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Harvard Business Online

Henry Louis Gates and the Global Economy

Posted on The Change Master: July 30, 2009 2:57 PM

The White House Beer Summit to make peace between Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Cambridge Police Sgt. James Crowley might be President Obama's most significant act of diplomacy yet. But though Gates, Crowley, and Obama can sip and make up, this story—which I call Gatesgate—will not go away. Gatesgate raises iconic issues for success in the global economy.

First, a personal note: Skip Gates is a Harvard colleague and friend since early in our careers when we both taught at Yale. It is painful to many of us, regardless of race, that this distinguished professor and gentleman suffered humiliating treatment (though it did get him that White House beer). The personal mail following my comment about Gatesgate on was heavily from successful senior African-American business executives who are buzzing uncomfortably about this incident behind the scenes. Several thanked me for saying publicly what they could not.

The incident is about race, regardless of Sgt. Crowley's intention, regardless of whether the officer reacted appropriately, and regardless of whether Gates should have held his temper. Whether or not the R word was uttered, perceptions, biases, and emotional reactions always lurk in the background. Skip Gates cannot wear his "I'm a professor and this is my house" credentials all the time, but his skin goes with him everywhere, and that's often the first thing people see. Sensitivities about being targeted merely for DWB (Driving While Black) are out there. That's why people in authority need to be especially attuned and think before acting. If they cannot be race-blind, at least they can be race-kind—to begin with positive assumptions rather than knee-jerk negative ones.

American minorities with educational opportunities, including Skip Gates and friends, do not suffer from overt discrimination. After all, Gates was able to earn a Ph.D., teach at Harvard, and live on desirable Ware Street. Instead, they can suffer from discriminatory assumptions about who they are and what they are doing that can prevent them from getting the benefit of the doubt. When a split-second decision has to be made or a judgment rendered by someone of another race or social category, assumptions might always be negative and thus prejudicial and damaging.

The same can be said of reverse racial profiling—assumptions a black person might have made about a white police officer. Sgt. Crowley turned out to be a racial sensitivity trainer and hero who tried to save the life of an African-American sports star. Just as Gates felt attacked for his race, Crowley could have felt attacked for his race and uniform. All this went on silently, with assumptions untested.

Years ago, I chronicled the problems of stereotyping and mistaken identities for people who are "different" on some dimension through a cartoon about being the single letter O in a group consisting of many letter X's, called "A Tale of 'O': On Being Different." The O can be one woman among men, one parent among single people, one person of color among whites, one foreigner among natives—name your difference. The defensiveness and experience of being on edge is universal in the O position, and so seems to be the blindness of most X's to the impact of their behavior on the O.

These issues popped up again in surprising new ways in the research for my forthcoming book, SuperCorp: How Vanguard Companies Create Innovation, Profits, Growth, and Social Good. Consider the case of "Jonathon Herbert" (a pseudonym). After three years of running a North American function for an Asian company, Herbert felt increasingly marginalized, stereotyped, racially profiled, and excluded from inner circles. He traveled to the head office, while few flew to see him. Phone conferences with Asian managers extended past midnight, because he was the only caller with time zone issues. Even at U.S. social events, the food was always native cuisine; music was always national music. At the head office, other mangers would lapse into their native language at lunch (he was learning it, slowly) or have side conversations in regional dialects at after-work drinks. On the streets, the tall, blond Herbert felt stared at as stranger and racially profiled as a tourist to be scalped. At meetings, he thought the Asian managers seemed arrogant and poor listeners—to him. When he went directly into task discussions, they accused him of pushing ideas too fast—an "uppity" American.

Did Herbert realize he was sharing Skip Gates' experience? This table-turning shows why Gatesgate is a wake-up call to put cultural awareness and interpersonal sensitivity on the agenda for every leader in the world.

In vanguard companies such as IBM and P&G that have emphasized diversity and inclusion for decades, people say that a benefit of this emphasis is permission to talk more openly in the workplace, to learn what life is like for others with different life experiences. Productive conversations create confidence that differences can be bridged and increase leadership skills for working with customers. A senior manager said, "They take the learning home, to their neighborhood, to families. Some people say it helps make them much better people."

To truly "read" others and put them at ease by managing their perception of the situation requires a suppression of ego and a strong dose of empathy. Could Crowley have said to Gates, "I don't want to offend you when I ask to see some identification, but that's my job"? Could Gates have said to Crowley, "I understand that you're just doing your job, but it feels humiliating, so please listen to me"?

Obama's election, and now Gatesgate, has moved discussion of differences from under the table to the center of the table. Business executives everywhere should start talking about this topic openly. If we can mention it, we can transcend it. And transcend it we must, if we are to prosper in a salad bowl of a global economy where talent comes in hundreds and thousands of varieties.
Rosabeth Moss Kanter holds the Ernest L. Arbuckle Professorship at Harvard Business School, where she specializes in strategy, innovation, and leadership for change. Her strategic and practical insights have guided leaders of large and small organizations worldwide for over 25 years. The former Editor of Harvard Business Review (1989-1992), Professor Kanter has been named to The Times of Londonlist of the "50 most powerful women in the world".

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