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Podcast: Addressing Racial Bias and Outgroups Through Organizational Change

Podcast: Addressing Racial Bias and Outgroups Through Organizational Change

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Note: This article first appeared at In Public Safety.

There are many conversations happening around racial inequality, diversity, and unconscious bias. But are those conversations effective?

diversityIn this podcast episode of In Public Safety Matters, AMU Program Director Dr. Larry D. Parker Jr. talks about how phrases like “I don’t see color” — or, like during his 24-year career in the Marine Corps, “I only see green” — can actually be unproductive in working towards diversity and inclusion. Instead, Dr. Parker discusses how it’s important for people to open up about how they view things and acknowledge differences among people in order to have effective conversations about difficult social and cultural issues.

Learn more about Dr. Parker’s research on “outgroups” and how leaders can engage people who feel excluded in order to improve productivity and organizational performance. Listen to this podcast to learn how to institute organizational change by creating a structured campaign that acknowledges concerns, keeps leaders accountable, places a value on improving diversity and inclusion, and measures progress.

Read the Transcript:

Leischen Stelter: Welcome to In Public Safety Matters. I’m your host Leischen Stelter. Today we’re going to add to the very important discussion happening both on a national and international stage regarding racial inequality, diversity and addressing bias. Today my guest is Dr. Larry D. Parker Jr. who is the Program Director Of Transportation and Logistics Management and Supply Chain Management at American Military University.

In addition to his impressive academic career, Dr. Parker just retired as a Lieutenant Colonel from the United States Marine Corps after serving for 24 years. One of Dr. Parker’s assignments in the Marines was as an Action Officer in the Opportunity, Diversity And Inclusion Branch. Dr. Parker, welcome to In Public Safety Matters and thank you so much for joining me.

Dr. Larry D. Parker Jr.: Leischen, good morning and I really appreciate it. Thank you for having me.

Leischen Stelter: So there are so many critical conversations happening today that address issues of diversity and racial bias. I was hoping you could start our conversation by just talking about some of the problems with those discussions, and what can be done to improve them and make sure that those conversations are effective.

Dr. Larry D. Parker Jr.: The major problem that I see with the conversations today is not that they’re happening, it’s just that they’re not taking into account really the context from the other side. The individuals that are engaged in these conversations don’t make themselves aware of just how deep diversity and inclusion issues are. Racial biases, unconscious bias, all these things are playing into the thought process, the actions, and they’re all interwoven in a person’s daily life.

And so when they start these conversations, you’re already in juxtaposed positions, but it almost has them at a place that they speak past one another. And so that’s really the one thing that I want to say is, especially this issue right now. The racial unrest that’s right now. The civil unrest. All these social issues have a long, deep history. And so to engage in a conversation, engage in some kind of discourse, it really has to take those type things into consideration, understanding the other side’s vested interest.

Leischen Stelter: So one of your professional responsibilities in the Marines was to deliver training that focused on diversity. And I was hoping you could give our listeners a little perspective on what that training involved. We’re hearing a lot in the news these days about some of the training that law enforcement has received over the years in regards to diversity and ethics and bias. I was hoping that as someone who’s delivered that kind of training, you could shed light on the objectives and how those objectives are achieved.

Dr. Larry D. Parker Jr.: My time in the Marine Corps, I love the experience that you get at a very young age to lead people from all different backgrounds. At the very beginning, and I’ll just start there from a personal experience, that when you’re in your first unit and you are a young leader that you have individuals much older from different parts of the world, it requires you to gain an appreciation and maintain an appreciation for their differences.

And sometimes you hear individuals say, “I don’t see color.” And I would say many times I’ve heard Marines or just anyone say, “I don’t see color.” And in the Marine Corps we would say, “I only see green.” Or I would say for those in law enforcement, “I only see blue.”

One of the first things you have to do, truly in a diverse leadership and a global leadership situation, is remove that really from the terms that you use, the language you use, the approach. Because what you’re actually saying, it’s actually somewhat of an unconscious bias that you’re putting forth. You’re telling everyone around you that, “I am not acknowledging any differences than my own.” To a degree. Now, when you say, “I only see this.” What you’re saying is you’re going to view every situation really from your own paradigm.

