By: Greg Pennington, PhD

A Response to: Shoulder to Shoulder: A Deeper Understanding of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion with Dr. Karen Y. Wilson-Starks

"In coaching clients we are often helping them become more influential and powerful in their organizations.  How are the pathways to power different for people of color or anyone under-represented vs. white clients who aspire to more power?"  

Many of our consulting psychology clients are pursuing ways to increase their influence and effectiveness in their organizations. This involves the use of power. Let's assume there are some high probability pathways to power and then let's consider what if any difference it makes if the  person in pursuit of power is a member of an under-represented group or an over-represented one. There is research to support both the pathways outlined and the differences in experience between under-represented groups, for example, blacks and women, and over-represented groups, for instance, white men.

Presumption of Capability

Let's start before the race begins. There is research to support that applicants with "black sounding" names are far less likely to be interviewed even when the resumes are otherwise exactly the same. If this happens in print, what is likely to be the first reaction when the person of color shows up? Even if it is hard to believe that interviewers and hiring managers are intentionally discriminating based on race, the Black candidate is likely to start off a few steps behind compared to a white counter-part because their race is less likely to be considered a potential block to their capability. 


Of course one critical ingredient to becoming more influential and powerful in an organization is consistently delivering results. This is where measurable outcomes are usually touted as a way to level the playing field. Black employees are as invested in being judged on the basis of merit as any group of people. It is not uncommon that someone in the family has encouraged or admonished them to just focus on getting the work done. It is also likely, confirmed in a recent Korn Ferry survey, that Black executives accept there is an additional tax on their performance. It comes in various forms: being expected to do more, often being assigned to the most difficult situations, and being more likely to wear "interim" titles because that have not yet demonstrated a capability when other groups are more likely to be assigned permanent titles because they have demonstrated the potential to do a job. When the race begins, under-represented groups may be more likely to have a few extra yards to run in their lane.

While sustainable performance is a key to all developing leaders and driving results through others is an important element of that, how assignments are made (e.g. sales territories), how performance is judged (e.g. was it the leader's behavior or were they given an all-star team or an under-performing one), and how failures are interpreted (e.g. I am sure they can improve versus I knew they could not do this!), all open up opportunities for biases including explicit racial bias and more nuanced confirmation bias. 


Leadership in organizations will always represent a club of sorts. Ideally there will be varying degrees of inclusiveness and expanding bands of tolerance for differences but for now there continues to be questions of "who looks like and acts like us" and "who can represent us". Aspiring leaders are often told to "look the part before you get the part". While this might include the recent MBA graduate dressing like the C-Suite executives they aspire to join, what do you do if there is no one who looks like you? If there is evidence that someone who is as thoughtful as you can operate with influence and impact in the organization, it serves as a driver for your behavior that increases the probability of reaching your goal. If you are Black and do not see a Black person in senior roles, how do you interpret your odds when there is little evidence of achieving that goal? 

The same dynamics work from the perspective of those already in the club. How much risk is the club willing to take, how much power and influence is it willing to share with a type of person, a style of leadership that has not already been integrated into how the club functions? What risk does the outsider want to take? How much of one's self-image will have to be contained or compromised to fit in? If you already look like you belong in the race, you don't get distracted by "how do I look?" The probability of being caught in a dilemma of identifying with the corporation or maintaining important elements of your authentic self increases the chances of the leader hesitating when they could be in full stride.


It takes extra effort to gain influence and power if you are not known by, and connected to others already in positions of leadership and influence. This also includes the added benefit of high profile assignments. Bosses, mentors, sponsors, advocates, executive coaches and key stakeholders all contribute to getting emerging leaders and high potentials the visibility they need to have positive name recognition, brand reputation, and  endorsements. While the quality of feedback from manager to direct report is less effective than desired in general, it can be even more problematic when delivered to Black leaders. Though mentors and sponsors can be effective even if not the same race as the leader being mentored or sponsored, Black employees feel limited in what support they can get from mentors in particular because of the caution they have in the mentor not fully understanding what it is like to navigate in an organization where they are one of the few. Black employees may lose additional momentum without access to credible influencers who take the risk to challenge them with direct feedback and the risk to advocate for them when others are raising questions about their potential. Having someone show you the best lanes to run and having someone prepare the way for you is an advantage.

