Ending Injustice in the Workplace: How Great Leaders Build a World-Class Culture with Anton Gunn

Mursion recently hosted renowned speaker, author, and leadership consultant Anton Gunn for “Ending Injustice in the Workplace: How Great Leaders Build a World-Class Culture,” the latest installment of our “Future of Work” virtual roundtable series. The world’s leading authority on Socially Conscious Leadership, Gunn is a former senior advisor to President Barack Obama and collaborates with organizations to help them build world-class leadership cultures that create diverse high-performing teams.

Below is an excerpt of Gunn’s interactive discussion that covered everything from why leaders should aim to be admired to the very real cost of injustice in our workplaces. 

“I believe what we need now more in our world and our organizations is leaders who are admirable. When I mean admirable, not in a simple sense of just saying, ‘Oh, I like this person, but this person lives the kind of life that we want to emulate.’ That they have a frame of how they care for people, that they listen, that they’re inspiring, they’re empowering, they’re motivating, but most importantly, they help us to grow and to be successful. I think everyone deserves the opportunity to work for a leader who is admirable, who is world-class, and also every organization deserves an organization that’s full of those leaders.

 

I think everyone deserves the opportunity to work for a leader who is admirable, who is world-class, and also every organization deserves an organization that's full of those leaders.

 

I’m a fourth-generation military brat, and four generations of men in my family have served the United States military. My great-grandfather served in both world wars, my grandfather in World War II, my father and all of his brothers served in the military and every conflict from Korea, all the way to Desert Storm. For me, there is nothing more important than understanding the service to our country, and my generation continued that. My brother, Cherone, joined the Navy in January of 2000, and he served until he gave his life for this country when he was killed in a terrorist attack aboard the USS Cole on Oct. 12, 2000.

For me, I know how the importance of service because I saw it in my family, but I also know that life is not promised, tomorrow is never promised for anyone, and so each and every one of us has the opportunity while we’re here to try to make a difference and have a lasting impact on every life that we touch. That is actually my purpose, is I believe that I’m here to try to have a lasting impact. I think if you are here in this session, you have a responsibility to have a lasting impact on every life that you touch. Whether it’s your colleagues that you work alongside, the people that you lead at work, the community in which you live in, or the family that you call family, you have the responsibility to take every opportunity to have a lasting impact, and that’s what I believe that we all should be doing.

How Injustice Is Hurting Our Organizations

I want to focus on how injustice can manifest itself, what does it look like, what does it feel like, and how it can hurt our organizations.

Now, here’s what I want to tell you about the elephant in the room as it relates to injustice in the workplace every day. America’s employers have lost $233 billion in turnover costs over a five-year period. That data point comes from the Society for Human Resource Management. You lose a high-performing leader because of toxic culture or an unfair culture in the workplace. 37% of people have quit their job citing unfair treatment as a reason why they quit. 

Implicit bias, microaggressions, and yes, racism, are real culprits in our organizations. They create an unfair environment.

That unfairness can easily devolve into things like violence in the workplace. Then, unfortunately, we’ve heard and seen too many times about a violent scenario where someone has brought a gun to work and done something awful in the workplace. We look at that isolated incident and say what happened, but if you do the documentary research and look back, you’ll see that that one incident was built on a mountain of microaggressions, implicit bias, and injustices that happened over and over again that didn’t spill over in this one event.

This leads to low morale, low employee engagement, lack of productivity, absenteeism, all of this impacts organizations and costs them money. If we look at it across the board, here are the four things that I say that it leads to if your organization doesn’t have a way to address injustice in the workplace. More silence and conflict at the unit level. Right at the base level, more silence and more conflict at work. Increased emotional isolation from your team members.

Then you start to see uncivil behavior, and particularly lateral violence. I’m in healthcare a lot, and I know lateral violence is real amongst nurses. People literally do violent things to people at work.

This leads to the fourth one that could be very devastating and deadly to a lot of organizations, the potential Equal Opportunity Employment complaints and litigation in lawsuits for discrimination or for prejudice. I’ll give you this bullet point particularly around as we think about race. African-Americans only make up 13% of the workforce yet they are 26% of all Equal Opportunity Employment claims filed that are successfully won in a judgment. The evidence is real, that some discrimination happened. This is the impact of incivility and injustice in the workplace.

Steps We Can Take to End Workplace Inequalities

Now, what I want to ask you is why don’t we address workplace injustice? We see these things, we know what’s happening in our organization, so what are the reasons why an organization wouldn’t address injustice when they see it manifest itself in a workplace? Here are my three reasons why.

Reason number one, you don’t know how to address it. You’re afraid to have the conversation, and sometimes those conversations get to be very uncomfortable.

Number two, you don’t have the tools or the resources to address it. You make excuses about, ‘Well, I can’t do this because it’s going to be too much of a change in business.’ Or the context is, ‘I don’t even know how to have these conversations. I haven’t been trained on how to talk about difficult circumstances. I don’t even know how to hire and promote people the right way.’ There are a lot of reasons why people don’t address injustice because they don’t have the tools or the resources.

