A Personal Perspective on Differences An Interview with Dr. Greg Pennington

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A Personal Perspective on Differences An Interview with Dr. Greg Pennington

I asked Dr. Pennington about how he got involved in DE&I work and to share his perspectives on the topic. He began by stating that he believes DE&I is a broadly defined term that is about more than just race and gender. He shared that his particular area of interest is around people of color. This is in part because race has played such a significant role in the history of the United States and because of his personal identify as a Black man. He talked about how Black Americans have been seen as having particular roles and functions, causing them to be viewed as “less than”. There is a history of attitudes around race that has evolved over time, yet there are “layers” of inequity and inequality that Blacks in our country have and continue to experience.

He states that “race has been a real barometer” in terms of what our country has done with people of color in the diversity space. Race is the defining marker around how willing organizations are to believe that Blacks are capable and equal to others. It is not enough to say that a corporation has done its fair share of hiring people of color – the defining factor is how those people of color are regarded and treated, and whether they truly have a seat at the table when it comes to decision-making and opportunities. Dr. Pennington believes that a true Litmus test for corporations is how willing they are to accept and appreciate differences – one might add that not only is it about this willingness, but it is also about recognizing that when those differences are valued as strengths to leverage, they become critical assets for organizations. Perhaps, even a company’s competitive advantage.

He shared some examples of different people he has worked with and what the work entailed. I was intrigued with one story he offered related one of his consulting clients, a white CEO. That client was reflecting about his experience of how difficult it is to truly relate to what it’s like to be Black. This CEO had an aha moment when his daughter came to him to talk about some challenges she was having because she was experiencing sexual harassment. The client realized that it is not difficult for others to relate to what it might be like to be sexually harassed but very difficult to relate to being a person of color. The point here is this: not only does our country have a long sordid history in terms of how people of color have been treated and about attitudes that non-Blacks hold, it also has failed miserably at appreciating the complexities of experiences that Blacks face on a regular (if not daily) basis. It is difficult to make significant inroads in the DE&I space when so much of corporate America (and society at large) fail to recognize the enormous challenges that occur for people of color and fail to make connections between race and other categories of difference. People who are not of color just do not understand and, some might argue, many are not invested in trying to understand or get curious about this.

When I asked Dr. Pennington what has been most helpful in his own professional development in the domain of DE&I, he pointed to two significant work experiences: the first was that he spent a number of years with a consulting firm that was focused on providing diversity and inclusion training and consulting (at both the organizational and individual level). This experience helped him to learn about and appreciate the science of diversity, such that the work done at the consulting firm was all grounded in research. The second influential experience he had was his work within a large organization working in the high potential leadership development space. As VP of Development and Planning at Johnson Controls, one area of focus for him was to ensure that there were sufficient and appropriate opportunities for people of color to enter the talent development pipeline. He also was in a position to make sure that one of the desired leadership competencies was around the area of diversity. His experience taught him that he had to leverage his influence in the area of diversity, take advantage of the existing processes for talent management, and stay alert to how much risk he could take.

Our interview then shifted to advice for professionals. I asked Dr. Pennington to reflect upon what he believes is most important for consulting psychologists to consider in the area of DE&I. He acknowledged that this was a challenging question because of two, potentially conflicting factors: as psychologists, we are driven by a need to be of service, and as humans, we all experience some degree of resistance to change. As consultants, we need to be careful about how much we assume that everyone buys in and understands the importance of promoting and leveraging diversity. We might be easily tempted to believe that our good work has had a meaningful and lasting impact, when in fact, what we think of as “good” work may indeed have little and/or lasting impact. We must stay alert for our own confirmation bias!

When it comes to addressing issues of systemic racism, Dr. Pennington cautions psychologists to “stay in their lane”, or put another way, be careful about offering work in areas that one is not adequately equipped to address. He highlights the importance of drawing upon evidence-based practice (much like clinical psychologists) while also recognizing that “everything we are doing in this space is a case study”. This says to me that the more we can share our experiences with our fellow consulting psychologists, the more we can learn from one another and the more we can begin to develop best practices that are founded in research. Here is an opportunity for peer sharing and learning. Dr. Pennington acknowledges his own limitations – while he does have expertise of working with individuals and organizations in the DE&I space, he does not feel he has the expertise, socio-political and legal for instance, to address racism at the societal level.

An interesting topic arose during our discussion that had to do with Dr. Pennington’s more recent discoveries managing “diversity within diversity”. His experiences tell him that more diversity exists within groups than between groups, yet people who are not of color would probably think the reverse is true. He talked about how people of color often have to spend time “looking in the mirror” (self-reflecting). I asked about this, and Dr. Pennington explained that when someone is the only or one of the onlypersons of color (versus when the organization has a longer history of a diverse workforce), s/he is likely to be dealing with more stereotypes, more intolerance of mistakes, and/or having to be very intentional about getting feedback from her/his boss. He discussed the dynamics of being the first Black person to take on this or that role versus the dynamics of being the 2nd one, which adds a whole new layer of complexity. Dr. Pennington has found that ¾’s of the diversity clients he works with have developed “learning circles” comprised of Black peers in leadership roles, such that they are gleaning wisdom from one another about how best to navigate in a world where their differences are highlighted and often, not adequately leveraged. The learning circles have been very helpful to many of his clients. This is one example of how work in this space is continually evolving!

I concluded my interview with Dr. Pennington by asking him what he believes is most important for the public to know about DE&I within their organization. One point he made is that we need to help leaders recognize that while DE&I work is often done at the leadership level, it frequently has difficulty being effectively cascaded down throughout the entire organization. We all know that leadership and change start at the top, and we must recognize that it is critical for it to permeate down through the ranks. For example, maybe the CEO “gets it” but how effective is s/he at making sure that the next level down “gets it” and then how effective is that level at making sure those at the next level get it. Are there mechanisms in place that foster this type of cascading effect? Are leaders and managers held accountable for ensuring clarity and alignment in their areas of influence? It is also important for leaders to create a safe place for people to push back on senior executives, especially as it related to diversity, equity and inclusion. And finally, it is important to find a space to have executives discover and explore their own beliefs, behaviors and values around diversity – and then be intentional about fostering a culture that values diversity. Even if most senior leaders eventually get it, some really do need support in how to be seen as credible and capable of effectively sponsoring and demonstrating effective applications of diversity, equity and inclusion.

When I asked Dr. Pennington if there was anything else he wanted to comment on or add to our discussion regarding diversity, inclusion and equity, his response said it all: “So much!”

I just wish we had more time because he is a fountain of wisdom, experience and thoughtfulness.

Greg Pennington, PhD, interviewed by Catherine Hambley, PhD

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