Influence and power are essential elements of effective leadership. From personal experience, best practice and rigorous research, we can map some common ingredients to developing influence and power. While the pathways can look familiar for a wide diversity of individuals, the probability of getting close to one's potential with a minimum of headwinds varies. It is a privilege to be able run a race, pursue a path, without being distracted internally and blocked externally by reactions to a dimension of your identity - race as an example - that you can not change and would not elect to change.  

It is not uncommon for successful senior leaders who are Black to affirm that they knew the path to success required an additional tax, and they wondered how much further and faster they could have gone, if they had not had to fight so hard along the way.


By: Daniel L. Stover, M.A. 

Shoulder to Shoulder: A Deeper Understanding of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion with Dr. Karen Y. Wilson-Starks

When it comes to race, allyship and activism, many of us ask ourselves and our consulting psychologist colleagues, “what should we do?” Our hearts and intentions are squarely in the right place when we ask this question. Yet, there is so much more to social change than simply acting. Our actions and choices in consulting psychology can and will make a difference; however, we must not be so quick to act without deeper understanding. Just as we would advise our clients: we mustn't act hastily, nor should we stay idle just to collect more information. Progress through activism depends on understanding, so what exactly should we better understand? 

When this question was posed to Dr. Karen Y. Wilson-Starks, a rich discussion emerged about the diversity of experiences in the United States. Imagine an esteemed friend and colleague whom you admire, respect, and deeply trust being followed by grocery store employees, suspected of theft. Place yourself in the passenger seat of your friend’s car, while pulled over by police, and watch verbal commands be barked at them. Picture your colleague being told they are in the “wrong line” boarding a plane because it’s first class priority. Imagine your friend on their afternoon jog, tackled by police for suspecting them as a criminal in the high end neighborhood where they live. These and many similar situations are happening to our colleagues each day because of the color of their skin. 

Although anger is an appropriate emotion to injustice, Dr. Wilson-Starks is clear on how it should be harnessed. Following the non-violent activism of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Congressman John Lewis, she said, “progress is more about building than tearing down. Non-violent activism targets detrimental laws and practices and uses peaceful demonstration to bring attention and change to real issues. Violence, destruction of property, and assaults on people cause further polarization and remove focus from the important issues.  Perpetrators of systems of oppression are rarely willing to look in the mirror when the same disenfranchising tactics are used against them. Non-violent social change is an entire system of response that requires rigorous training and learning to consistently take the high road even when mistreated. 

For long-term sustainable change, you tear down the systems of oppression without tearing down people. For example, you may find a policy in an organization that negatively impacts or discriminates against a person of color, or any minority group. You can tear down the policy and build a new one without tearing down the human resources manager.” Understanding that systems can be destroyed without destroying people, offers much hope about how progress is achieved. 

Dr. Wilson-Starks included an important reflection on history: “Although the tearing down of a confederate statue may be a symbolic win, we also need to understand that history, even when it is very unpleasant, needs to be preserved if we are to learn and make change. A fuller picture of history allows us to change today’s system.” She adds: “If we are to make progress through understanding, we must recognize that everybody is missing part of the story. When we truly listen to each other and embrace diversity of thought, we get a little closer to having a fuller understanding of what’s happening around us. In organizations, we know that homogeneity of thought is counterproductive to peak results. The same is true of social progress. Disparate groups must see each other's strengths, then create community together.” 

Dr. Wilson-Starks made a few recommendations for consulting psychologists who’d like to better understand the past and said “it’s crucially important to know and learn from history and create progress from those lessons. Without knowing what happened both before and after the Emancipation Proclamation, it’s difficult to grasp the full impact of systemic racism.” Many mistakenly believe that slavery was in the distant past; however, her father grew up on the slave plantation where her great-grandparents were enslaved. 

She recommends focusing on the Reconstruction Era and the promising early successes of inclusion and wealth-building in the black community. Progress was halted and gains eroded when nefarious systemic racism in the form of Jim Crow laws and other systems of oppression, segregation, and anti-blackness increased and persisted. She encourages us to study those in the civil rights movement, with emphasis on the non-violent approach led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and to familiarize ourselves with continuing injustices in the systems of incarceration, voting, and housing. “The goal of this understanding is to recognize where America is not living up to its values, so that we can change.” 

