Sometimes change requires a bit of push and no one would deny ‘wokeness’ often shoves. But while greater outspokenness is often effective at exciting change, there’s a risk unbridled wokeness could harm efforts to establish change in the right direction.
In particular, business pundits suggest organizations need to shift more towards vulnerable leadership and vulnerable cultural approaches. These approaches, they argue, are necessary right now to overcome new challenges and heal past wounds. But establishing a vulnerable workplace culture often requires taking steps such as taking blame and admitting mistakes, and that leaves people exposed.
In other words, wokeness, unhinged, could derail change efforts by making vulnerability a major, personal vulnerability.
Indeed, the pundits describe vulnerable leaders as “smart, honest and caring when taking bold, potentially unpopular actions.” Yet, it’s those very same, unpopular actions, that could raise the ire of woke observers—creating an office culture of fear.
And fear, as we’ve said elsewhere, is a powerful, often subconscious, emotion that can provoke a host of irrational behaviors.
Imagine, for example, an executive or manager with a well-reasoned and well-thought-out plan or strategy. If fear and insecurity arise among staff they could lead to the strategy’s—and the leader’s—undoing. Unbeknownst to the leader, their initiative was already killed inside the heads of their staff before it started.
Such events—or non-events—however, are mere kindling for the massive bonfire created by wokeness.
Wokeness is political correctness on steroids. For while political correctness makes people watch what they say, wokeness condemns the person, along with what the person says, said or didn’t say. Worse yet, wokeness often adds the assertion that the accused is willfully aggressive or up to something evil.
Indeed, as columnist David Brooks eloquently explains, “The problem with wokeness is that it doesn’t inspire action; it freezes it. To be woke is first and foremost to put yourself on display. To make a problem seem massively intractable is to inspire separation — building a wall between you and the problem — not a solution.”
That’s scarier than clowns for anyone hoping to be vulnerable while motivating change.
In fact, it even scares ex-Presidents. In an interview discussing his feelings about wokeness, for example, former President Barack Obama, spoke out about the dangers of unbridled wokeness among progressives and how it can undermine changes they hope to achieve, saying:
“This idea of purity and you’re never compromised and you’re always politically ‘woke’ and all that stuff. You should get over that quickly. The world is messy; there are ambiguities. People who do really good stuff have flaws. People who you are fighting may love their kids, and share certain things with you.”
Indeed, as Mr. Brooks further explains, wokeness has a long history and is politically agnostic—despite claims it is a product of leftist politics. That history has often led to the rise of horrible regimes or unproductive efforts. Yet, regardless of its different labels throughout history, the concept of pointing fingers at opponents and shutting down discourse has been its calling card.
Moreover, the concept has been given new and literally viral life in the current era of social media activism, as President Obama acknowledges. Yet, both the President and Mr. Books admit wokeness could be useful for motivating change if prevented from becoming aggressive.
And wokeness is useful in motivating change.
Take, for example, what’s happened recently to popular breakfast food brands, Aunt Jemima and Land O’Lakes. For decades, customers have politely urged the brand owners to remove caricatures of the Antebellum South and the Trail of Tears from their logos. Neither caricature, when given even a slight bit of thought, is really appetizing. Yet, it wasn’t until pressure was exerted by woke progressives that the brands decided to update their logos.
Woke initiatives also inspired a cascade of companies to pledge changing well…everything, about themselves.
Sparked by a Nike advertisement that encouraged reflection on racists attitudes, other companies took to social media to put their own, similar efforts on display. Nonetheless, most of the initiatives announced appear to have been little more than copycat, PR responses by Nike’s rivals. And indeed, it’s doubtful any the promises by these big companies led to concrete steps towards meaningful change.
Yet that is precisely where vulnerable leaders—and vulnerability, as a firm-wide, cultural attitude—could make all the difference.
Unbridled, wokeness can become a destructive threat, yes. But faced openly, and via the “caring” aspect of vulnerable leadership, its power could be harnessed to take the bold and unpopular, yet beneficial, actions such leaders hope to take.