And I know it comes with a good heart that someone would say, “I don’t see color.” What you’re almost trying to say, “Well, I don’t look badly upon another culture or a race.” But what it actually communicates to other individuals, that then they need to relate to you on whatever paradigm you’re on. And so that puts the burden back on the people you lead or the people you associate with.

So to bring you back to your point of what I taught Marines and what courses I gave, or at least how I approach even my mentorship within the Marine Corps, it was truly a few of these mentoring moments where I teach these young leaders or the individuals who I worked with to open up their paradigm. Open up the way that they view things, engage and be prepared to utilize and include those differences, the strengths, and analyze the weaknesses.

So really to just get to the point of what you’re saying, objectives. I had an interesting conversation, and I’m glad you asked this question because it makes you think about how others view diversity. I had a leader who once we began really embracing the diversity and inclusion initiative asked me, “What’s the business case?”

Now that’s an interesting argument coming from someone in the Marine Corps or coming from someone in an institution that’s a nonprofit organization, but it really just tells you the mindset that some leaders approach it. What will the institution get from this? And I had to embrace explaining to him, “In the Marines I trained. As I train or consult with police agencies or officers, you need to look at it that there’s intangibles. There are certain things that immediately you won’t see on a P&L, on a profit and loss sheet.”

And so really the objectives are defined by somewhat subjectively by those persons that you’re trying to make included, to bring into the fold, to bring it into the organization and really the organization’s objectives don’t ever change. There are some additions that are brought in to make sure everyone feels included. So I think that gets to your point that really my training is really about broadening the scope of individuals that are in leadership positions, to make sure that everything that they’re doing is combating the really existence of an outgroup. So that’s what I’m going to do.

Leischen Stelter: I’m glad that you brought up the term outgroup, because I know that this has been something you’ve been researching a lot through your academic career and I think it’s an interesting term. And I’m wondering, could you elaborate a little bit on how you define outgroup? And then I’d like to talk about your research a little bit, once we get a better sense of how you’re categorizing those outgroups, I guess.

Dr. Larry D. Parker Jr.: Okay. The definition of an outgroup is really a number of individuals who sit outside of what’s considered the favorable results or favorable actions of a central point or a leader. The existence of it truly is subjective in some cases, or the perception of it is really the key here. Because if an individual feels like they’re in the outgroup, that’s the most determinant factor.

As I conducted my research and I know we’ll talk a bit more as you have questions, but the key thing was a screening questionnaire that was presented to everyone. And we’d just ask them, “Why do you feel that you’re in the outgroup?” And as a result of the answers to their questions, there were times that I had to tell individuals, “No, you’re actually in your leaders’ in-group. It may be a breakdown in communication.”

And again, to further define outgroup is individuals that feel like they’re cut out from the communication, the resources, the rewards, being included in any of the processes or major decision making of an organization. So that’s a very dynamic group. It can shrink, it can grow based upon the interaction that they have with the organization or person.

Leischen Stelter: I think that’s really interesting that you define an outgroup not just by when I was initially thinking, people who were either different through their diversity or whatnot, but just to consider the outgroup that sentiment by the individuals. It’s anyone who, like you said, feels like they just don’t belong, or they’re just not part of the “group.’”

So as you conducted your research, you mentioned that you sent out a survey. Would you mind giving us some of your findings or things that really jumped out to you in terms of you weren’t expecting a certain result or maybe you expected the outcome, but could you just share a little bit more about your research?

Dr. Larry D. Parker Jr.: Absolutely. The findings from my research really centered on how individuals coped with being in the outgroup. And I want to touch back on a point that you just made that it’s not totally defined by culture or someone’s race.

To look at it in a more general term, if we’re in an academic-term situation, there could be a number of faculty members from a particular department versus others and we’re in a particular meeting. It could be a number of first responders, all of one particular service and of police officers and a few fire department and they’re required to work in a particular goal.

And again, it’s analysis of whether or not they feel their voice is heard, whether or not they feel like they’re included in the process. So as I look back at my research and I went across the United States and went across different job markets, different professions, and it really was not a surprise. Once you started to dig deeper into why are you feeling a particular way, they listed, “Well, there are these rewards or these programs. There’s a number of things that everyone else within the organization is exposed to or get to be a part of and I don’t feel a part of it.”