When we better understand diverse experiences and have a stronger grasp on the nuances of our history, then what do we do as business consultants? Dr. Wilson-Starks made a motivating call to action: “Companies are in a great position to make a stand, be a role model for the country, and take us further and faster.” She shared five essentials for creating change in business: 

  1. Understand that this is a long-term commitment and lifestyle change for all. 
  2. Listen more deeply and develop an appreciation for diverse experiences. 
  3. Search for and uncover initiatives that negatively and disproportionately affect different groups
  4. Tear down systems and ideas that no longer work for the greater good 
  5. Address real-world issues together. Collaborate on and co-create solutions.  

“When business leaders are not willing to listen, show them the data. They are likely unaware of the unintended consequences that mishandling diversity, inclusion, and multiculturalism has on their company. Missed opportunities lessen market share and profitability. We can bring people into a room, without bashing, and show them that doing the right thing is profitable and that multiculturalism serves the greater good. To achieve this, we need to stand shoulder to shoulder in our earnest effort to see the same events from different lenses. It’s only when we are side by side that we truly see what the other sees and then collectively decide what to do about it.” Dr. Wilson-Starks concludes.


Dr. Karen Y. Wilson-Starks - Consulting Psychologist

Dr. Karen Y. Wilson-Starks is the President and CEO of TRANSLEADERSHIP, INC., host of The Voice of Leadership podcast, and author of Lead Yourself First: The Senior Leader’s Guide to Engaging Your People for Greater Performance and Impact. 

Her Ph.D. degree in clinical psychology is from the University of Connecticut in Storrs. Her previous positions include Senior Faculty member for the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) and active duty Army officer and psychologist.

She consults with executive business leaders to select and retain their best people, create high performance teams, and develop cultures that get rapid innovative results.

Dan Stover-Interviewer and Author 

Daniel Stover is the Founder of Ensight Partners, a leadership development firm specializing in emotional intelligence. Dan received his undergraduate degrees from The Ohio State University and his Master's in I/O psychology from The Chicago School of Professional Psychology. He is the recipient of the Excellency Award for leadership development from Geneva Group International. Dan lives and works in Southern California, and his personal passions outside of consulting psychology are mountain climbing and photography. More about Dan and his organization can be found here.  

By: Ryan C. Warner, Ph.D.

Strategies for Facilitating Conversations on Race

Throughout my experiences, I have seen first hand how difficult it is to facilitate conversations about race and racism. As a Black male, I personally find it challenging to express my racial experiences and perspectives to others who may not share similar backgrounds. Facilitating these conversations may often involve tension, conflict, and fear which contributes to discomfort. This may mitigate the probability of continuing dialogue. No matter what setting these conversations take place, both the facilitator and participants may bring emotional experiences along with their deeply held values and beliefs into the room. Throughout my previous experiences, I have collected valuable resources and takeaways that have prepared me to become more comfortable with the discomfort that comes with leading conversations about racism, privilege, and power. The following are suggestions for facilitating productive conversations on race.

#1: Build Relationships 

When talking about race, both you and your participants will bring your fears, negative past experiences, and resistance that will make building relationships imperative for a successful outcome. In my previous experiences, this first step is essential, yet can be the most challenging. Being genuine and vulnerable has improved my ability to build relationships with my audience members. To add a personal touch I always share my experiences with racism and microaggressions to propel others to take risks. For example, I often explain to participants that although I am well-educated and successful within my career, I still have experienced, and continue to experience being called a “nigger” and “basketball player” by white individuals. I often struggle with sharing these experiences because I do not want pity or remorse from the audience, because a majority of the time my audiences are mostly white. Nevertheless, I have found that self-disclosure like this may promote others to share their experiences with either holding racist ideologies or experiencing a discriminative event. However, I have seen how many members may be initially hesitant to verbally engage in discussion about sensitive topics like this. Therefore I often use a website called: “Poll Everywhere” to allow members to anonymous text their responses when answering various questions that I come up with. One question I typically present to the audience is: “What are your beliefs about those who identify as Hispanic and homosexual?” The responses I obtain are projected on the computer screen and promote insightful reflection and meaningful member interactions when discussing biases against marginalized groups.

