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One of the mistakes CEOs often make with their diversity efforts is assuming everyone shares their goals. In my experience — consulting on gender with hundreds of companies — this is rarely the case. Leadership teams are usually not aligned on gender issues and objectives. And if they’re not, you can bet the rest of the organization isn’t either.

Gender balance is not a generally accepted goal. If you think it is, you haven’t been listening. Leaders need to acknowledge this — and meet people where they actually are.

For recent evidence of this, look to Google’s firing of James Damore. The software engineer sent a lengthy written commentary around the company, characterizing Google’s efforts to create a more gender-balanced workforce as an ideological crusade. The lesson companies should learn from this is simple. If you don’t engage with your “in-group,” their frustration and emotions will come out in the only space they feel is available to them: online, at the water cooler, in your retention statistics, and even, statistics show, in the form of sexually harassing the women they feel are invading “their” turf.

Companies (and countries) are going to have to get a lot smarter about gender balance if they hope to achieve it peacefully. It takes deft leadership skilled at understanding both the rational and emotional issues involved — for everyone. It also requires understanding where we stand in history, and why men are becoming so…emotional.

Whenever a power structure feels under threat, it is likely to resist. History has proven this repeatedly; advances in equal rights are almost always met with a pendulum swing of backlash.

Sundar Pichai, Google’s Indian-born CEO, has quietly and determinedly engineered a little-reported revolution at Google. In less than two years as CEO, he has gender-balanced Google’s executive team, which is now six women and seven men. It’s the first big tech company to do so. The top team was all men when Pichai took over. While the lower echelons of leadership remain male-dominated, and the engineering department is 80% male, it still represents a dramatic change — and apparently a destabilizing one for some male Googlers.

The challenge is how to manage the feelings and frustrations of the existing dominant in-group. This is a key leadership task. Because it is utterly predictable that today’s in-group isn’t going to appreciate what is always experienced as the unfair and unmeritocratic “rise of the rest.” The conviction of meritocracy — along with supposedly scientific arguments about biological differences in everything from coding to competition — is extremely powerful among in-groups. Today in-groups explain the lack of women in certain roles as the result of their “innate” preference for “work-life balance”; a hundred years ago they pointed to women’s supposedly smaller brains.

But discounting or ignoring these views doesn’t work. They need to be addressed, discussed, and engaged with — safely. Leaders need to step up and convince people who disagree with them about the fundamental objective. That’s the leadership piece: to sell your ideas to those who don’t buy them. If we have learned nothing else from the past year, this should be it:

  • Take time to build buy-in, allow controversy, and disagreement.
  • Sell the “why.”
  • Allow the emotion out in carefully managed settings, with dialogue between in-groups and out-groups.

Mandating unconscious-bias training sessions to all managers, as Google has done, isn’t enough. First, you must engage with the conscious bias rampant in Silicon Valley, and on display in Damore’s memo.

The arguments Damore brings up are pretty representative of the mash-up of fact, fallacy, and stereotype that emerges in every debate I have ever facilitated around gender issues. He has clearly thought about this issue a lot, which is to be saluted. If he’d had an outlet to debate the company’s policies and gender strategy internally, this might have led to an opportunity for collective learning among peers, many of whom have been raised on similar confusions. Change management rarely succeeds without ways for those who feel they are losing something to air their disagreement and disillusionment. The in-group’s unconscious sense of entitlement may make out-group people rage, but companies need to learn to dismantle it skillfully. Otherwise it turns quickly toxic.

Programs that overfocus on empowering out-groups are like a red rag to the in-group bull: Why should only out-groups get mentored and coached and sent to leadership development? An alternative approach I’ve seen work is to create mentoring and coaching programs for a strategically balanced group of high-potential talent that includes the in-group. It’s not hard, and it’s not seen as unfair. It also builds bridges and understanding between different people rather than separating them.

I feel for Danielle Brown, Google’s new head of diversity and inclusion, only a couple of weeks into the job. She’s been landed in the middle of a mess not of her making. On the one hand, Google could have retained Damore – alienating many employees at the company and risking a hostile-environment lawsuit. On the other, deciding to fire Damore allows those who agree with him to accuse the company of not adhering to its own ideals: “Building an open, inclusive environment means fostering a culture in which those with alternative views, including different political views, feel safe sharing their opinions.” In the current context, they will find an army of jubilant allies. They are already lining up to support him. In the long run, it may prove the bigger setback.

Let’s hope that other companies can learn from the list of case studies now stretching and screeching across the internet (Google, Uber, Fox News, and so on). Most of the work of adapting organizations to change (especially rapid, disruptive change) requires focusing on the right obstacle: the mindsets, emotions, and dominance of in-groups. Don’t exclude them; embrace them.

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