And what it really centered on was the lack of communication and the lack of deliberate and intentional leadership that was employed. That communication with that individual to say, “This is what you’re bringing to the organization, and we’re going to utilize all those skills.”

And to speak more to just the findings, it really was the results of being in the outgroup, how people coped. Individuals unfortunately would turn to just different things, whether it be religion, counseling or withdrawing. There are some individuals who found themselves, if I’m not going to be challenged or engaged in the conversation for the organization, then I’m going to give you just this level, a predetermined level less than what they could because leadership chose not to engage them.

And so that’s really the major points is that if leadership doesn’t engage the outgroup at their understanding and at what they can bring to the table, if that communication breaks down, you’re actually not receiving the optimum performance or efficiency for the organization. But you’re also serving as a detriment to that individual because some individuals just leave or they suffer in that situation because they’re not brought their very best.

Leischen Stelter: So let’s keep talking about what leaders can do once they perhaps identify an outgroup, whether it’s officially or unofficially. Can you talk a little bit about recommendations that you have for leaders to reengage this group of people? What steps are really critical to that re-engagement, whether it’s really just even acknowledging that they exist. I would think that might be the first step is just opening leader’s eyes to the fact that some people feel very whether disengaged or they’re not feeling like they’re part of this either organization or group. Can you just talk about the role of leadership?

Dr. Larry D. Parker Jr.: The role of leadership and what they can do, it’s critical that there’s self-awareness because individuals are going to fall into three categories. They’re either going to be ignorant of the situation, they’re going to deny it, or they’re going to be aware. And when you have that situation, those ignorant of the situation, there’s nothing wrong with that.

There’s many things that happen in the world today that you’re just not aware of or something that is happening to someone else, and you’ve never saw it because you weren’t in that paradigm or you weren’t there to see it. But once you’re informed of it, then you fall into one of the other categories of then you’re going to deny it. You can either push back and say, “Well, it doesn’t exist.” And try to fight it from that perspective, or you’re aware of it and you’re actively trying to do something about it.

So let’s go with that last one. Now you’re actively wanting to do something about it. One of the major points that I want to make to individuals, that we shouldn’t act as if a conversation on race or anything like that is so foreign, that the same principles that we take to address a problem in an organization is different. So the same conflict resolutions that are employed, and there’s a huge industry that teaches that, can be used, same way with program management in a campaign to address the issues.

In short, really to go back to the point, they first become aware by listening. Getting into a conversation, and we’d go back to those points of embracing the fact that individuals are different. They’re going to see things differently and take them at least to engage in a conversation at face value to understand how they’re feeling.

Once that’s there and you have a common definition of terms because we’ll use today’s environment. What is systemic racism? What is apologies? What’s addressing on the issues? Once we all come to a general understanding of terms, then you can engage with how do I make it better?

And if I could, just the main thing and someone would ask, “What does that look like?” Well, I see a number of individuals have task forces that engage in conversations. They have meetings. They have town halls. As a leader if you don’t have a note taker, a process to capture all the concerns, and you don’t have all the significant leaders in your organization that are accounted for, then it could be perceived that you’re not taking it serious because those are the tools you’re going to need to then engage in a campaign.

And I stress campaign because people who have issues like this whatever it is, race issues or just employment issues, they want to see progress and they want measurable results. And that’s what you’re going to do because you would do it anything else that you would invest time in. You would want to make sure that you’re getting a return on your investment. You would report out to make sure everyone comes back knowing that they were heard. That’s diversity and inclusion.

Leischen Stelter: I like that you mentioned how important it is for leaders at all levels to be involved with this. And using the example of a law enforcement agency, it’s one thing if maybe the chief is trying to make these changes. But if supervisors who are the ones really working one-on-one, responsible, directly responsible for officers, if they’re not fully on board, there’s not going to be that cultural shift that needs to happen because those individual officers aren’t seeing those actions from their direct supervisors. So I just feel like there, even if the chief is the one who’s laying down the law, so to speak, no actual change will happen until it’s embraced by all levels of the agency. And that can happen too, in an organizational structure within a corporation or whatnot.