#2: Go Deeper 

Participants may enter these conversations at different places on a continuum of understanding and, as a result, will have varying attitudes about doing this work. For instance, I have facilitated groups in which some participants held a color-blind ideology and strongly felt that racism has never existed. Prior to beginning these conversations many individuals may already hold fixed ideologies and beliefs about the topic being discussed. Therefore, challenging participants to “go deeper” may help plant a seed in their mind that can potentially lead to new ways of thinking about race and social justice issues. To accomplish this goal, I find beneficial to conduct a group activity called the “Four Corners”. The participants split up into four groups which pushes them to engage in more in-depth conversations to learn about each other’s experiences. While in these groups I have found it helpful to ask the following questions to assist with shifting defensiveness to reflection: 1) What are your fears around talking about oppression, discrimination or race? 2) When have you made a mistake or done something that you felt offended another person similar or different than yourself? How did you handle this situation? 3) Do you have any insight as to why it may be difficult to believe what others are telling you about their experiences? I have found that these questions create meaningful dialogue and allow group members to learn from one another.

#3: Understand that Learning Occurs Differently, at Different Times, for Different People 

Everyone is at different places on the continuum of cultural awareness. What works for one person may not work for the other. If negative responses occur, it is important to not take them personally. Participants will bring different attitudes, beliefs, and experiences around race relations. As a facilitator, I have felt defensive at times when others have made me the object of their anger rather than looking inward. Specifically, topics centering on white privilege and systemic oppression have sparked up emotions of guilt, rage, and frustration from my audience members and myself. Having these conversations with individuals who primarily identify as the majority race has at times further exacerbated my feelings of being targeted. However, by displaying empathy and authentically seeking to better understand their viewpoints I have been able to see alternative perspectives. This has assisted with my comfort, confidence, and emotional reactions during these conversations.

Additionally, since everyone learns differently, it is important to offer the audience multiple avenues for absorbing the content. For instance, when first beginning these conversations I always incorporate a visualization activity. For example, I might ask them to imagine going on a vacation of their dreams. During this activity I provide verbal instructions for members to visualize going on their flight to their destination and walk them through different encounters they may experience (e.g., going to the hotel, eating at a restaurant, etc.). After this activity concludes I ask members about the racial/ethnic, sexual orientation, gender, and backgrounds of individuals that came up in their imagination. Most of the responses I tend to receive show evidence that the background of individuals were heterosexual, white, males, or representative of the majority population. This activity helps to promote insight of unconscious bias and provides audience members another platform to engage in insightful learning.  


In summary, sharing your personal experiences, challenging audience members to “go deeper”, and offering the audience multiple avenues to absorb the content that you are sharing can be greatly helpful when facilitating conversations on race. Using platforms like “Poll Everywhere”, having members participate in the “Four Corners” exercise, and implementing visualization activities may assist with making your conversations unique and meaningful.


Hollins, C. D., & Govan, I. M. (2015). Diversity, equity, and inclusion: strategies for facilitating conversations on race. Rowman & Littlefield.

Sue, D. W. (2015). Race talk and the conspiracy of silence: understanding and facilitating difficult dialogues on race. Wiley.

Poll Everywhere: 

About the Author
Ryan C. Warner, Ph.D. is a clinician, researcher, and speaker. Ryan is passionate about promoting diversity and social justice among underrepresented populations. He also provides consultation services to enhance organizational capability by delivering education and training on multiculturalism, inclusion, and leadership development. (Email: [email protected]; Twitter: @DrRyanCWarner; Linkedin:

By: Bernardo M. Ferdman, Ph.D.

Inclusion at Work

Why should we care about diversity and inclusion?

Diversity—the many ways in which people are different—can be a vital resource for groups and organizations. We know from research, for example, that diversity helps to catalyze innovation, especially under the right conditions. When we welcome and engage with diversity, we are more likely to encourage generation and sharing of new and different ideas and to bring together a greater variety of ideas, information, perspectives, and opinions—ultimately leading to better decisions and problem solving. Doing this is much more likely in an inclusive group or organization—one characterized by openness to and appreciation of difference.

