Editor’s note: Veteran entrepreneur and investor Donald Thompson writes a weekly column about management and leadership as well as diversity and other important issues for WRAL TechWire. His columns are published on Wednesdays. 

Note to readers: WRAL TechWire would like to hear from you about views expressed by our contributors. Please send email to: info@wraltechwire.com.

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RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – I am in the enviable position to talk to business leaders from across the globe. For the last year or so, when I hear a sentence begin: “Hey Don, let me ask you about…” I already know what is coming. Soon, in a hushed voice, they ask, “So, what’s with this ‘woke’ stuff?” 

The rationale for the question is obvious – politicians are using the divisive “woke” label without really defining what “woke” is. Business leaders are searching for answers and are curious to learn from The Diversity Movement’s thought leadership on the topic. 

Since they asked me, I almost always smile and answer with a set of questions of my own: 

  • Do you have ramps for employees who use wheelchairs?
  • Does a neurodivergent employee have access to tools and resources to do their job efficiently?
  • Is your website accessible for low vision and blind customers?
  • Do you want a broad audience to spend money on your brand? 

I always get the same answer: “Of course, these all make sense.” 

My response: “Then you don’t have a problem with diversity, equity and inclusion, you have a problem with the way these topics have been explained to you.” The fact of the matter is that wrapping DEI initiatives in real-world business scenarios takes it out of the hands of the politicians and activist groups and sets it at the feet of business leaders who want to do right by their people and do right by the bottom line. 

From optics to outcomes: Why integrating diversity into marketing is crucial for success

POLITICAL RHETORIC MASKING GREAT LEADERSHIP

Rhetoric around “woke” is just that – political and media chatter created to divide people into competing camps. The idea is that if you can be convinced to hate someone who thinks differently, or be led to believe there’s no common ground, then as a voter you will retain fealty to one party. 

It is crucial to delve deeper into the meaning of “woke,” shedding light on its importance in our journey toward a more inclusive and equitable society. This exercise enables us as business leaders and executives to address the real consequences of how the term has been bastardized by politicians and extreme activists. 

You can’t ignore “woke” arguments in today’s us-versus-them landscape, but you can educate yourself about what it is and why – despite what you may think – it really matters. 

Here are some examples of business leaders being “woke”:

  • Ensuring that men and women benefit from pay equity
  • Providing convenient access to tools and resources for people who have disabilities
  • Creating respectful workplaces where teammates work together efficiently
  • Learning how to give and receive feedback by role modeling inclusive behavior

There are countless other examples of the real-world business benefits of “woke” culture, but let’s lump all these together as creating organizations that are more efficient, collaborative, creative and profitable. 

WHAT IS “WOKE”? 

You may have employees who are DEI skeptics. You might even think it’s not important for you as a leader. Let’s begin, however, by removing “woke” from its political moorings, instead looking at it as programming designed to build stronger teams and better organizations. 

“Woke” simply means being socially aware and conscious of the systemic injustices and inequalities that persist in our society. Awareness is paramount. Being “woke” centers on recognizing and actively challenging issues such as racism, sexism, homophobia and additional types of discrimination. 

“Woke” is not about promoting an agenda designed to keep people apart. Rather, it is a commitment to fostering the best in us all through inclusivity, empathy and equality regardless of factors that have traditionally kept people apart. 

FIX NOW OR FACE CALAMITY TOMORROW

Currently, “woke” rhetoric couldn’t be more divisive across party affiliation or age. According to a recent USA Today/Ipsos poll, if you are younger or Democrat, you most likely consider being called “woke” a compliment, while older age groups and Republicans view the label an insult. Even those who self-identify as Independents are split, with slightly more labeling “woke” a compliment versus an insult (51% to 45%). 

What I tell executives, however, is that the numbers over the long term are on the side of young people. As Jackie Ferguson, vice president of content and programming at The Diversity Movement notes, “Diversity is happening whether organizations embrace it or not – it’s a matter of demographics as culture-savvy (and more diverse) generations enter the marketplace…[T]his undeniable fact means that change is mandatory and needs to happen as soon as possible.”

When I have discussions with executives, they are already seeing the sea change taking place with millennials moving into leadership roles and Gen Z comprising about a quarter of the workforce. Employees and prospects are demanding that organizations prove that DEI is meaningful and important. In today’s social context, creating a positive workplace culture where people feel a sense of belonging is an important factor in where they work and where they hope to make their careers.

Outmoded mental models and divisive political rhetoric are not going to create the kinds of progressive, successful organizations that attract tomorrow’s most talented employees. There is immense strength in numbers, and young people are already voting with their dollars as consumers and their lifestyles as workers. 

WAKE UP TO ‘WOKE’ BENEFITS

We have learned in the highs and lows over the last several years that the business landscape and society can change in what seems like the blink of an eye. So many ideas we used to view as truths are now being overturned. 

The 2020 racial reckoning opened people’s eyes to the pervasive systemic inequalities at the heart of our workplaces and communities. In response, they want to engage in meaningful dialogue that results in positive change. Sadly, “woke” as a political lightning rod has more or less achieved what those wielding it have wished – distracting the public from issues that we collectively face and must overcome.

You see, when I talk to people one-on-one, I hear something completely different from the divisive talk. I hear them talking about their hopes and dreams. At their core, most want to live better lives, enjoy their friends and families, and reduce strife and discord. Underneath the politics and social media shouting, we want to live meaningful lives surrounded by loved ones and hope for a better future. 

Being “woke” should not be viewed negatively, but rather as a powerful force for social change. By understanding its true meaning, we can foster inclusivity, equality and justice at work and at home. What I hope to see in our collective future is the fulfillment of dreams – reclaiming the narrative and then working together to build a more equitable and compassionate society.

If your goals are to grow your business, create excellent workplaces, build lasting brands and sell more products and services, then let’s stay focused on the collective outcomes we can all achieve, not on a media narrative meant to divide us.

About the Author 

Donald Thompson founded The Diversity Movement to literally change the world. As CEO, he has guided its work with hundreds of clients and through hundreds of thousands of data touch points. TDM’s global recognition centers on tying DEI initiatives to business objectives. Recognized by Inc., Fast Company and Forbes, he is the author of Underestimated: A CEO’s Unlikely Path to Success, hosts the podcast “High Octane Leadership in an Empathetic World” and has published widely on leadership and the executive mindset. As a leadership and executive coach, Thompson has created a culture-centric ethos for winning in the marketplace by balancing empathy and economics. Follow him on LinkedIn for updates on news, events, and his podcast, or contact him at info@donaldthompson.com for executive coaching, speaking engagements or DEI-related content. To further explore DEI content and issues impacting your work and life, visit TDM Library, a multimedia resource hub that gives leaders a trusted source of DEI content.