But I was hoping you could talk a little bit about just that cultural shift. One thing that struck me as you were describing leaders recognizing bias, was really that it’s almost like you have to remove your own ego from this process and recognize that you don’t know either the answers or you just need to educate yourself and there’s a humbling aspect to that. Is that something that you found within your training?

Dr. Larry D. Parker Jr.: Definitely. Definitely a humbling aspect of this entire conversation and really just leadership in general. It’s not uncommon for leaders to have those forceful personalities. Individuals who are very confident. The higher that you will find an individual in an organization, there’s probably a good argument to say, the more confident that they are in themselves and what they did to get to where they are.

Now in some cases that could be a good thing because then they’re very knowledgeable and they’re very strong and they can push an initiative in the right way. But if it’s not controlled, if it’s not measured, then they can be closed to see anything different. And so, yes, it truly is a point in which a leader needs to open themselves up to seeing a situation differently. Being able to understand that the same objective may not be viewed from the same as everyone that’s in the room.

And I’d really want to emphasize what you just said regarding individuals at different levels within an organization. A leader has to understand that truly change management and embracing a culture change because it’s really about social norms. Social norms within an organization is usually driven by those with the strongest personalities. And so if you happen to have a strong personality somewhere in your organization, but it’s not aligned with where you want the organization to go, those are like guardians of the gate. Guardians of the gate of something that you don’t want to have happen.

You can have three divisions of four working perfectly, but the individual you had in the fourth, very strong in their profession, but doesn’t totally subscribe to what and where you want to take the organization. And that could be detrimental because they may be in charge of a particular process, HR or anything else or just a customer-facing organization.

So the onus is on that leader to be reflective, take a step back. And I can tell you, the military operates in a certain rule that if an order was given, you take some of the time for yourself to really bring it in, understand it, but you owe some of the time to your people in order for them to plan and train and execute.

sWell, I say that most important time, the most valuable time you have as a leader, is that time in determining exactly where you want the organization to go. Self-assessing, looking at your weaknesses and then putting that time into making sure everyone who’s supposed to execute it is on the same page. Because then that’s where there may be some people that you may have to part ways with because they do not subscribe to where you want to go. Those are some of the big decisions that a leader has to make, but it will be best for the organization.

Leischen Stelter: I like how you’re putting this in the perspective of a calculated management strategy. Because I think that’s what a lot of leaders, first of all, it’s language that they can relate to because they’re used to strategy. They’re used to implementing campaigns and things like that.

So to put something like this, where it’s this major social issue that people inherently have all these individual issues regarding whether it’s diversity or bias or whatnot. But really coming at it with a strategy to address it and that step-by-step campaign to just alleviate or modify it or ensure that you’re conveying those values throughout an entire organizational system.

Do you have any additional thoughts on putting in such an organizational structure? You went through a good list, but I just wanted to see if there was anything else in that vein and maybe takeaways that leaders could implement.

Dr. Larry D. Parker Jr.: I really feel there needs to be value placed on this topic, on diversity and inclusion. There’s value to it. For individuals that aren’t affected by this, they may not see it initially. It’s a larger movement now in corporate America to invest in their people. To invest in the well-being of their people. They’re willing to do more for you the stronger the relationship is.

I’ll go back to my research and not to get into the details of the leadership or the leader member exchange theory, and that’s a whole other conversation. But really what it is, is the strength of the relationship between that leader and those individuals in the organization is truly the measure of the effectiveness. And so what I would say is now that’s the value.

So once you say that’s the business case. Going back to the very first point that I made when someone even in a nonprofit, so this works anywhere, says, “What’s the business case for me to do this?” It’s the intangible that your people feel better about being even in your organization, so that’s the value.

And so now that you have a value and you can use any number of metrics or in ways that you can put on your campaign, that’s what I would say. Subscribe a value to it to have this issue resolved, and then set about a public affairs campaign, a briefing back to your people that, “We care about you, and that we are willing to invest in you by this program.” And those are the recommendations I would make. Invest in your people. Invest in this program of addressing any of their concerns, because if you can do it for this, they’ll see that you’ll do it for anything.

