extractive work systems maintain separation to enable extraction — a choice that likely diminishes overall performance. You see this practice in action in goal-setting and reward systems that focus on individual behaviors.
Divide and conquer is one of the oldest tools of oppression. Organizations can instead create work communities that encourage people to act in solidarity with each other and be accountable to creating an environment that allows everyone to thrive. Activist adrienne maree brown has written at length about what accountability looks like when people are in the right relationships — that is, relationships that are about treating each other reciprocally and committing to meet each other’s needs while maintaining boundaries that protect each other’s sovereignty, and working together to repair harms that arise in the relationship. In their writing about our connection to each other, brown says, “Each one of us is an individual practice ground for what the whole can or cannot do, will or will not do” — meaning our actions, beliefs, and relationships create our collective experience. Being in solidarity is about how we support one another’s autonomy, how we make commitments for how we treat each other, how we protect and care for one another, and how we work to maintain boundaries needed for liberation.
Organizations can create cultures of solidarity by intentionally agreeing on how colleagues work together in reciprocal, accountable ways; how they maintain boundaries that support care and liberatory ways of working; and how they use restorative practices to acknowledge and repair harm that happens in the workplace. In my COO role, I achieved this by having teams create agreements together. These agreements would articulate how teams would define success, monitor their work, communicate, and give feedback to each other, as well as commitments about how they treated each other. We used 360 feedback tools and team feedback meetings to regularly reflect on how well teams were meeting their agreements and decide on what adjustments to make.
Coercing and Intimidating
Systems of oppression are maintained not only by the ways people in dominant groups wield power over subordinate groups, but also by the ways those with less power internalize that subordination and comply. People in power use fear of social isolation and loss of employment to force compliance.
This shows up in performance management systems and promotion practices that take an up-or-out approach or create forced rankings where “winners take all” and losers get kicked out. These systems create a sense of scarcity of opportunities at work and trigger flight or fight.
Creating a community of care at work ensures that work centers peoples’ humanity and that members of the work community are accountable for the environment they create for each other. In my COO role, I chose to implement an approach that treated our team abundantly, contrary to what’s usually done in the nonprofit sector, where people are encouraged to embody a spirit of scarcity. This showed up in our pay philosophy, where we aimed to pay our employees at the high end of the market. We had plentiful leave, holidays, and paid time off to encourage rest. When we moved to a new office, we designed it to be a beautiful space and included resources to take care of the team, such as technology to make work easier and a well-stocked wellness room with soothing lighting and comfortable seating. I found embodying a spirit of abundance helped us not only attract and retain talented people, but it also made the team feel cared for and seen, leading them to do better work as a result.
. . .
Shifting business fundamentals away from extraction toward liberation can fundamentally change our businesses. In the words of the Combahee River Collective, “If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression.” Liberatory practices that center the wisdom of Black women have the potential to transform our workplaces and offer a path to doing great work together.