Diverse and inclusive organizations can attract, recruit, and retain a greater range of people, consequently availing themselves of broader talent pools. To truly embrace and leverage diversity and inclusion—to create workplace cultures where everyone feels welcomed and their differences are appreciated and valued—it is important to become clearer about what we mean by diversity and inclusion at work, and to learn what each person in the organization can do to help foster a more diverse and inclusive workplace culture.

What do we mean by diversity and inclusion?

At its most basic level, diversity is simply about difference; people vary in many ways, some based on individual differences and others grounded in the range of social identities and groups that we belong to. At the same time, diversity can be multilayered and complex, because these identities and characteristics combine within each of us, and because there are histories of relationships between groups that also come into play.

When we first hear about diversity, we tend to focus on demographic or identity dimensions, especially the most visible ones (e.g., gender, race, ethnicity, culture, age, national background, sexual orientation, physical ability/disability). At the same time, diversity also involves less visible and more individual dimensions (e.g., personality, abilities, thinking style, values, experiences). In short, diversity involves the differences and similarities among people across many dimensions represented in a particular group or organization. These dimensions combine within individuals, influencing how we approach and experience work and life as well as how we perceive and treat each other. More diverse groups and organizations have the potential to benefit from these differences, but they can also experience the tensions that are also associated with more dissimilarities.

Inclusion is how groups and organizations can get the greatest benefit from their diversity. Inclusion involves creating a sense of full belonging and participation in a group or organization for everyone, so that no one feels the need to hide or subsume their differences, and everyone can tap into their strengths and contribute these for collective benefit. When we experience inclusion, we feel safe, engaged, valued, appreciated, and able to be fully ourselves—both as individuals and as members of multiple social identity groups.

Although we often see the terms diversity and inclusion together, it is important to keep in mind that they do not mean the same thing. To fully benefit from diversity’s advantages, organizations and their leaders must also foster inclusion. Without the experience of inclusion, people who are different in notable ways from traditionally represented groups may not feel quite as safe, accepted, or valued and may therefore be less likely to fully engage, participate, and contribute. If their sense of identity is threatened or they do not feel that they can be their authentic self, their talents and full contribution may be diminished or lost. In inclusive workplaces, people can be fully themselves, striving to be their best, without fear or without a sense that they must hide or become someone else.

How can we foster a more inclusive workplace? What can leaders do to create a truly inclusive workplace?

Fostering inclusion is both simple and challenging. At its basic level, all members of the organization need to learn more about what inclusion is, how it matters, and what they can do to create and sustain it—for themselves and for others. At the same time, leaders have a responsibility to create the opportunity for this learning, and to provide ways to make inclusive behavior something that is expected and rewarded, as well as to embed inclusive values and processes in all aspects of how work is done. Inclusion can also be difficult because it requires us to balance comfort and discomfort—the goal is for many types of people to be more at ease at work, but at the same time, we must be prepared to leave our comfort zones as we more frequently encounter and collaborate with people who may be different or see things quite differently than we do.  By expanding our repertoire of inclusive behavior, we can get better at proactively achieving and maintaining this balance, and consequently improving our organization and its results.

The following are suggestions for what all of us—and especially leaders—can do to build more inclusion at work:

  1. Acknowledge and appreciate differences of all types in the group and in the organization.
  2. Learn about and be mindful of personal biases; examine and address assumptions about power, voice, competence, and effectiveness, especially how these relate to our different identities.
  3. Seek to notice and remove systematic bias and discrimination—whether conscious or inadvertent—and to replace these with more productive and fair ways to work with difference.
  4. Model and encourage authenticity.
  5. Create opportunities tailored to individuals’ special qualities and strengths, seek out unique voices, and highlight both individual uniqueness and collective identity.
  6. Give all stakeholders the opportunity to engage in constructing norms and processes for inclusion while holding each other accountable.
  7. Learn to be comfortable with discomfort and seek out situations that will result in learning, growing, and collective mutual benefits.


Diversity and inclusion are inevitable and necessary in our increasingly globalized organizations. Creating and sustaining an inclusive workplace can be challenging—and very rewarding. Everyone can contribute to creating inclusion for themselves and others, by learning about inclusion, behaving inclusively, contributing to an inclusive culture, and supporting organizational initiatives on diversity and inclusion. Diversity and inclusion can have great benefits to the organization and its people, especially when each member of the organization plays a part.