Leischen Stelter: I think that’s just such an amazing takeaway. I got goosebumps when you were talking about placing value on diversity. I think on one hand it’s tragic that that hasn’t already been the case, in terms of making sure people feel included and making sure that your people are your most valuable assets. I think that in our day and age, that’s just become so apparent that it’s really the people who make companies successful. And that just having a strong approach to diversity and just general inclusion, going back to your discussion about outgroups, it’s not necessarily about diversity per se, as much as it is just widespread inclusion of all individuals. So I think that’s a really remarkable statement.

So I wanted to just wrap up our conversation by getting back to the individual, and some of the things that people can do to just challenge themselves to address their own bias and issues. Are there some talking points or recommendations that you have for people to start those conversations? I know we’ve had some really interesting conversations offline about how to even start and address the issue. We talked a little bit about terminology. Do you use the terminology African-American or do you use the terminology Black? So I was hoping maybe you could just touch on that a little bit.

Dr. Larry D. Parker Jr.: Absolutely. The best way to engage, once that decision is there and you understand where we are, and you’re right, it was interesting the conversations you and I had about this because it just shed light on how subjective some of these things can be. And it’s really about opening the door to the conversation and making the other individual comfortable in sharing, sharing their perspective because if you don’t, it becomes, it’s a muted point and the individual just continues on.

And so it’s really a quest for that conversation. This really needs to be a part of a leader’s soft skill that they learn. This is something that I train, I work on this, I teach this. And so many individuals because we’re in a fast-paced world, just want to execute the job and move on.

This needs to be a quest of yours as a leader, to seek that information. Not to make it uncomfortable like, “Tell me about your feelings.” Okay. We’re not at that place where we just force someone to tell me about their feelings, but just work on your places of engagement, opportunities for engagement, and then being engaged in the conversation. That’s something I work on. I’m always learning.

I’m in a coaching class at this point, teaching about active listening. All of these things are important. Work on your skills, and if you’re not able to do it, seek out someone who has the skills to at least facilitate the conversation and be engaged when the conversation happens.

Leischen Stelter: Well, Larry, thank you so much for really enlightening myself and our listeners to just a lot of these issues that are really prominent today for a really good reason. I think it’s just so critical to bring up some of these issues, even if they are uncomfortable or you’re not sure how to approach it.

I think one of the most important things you mentioned was, “Just to be open to that and just be willing to take that first step and ask those questions and engage.” And I really commend you for your work both academically and looking into these issues, and then your professional work, just trying to address diversity in your military background and otherwise. So thank you and thank you so much also for your 24 years of service. It’s really incredible.

Dr. Larry D. Parker Jr.: Leischen, I appreciate it. Thank you so much for having me. This is a passion of mine. Seeing us all come together and work, truly is amazing. And that’s what I got to see in the Marine Corps and that’s why I love the Corps, but seeing people get past these differences. Only one way to make it happen and that’s to provide these tools, provide these conversations and do just what you did and I appreciate you for having me.

Leischen Stelter: We’re all going to come out of this better people and a better nation, so let’s keep these conversations going. So thank you to our listeners for joining us. If you’d like to learn more about these topics and others, please sign up for our In Public Safety bimonthly newsletter. For now, be well and stay safe.

About Dr. Larry D. Parker Jr.

Dr. Parker currently serves as the Program Director of Transportation and Logistics Management and Supply Chain Management with the School of Business at American Military University. He serves as an adjunct faculty for various universities around the world. Dr. Parker is a native of Temple, Texas, a certified Inspector General by the Association of Inspector Generals, and a proud member of professional organizations advancing knowledge and professionalism, such as the Association of Supply Chain Management and the National Naval Officers Association. 

Dr. Parker is a published author, inspirational speaker, consummate entrepreneur, and consultant who speaks worldwide on diversity, inclusion, and leadership. He holds a Ph.D. in organization and management from Capella University, an MBA from Liberty University, and a B.A. in history from Wittenberg University. Dr. Parker has a long history of passion and interest in local communities and is a proud member of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Inc. Learn more about Dr. Parker by visiting P42 Consulting LLC.

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