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Xenophobia: Misplaced Fear and Anger

It’s hard to ignore the news of the day and think of it as separate from issues of leadership in the real world of corporations and nonprofits. The Trump campaign and the Brexit vote send a very clear message: We don’t want outsiders, those people who are different, foreigners who are not the “originals” who made the country great. These leaders have unleashed anger, frustration and dark emotions that lurked in the shadows. These are movements with brash leaders and millions of followers.

Yet there are opposing forces who extol the rich history and virtue of embracing our differences. How does this conflict show up in our work place? How are leaders and staff mirroring this tension? Even when our companies behave more civilly than our public forums, how is that vitriol playing out? And how well are the calls for greater inclusion faring?

Recent data reveals that corporations have barely moved the needle when it comes to non-white and non-male representation on boards and in C suites. The majority (sic. white and/or male) want women and people of color to feel great about how things are so much better than they used to be. Sure, there have been some strides but most of us would say things have remained stuck in first gear for decades.

So in spite of angry outcries that immigrants or minorities or women have displaced millions of white male workers there simply isn’t fact to back that up. Which makes me dig deeper into understanding this hostility and rage at these “others”.

I spent a lot of time working in Ford and GM plants in the 90’s. Toyota and Honda were invading the US auto market, much to everyone’s surprise. No one took them seriously. Union workers assumed life long security in their jobs and pensions and senior leadership never imagined the US auto industry being challenged by the Japanese. What I heard from the shop floor to the board rooms was “consumers wouldn’t dream of buying a foreign car” and “they are not a real threat to the business”. Everyone thought that if they ignored the situation that the US cars would remain supreme and everyone would live happily ever after. As plants were shut down and workers went on 24 month leaves and ultimately drew on their pensions at the age of 50, the shit got real.

There were minority opinions in the room warning that the leaders and workers ought not ignore reality. The world was changing and everyone needed to wake up and adapt. Those pleas were ignored. Instead what I heard was anger. Anger at those “damned Japanese” and “disloyal consumers” who didn’t buy American. The hostility was turned outward rather than looking inward to see that arrogance, ignorance and denial had lead to a series of bad decisions. Executives, unions and workers all refused to take personal responsibility and cope with the new reality. (As an aside, the hatred was so visible that I was not allowed to drive my Honda to these plants because they did not allow foreign cars in their parking lots.)

I have similar stories about US based electronics companies and newspapers and accounting firms and consultancies. All of these organizations were dealing with huge forces of change in their sectors due to economics, globalization, digital transformations, labor costs and many other factors. Evidence was everywhere in the news and industry trends that the world of work was changing and would never be like it was in the good old days. Things change and many of those changes are outside our control. And that makes change doubly hard.

So I have been listening to this externalized rage for a few decades. If it wasn’t the Japanese it was Silicon Valley. Or the SEC or Indian call centers. Or greedy venture capitalists or automation or cheaper labor costs overseas. Or it was a trade agreement or a political party or an activist board or an ignorant CEO. There was always a target for the pointed finger where blame could be assigned. But the blame was never staring back at anyone in the mirror.

This has me scratching my head. Aren’t we the country of roughed individualism? Don’t we value taking personal responsibility? Don’t we look down on those who take government hand outs? Why isn’t this true in our corporations? I’ve heard leaders give every excuse under the sun for poor results from shortsighted decisions and listened to employees blame the leaders for not keeping them employed. And this makes me mad.

How dare executives make efficient, stupid decisions that will please Wall Street but damage the staff? How far in the sand are workers’ heads to not read the handwriting on the wall? If you are going to be a CEO or an executive then you better damn well understand how many thousands of people are counting on you to make intelligent, well intentioned, strategic and prudent decisions that benefit more than your ass! If you feel extreme loyalty to a company then demonstrate that by constantly learning and adding value rather than feeling entitled to a steady pay check!

You may not have tons of control at the macro/global level but you sure do at the local one. So stop blaming all those “others” and deal with the reality that has been around for decades. You don’t get to revoke your membership in the real world. And all your anger that has now turned to xenophobia and hatred is unimaginably dangerous. Dangerous to you, your company and all the rest of us.

Going back to those Ford union workers…There was a fork in the road in the 90’s. The new world was becoming apparent and people had to make choices. Do I have faith that the company will survive the turmoil and I will get called back to work and I won’t have to worry for the rest of my life? Or is sitting back and waiting and hoping too risky for me and my family? Should I take advantage of some of the training programs that Ford and my community college are offering to get some new skills? My high school drop out brother in law was faced with this exact dilemma. He worked the line and had no other skills. But he had a wife and daughter to support. So during the 18 month shut down he got an associates degree in computer repair. While he waited to get called back to the plant he got a job working with computers. This launched him into a completely new direction and he has been extremely successful in the field of electronics. He took the risk of personal responsibility. Sadly, he is the exception. Most of his peers took the other fork in the road. They are the angry mob.

Much of the current dialogue politically and within corporations is about how to give a leg up to those who were left behind in the globalization push and outdated industries. I have deep compassion for those folks, especially since the CEOs were not left in the cold or imprisoned. But if this was the whole story then the mobs would be railing only against our institutions or companies. They would be tar and feathering CEOs and demanding justice. They would be going for the head of the snake. Instead the rage is turned against the least powerful “intruders” in their narrative: the “others”. They did not create your misfortune. They are not the enemy. But when we feel at the bottom of the heap we need someone to direct our hurt and fear and anger towards. How about we stop blaming all these “others”.

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