About the authorBernardo M. Ferdman, Ph.D.—Principal of Ferdman Consulting and distinguished professor emeritus at the California School of Professional Psychology, Alliant International University—consults, speaks, coaches, and writes on diversity, inclusion, and leadership. He is an SCP, SIOP, and APA Fellow, and served as chair of SCP’s Diversity & Inclusion Committee. (Twitter: @bferdman; LinkedIn:

Sophia Sung, project associate for Ferdman Consulting and Ph.D. student at the California School of Professional Psychology of Alliant International University, also contributed to this blog.

What the Christmas Trees in Zanzibar Hotels Teach Us About Good Leadership and Inclusion

By: Rehman Y. Abdulrehman, Ph.D., C.Psych. 

While consulting to the Minister of Health of Zanzibar and the State University of Zanzibar this December, I noticed something peculiar here. In hotel lobbies across the island, there are Christmas trees of all shapes and varieties. But the island is almost 99 percent Muslim, with almost all of the hotels run by families who are not Christian, or from cultures that would celebrate Christmas. The answer of why then they have Christmas trees in the lobbies of a predominantly Muslim region of the world, may seem obvious. But it also provides us insights, we may not have considered, for leadership in diverse settings.

It makes complete sense that the hospitality industry succeeds by making the client feel comfortable. But their success is not just about anticipating the needs of the customer, but more importantly their ability to anticipate the way their customers think. When we can successfully understand the way others think, then we get closer to making them feel understood.

Culture, ultimately, is a set of beliefs, thoughts, and practices based on a way people live. How we live varies, based on many variables, be it culture, religion, sexual orientation, gender, even our socioeconomic status. Many of the tourists coming to Zanzibar are from European or North American countries, who do celebrate Christmas.

Christmas tree, gingerbread houses, and other baking at The Park Hyatt, Zanzibar, Tanzania. 2017

Christmas tree, gingerbread houses, and other baking at The Park Hyatt, Zanzibar, Tanzania. 2017

Understanding the cultural importance of Christmas to many Western cultures, hotels who cater to this population of people are wise to create an environment during the Christmas season, that elicit good memories of home for those away from home. In some hotels, there are gingerbread houses, Christmas baking with locally sourced ingredients, and even a group dinner for residents on Christmas Eve. This attention to detail of the way people might think, not only makes patrons of the hotel feel more comfortable, but it is also very good for business. 

It’s a basic understanding (supported by research) among clinical psychologists that the most predictive factor to the success of therapy is the quality of therapeutic relationship. That means that above therapeutic modality, the nature of the relationship between the therapist and the client determines emotional and psychological growth and success.

This makes logical sense too, as it is difficult to trust good advice if we feel that we cannot trust the source. In terms of the way we think, the ability to change patterns of thinking have to be based on experiences. And to change patterns of thinking to be more positive, we need to have experiences that make us feel more positively.

These are critical values to keep in mind for leadership, in particular when dealing with matters of inclusion. When leaders reflect a diverse group of people, their natural inclination is to behave in a way that reflects their own personal cultural life experiences. But excellent leadership is about being mindful of the people being represented.

To overcome an unconscious bias, good leaders must be critically mindful of the diversity they represent, and ensure that their decisions (particularly with policy and practice) make those they represent feel understood, rather than  simply reflect the leaders own world views. These are qualities that take some experience and time to develop, but can also be anticipated and developed sooner, if organizations are mindful to look for such insightful qualities in their leaders.

The psychological process that occurs is like a chain reaction. When a leader reflects the needs of a diverse group of people, it increases the belief from a group, that a leader is trustworthy, and has the interest of the individuals within that organization at heart. That belief triggers then an emotional response of admiration, respect, but also a motivation to engage more in the organization. These two building blocks then trigger the most important aspect of all; behavioral change. Which in the end, will be the critical factor that drives an organization to success.

As leaders of diverse groups of people, it is easy but not successful to think the way their own culture has trained them to think and lead. Although a challenge initially, it is  more fruitful and empowering, when leaders think and govern the way other cultures and groups might think. After all, it is global thinking, that produces global and dynamic lead