To Speak or Not to Speak: Should Executive Directors Respond to Social and Politicized Events?
By Jada Monica Drew, Social Designs
During the #MeToo era, many people voiced either being against Bill Cosby and his legacy or for women. In 1984, Desmond Tutu stated, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” In 2001, former President George W. Bush, Jr. stated, “Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” In an ABC Action News report, Parkland High student Cameron Kasky made a public proclamation, “Here’s a time to talk about gun control: March 24. My message for the people in office is: You’re either with us or against us. We are losing our lives while the adults are playing around.” Biblically, I learned phrases like, “Whoever is not against us is for us” (Luke 9:50). Although I appreciate the urgency of these statements, I also believe that taking a public stand is more complicated than what the public eye can see.
I remember in grade school when a few of my classmates said to me, “You’re either with us, or not.” I’d like to say I chose my values, but I didn’t. I decided to go along with the crowd and cheat on a quiz. I figured it was a win-win situation. I would get a high A on the quiz and I’d be with them. But it wasn’t win-win. I felt horrible and I still think about the fact that I don’t remember all of the US state capitals. Not to mention that I barely remember the people I was eager to “be with.”
I’m not proud of the story, but it taught me a lesson. Not everything is as binary as we are told. We have agency to do multiple things simultaneously. We are humans and very complex.
As leaders, we have to make complex decisions considering multiple perspectives, outcomes, and consequences. When faced with deciding if you should respond to or making a statement about a social issue or politicized event, these three steps can help in your decision-making process.
Before taking any steps, reflect and be honest with yourself about your personal beliefs and values. As a leader, make the time to create a heightened awareness of your own biases. Being aware of your opinions and why you think the way you think is a great tool to help you to control emotional reactions to certain issues.
Step 1: Mission Alignment
Plain and simple, your response should be in alignment with the mission of your organization. Leaders need to know their mission, vision, and values by heart. Additionally, having a clear sense of what the mission is in action is key.
What does this mean? It means you are ensuring that your employees are guided by the mission in their functional jobs. It means you provide training and development centered in mission as well as functional alignment. For example, Social Designs’ mission is, “To be a catalyst for growth by instilling care, confidence, competence, and community in all training, curriculum, and consulting.” Each trainer aligns their process (pre-assessment, design, facilitation, and evaluation) with the mission. Each employee is also evaluated based on their execution of the mission and their jobs equally.
Step 2: Employee Values Alliance
Recently, I facilitated a session using our Dialogue Principles. The question posed was, “Is it the CEO’s job to make a statement about the recent abortion laws in the United States?” One employee stated that as a car manufacturing company, its main purpose is to sell parts, not to make social stands. Another employee mentioned the company’s global social responsibility to support women's leadership. As the conversation continued, it was clear the employees were split in their opinions about the topic.
What do you do when there is no clear alliance among the employees? You try your best to mirror the employees.
I have learned from my alma mater, Guilford College, that sometimes when there is no clear consensus, a pause in response or no response may be the best decision. In this company’s example, there is no direct connection between women’s rights and the function of the company. However, it was clear that employees wanted to discuss the issue. If the culture of the company is conducive to difficult conversations, have lunch-and-learns to educate people about the issues and encourage (not mandate) open dialogue. It was also clear that everyone in this company supports its global social responsibility to support women’s leadership. Therefore, the company could make a general statement about supporting women’s leadership without mentioning abortion laws.
Step 3: The Bottom Line
Ask yourself these questions:
- If I respond, will my response affect the bottom line of the organization?
- Does our support of this social issue risk our reputation as a non-partisan, nonprofit organization?
- Will our donors decrease funding if our organization takes a stand?
- Will our donor base increase if our organization supports a specific cause?
- Can we leverage our support or non-support strategically to highlight a current initiative or service to the community?
- How are the communities we serve impacted (economically, emotionally, and physically) by our statement or lack thereof?
It is your fiscal and moral responsibility as the leader of the organization to take all constituents into consideration when making decisions. Everyone will not always like every decision you make, and that’s okay.
Steps In Action
In the summer of 2017, there was at least one highly visible case of a black person on camera being shot and killed by a police officer. One particular organization we were working with supported social workers in mainly black communities and also partnered with law enforcement to fulfill its mission. The organization’s leaders noticed a decrease in morale and an increase in employees taking personal health days to deal with the impact these incidents were having on the people in the communities they served.
Because of the bubbling tension, the organization made a statement (internally and externally) finding the killing of black people in these communities by police officers unacceptable. Also in the statement, the organization recognized and supported law enforcement as a partner. Leaders needed their employees to know they not only cared about their emotional well-being, but they also wanted to allow executive leaders opportunities to work collectively toward solutions. In the end, all constituents were cared for, listened to, and eventually worked together even more.
Be bold in making the tough decisions and remember to give yourself grace.
Jada Monica Drew is the CEO of Social Designs, author of Sharpen Your Inclusion Edge: The 8 Step Approach, and a member of the North Carolina Center for Nonprofits Equity Cadre. Social Designs is dedicated to providing growth in leadership and diversity. Its annual seminar, Bloom: Innovative Solutions for Inclusion, will be held in Greensboro on October 2, 2020.