Indeed, behavioral science offers 5 steps vulnerable leaders can take to harness the power of newly woke attitudes, turning them towards a constructive direction. These steps include:
- Kill pessimism in the workplace. As David Brooks points out, wokeness has deep roots in a pessimistic attitude that life is getting worse, regardless of what the data says. Behavioral research shows that pessimism creates partisanship and divide, while optimism does the opposite. Thus, the first step for the vulnerable leader or employee is to kill pessimism—both in themselves and in those around them. From there, efforts to incite positive and optimistic attitudes towards change can fill its void.
- Kill judgment and condemnation. Elsewhere, we’ve discussed how judging of others can blind us to our own faults. This happens via a mental process called “bias blind spot”. A person with bias blindness cannot effect change because they are unable to see where change needs to begin: in themselves. As President Obama went on to say in the same interview about wokeness, “I do get a sense sometimes now among certain young people…there is this sense sometimes of: ‘The way of me making change is to be as judgmental as possible about other people..Like, if I tweet or hashtag about how you didn’t do something right or used the wrong verb, then I can sit back and feel pretty good about myself, cause, ‘Man, you see how woke I was, I called you out.” Unfortunately, common, ‘360-feedback’ approaches seem to encourage such judgmental approaches. They turn appraisal processes into potential weapons for reprisal, making criticism and judgment of others an explicit goal. Vulnerable leaders should instead foster environments where self-criticism is encouraged. Indeed, behavioral research shows that self-criticism actually reduces bias blindness.
- Make forgiveness part of performance objectives. While it seems too personal to have its place in an office-setting, forgiveness could be the essential step necessary to making vulnerable leadership work. After all, wokeness interjects personal perceptions of injury into professional discourse anyway. At the same time, forgiveness is vital in changing mood, attitude and renewing the mental energies necessary for constructive work. To get staff and leaders to forgive one another, however, formal incentives might help. Behavioral research shows, for example, that people desire to forgive others and will do so if their offender(s) simply apologizes—and both the resolution of accusations and apologies can be implemented within performance objectives. In practical terms, that might mean making people aware that concerns are taken so seriously, they have a performance duty to voice them, engage in evidenced-based debate about them and, afterwards, participate in dialog where apologies on either or both sides, as warranted, are given. Naturally, such measures might reduce frivolous accusations. Yet, they might also heal old wounds, which is the next step.
- Heal old wounds. There’s a common psychological experiment where a facilitator gets people to list all of the awful things on their minds. Whether it’s bigotry, sexist attitudes, narcissistic leadership or bad employee canteen food, the exercise clears the air. In an incredible display of mental release, participants rarely feel distracted by these ideas in subsequent discussion. Once expressed openly, they don’t undermine discussion or open old wounds. That leaves room for vulnerable leaders to tackle the listed issues and, following step 3, get people to forgive each other.
- Chart a strategic course for wokeness-inspired, change. Again, wokeness can play a vital role in raising awareness and inciting action. So once the above steps are taken, an agenda that incorporates the insights from woke employees, customers and management can create a way for charting change. In other words, rather than responding in control-like fashion—where changes are made, haphazardly (including, for example, the firing or hiring of people)—a strategy must be devised. One that views the problems raised as challenges that can be addressed, not as a function of permanent, personal flaws.
Vulnerable leadership, vulnerable workplace culture and wokeness need not be mutually exclusive enemies. Handled properly, an awakened consciousness to how things must change can be turned into a power that helps everyone, including the organization. Yet, the road towards achieving this is a difficult one. At the same time, its alternative—i.e., letting wokeness run its potentially destructive course by ignoring it—may not be an option.
As a final quote from President Obama suggests:
“[Judgmental wokeness] That’s not activism. That’s not bringing about change. If all you’re doing is casting stones, you’re probably not going to get that far. That’s easy to do.”
Hopefully, your organization will choose to do things the hard way.