 

Whether it's your colleagues that you work alongside, the people that you lead at work, the community in which you live in, or the family that you call family, you have the responsibility to take every opportunity to have a lasting impact, and that's what I believe that we all should be doing.

 

The third one is that your leaders don’t have time. When your leaders don’t have time, they move on to the next task. They don’t deal with the big issues because it’s too much work got to get done, and we’ve got to have time.

Leadership’s Role in Guiding Diverse Organizations

All of this leads an organization to what I call stuck. When I say stuck, I mean stuck in the status quo of injustice, inequity, unfairness, and things that will cost you millions of dollars individually, and maybe organizationally, into the billions depending on how large your organization is. When you’re stuck, you’re stuck in something that I call the social conscious construct. 

What is the social conscious construct? The social conscious construct acknowledges that whether you’re a leader or an employee in an organization, you fall on an axis. The axis is awareness in action. That means, the higher you go in an organization, the more awareness you have to the injustices and the problems in any organization. If you’re the CEO, you should have the most awareness in an organization. If you’re a first-time new person in management, you may have limited awareness to what’s going on in the organization.

The x-axis is action, which is if you’re a new leader into an organization, you may have little or limited ability to be able to take action. However, if you’ve been a leader for a long time, or you’re the CEO or someone in senior management, you have a greater ability to have an impact by taking action. This is the axis that you will see the social conscious construct play itself out.

I want you to think about your organization, and I want you to take 100% of your leaders, and I’m going to plot them along this social conscious construct. The first thing I want you to know is that 50% of your leaders in your organization are completely unaware that injustice exists in your workplace. They’re not even aware that there is a problem. They don’t see it, they don’t know it, they have zero analysis at all about injustice being a problem in your workplace or unfairness or people getting passed over for promotions or microaggressions and implicit bias.

They sometimes live in oblivion, meaning that the whole world could be falling apart around them, but their life is simple and good and it just is happy-go-lucky, and again, not bad people, not mean people at all, but they’re kind of living in oblivion. They’re completely blind to the injustice that exists, and that is what perpetuates the greatest amount of inequity, is that people just don’t see it. How many people in America woke up in June and learned that structural racism was real when other people have seen it for 400 years. Again, 50% of people are living in oblivion.

 

My mission is to build a whole army in every organization in America full of leaders who are aware of injustice every day, they have the tools and the resources to do something about it, and they commit themselves to solving problems and taking action to make it right.

 

Then you have another 35% of your leaders in your organization who are what I call at the injustice point, which is they see something wrong but they don’t take action. Here’s the reason why they don’t take action. They say ‘I know that’s messed up, I know it’s wrong, but what can little old do me do about that problem? I don’t have any power. I don’t have any resources to change the trajectory of this organization or this entity, I’m just one person.’

Or they might say, ‘I really want to do something, but I don’t have the tools. I don’t have the information or the resources to actually make a difference.’ Or the third reason why they don’t take action is they say, ‘Well, that’s somebody else’s responsibility, that’s senior management’s responsibility. Well, that’s my boss’ responsibility. It ain’t my job to do anything about the injustice.’

These people see what’s wrong, but they don’t do anything about it. They know better but they don’t do any better. That’s another 35% of your leaders. We’re at 85% of leaders in any organization who are either living in oblivion or they see better and they don’t do better.

Then you have the third group, which is a 10% of leaders at the top. These are the ones who are the highest on the food chain the most time, they’re the senior most leaders, they have the biggest amount of disproportionate power in an organization, but instead of doing something about the injustice, they do the exact opposite. They perpetuate the injustice. They perpetuate it because they feel like that they’re going to benefit from things staying the status quo. They think they’re going to benefit. They may benefit morally, socially, politically, economically, sometimes financially. They operate in a scarcity mindset rather than an abundance mindset.

Here you have 95% of your leaders in your organization when it comes to injustice, they fall in this context of the social conscious construct. As you can see, there are 5% left. 95% of the people perpetuate the problem, and they do that by omission, by inaction, and by collusion. Those are the three things why injustice continues to exist in a workplace.

The 5% of leaders are the leaders who are aware of injustice. They have the tools and the resources to do something about it, and they take action to make it right. That it’s actually the 5% that my mission, Anton’s mission, is to build a whole army in every organization in America full of leaders who are the 5%; who are aware of injustice every day, they have the tools and the resources to do something about it, and they commit themselves to solving problems and taking action to make it right, whether it’s for an employee, whether it’s for a customer, whether it’s for a vendor. My job is to make it right. That’s what the most admired leaders do.

I believe that we need more of these admired leaders. We’ve got to have more people who are living their life that will make injustice disappear from every workplace, in every community.”

Mursion regularly hosts its “Future of Work” virtual roundtable series featuring industry experts and thought leaders to discuss timely and thought-provoking topics affecting our workplaces today. Join us for these interactive free sessions here.