How Critical Social Justice can Corrupt Organizational Culture: the Dance of the Blind Reflex
By David Bernstein
The imposition of Critical Social Justice (CSJ) is often an unrecognized liability to company culture.
When I started my post as the CEO of a nonprofit, I almost immediately heard a familiar refrain from managers that they were overworked and that the staff members who reported to them weren’t pulling their weight. I also heard from their direct reports that the managers were micromanaging and weren’t giving them the leeway necessary to do their jobs.
There are certain patterns of organizational behavior that we see over and over again. I’m a big fan of the book Seeing Systems: Unlocking the Mysteries of Organizational Life by Barry Oshry, which exposes many common organizational dynamics.
Here’s what Oshry observes about this manager-report dynamic:
In the Dance of Blind Reflex, Top (leader-manager) becomes increasingly responsible for the organization, classroom, department, meeting, team, family, nation—while Bottom becomes decreasingly responsible […] And these shifts happen without awareness or choice by either Top or Bottom. Top falls into burden—carrying the load of the problem, feeling like he or she is letting the system down, worrying—while Bottom falls into oppression—holding Top responsible for the failure, feeling like a blameless sufferer because of Top’s inadequacy.
I decided to address the problem of the “dance of the blind reflex” at an offsite retreat. I had team members read an extended version of the above excerpt, replete with dialogue. Mind you the primary purpose of this exercise was to get managers to relinquish some of their control so that their reports had more freedom in their jobs. It did not go as planned.
Three young staffers, whom this exercise was meant to benefit, vociferously objected. They thought it was wrong to hold “victims” responsible for their plight.
It immediately became clear to me that these staffers were looking at an organizational problem through a binary CSJ lens. In this worldview, the person in power is always wrong.The person out of power is always right.The blind reflex exercise, in their view, was not a call for their bosses to share power, but rather an assault on their worldview that the oppressor class—the bosses of society—cause all social ills.
The discussion got so heated that eventually we abandoned the whole exercise and, with it, a framework that was meant to give direct reports more agency and control over their work. In the end, these staffers didn’t want more agency, just continued victim status.
It hit me that having too many employees with fixed notions about who the good guys and bad guys are would not promote a free exchange of ideas and a healthy work environment.
I doubt many manager-leaders realize the toll CSJ takes on their organizations.You may want to start doing something about it.
To find out more about Viewpoint diversity consultancy services please email David Bernstein at DavidLBernstein66@gmail.com.
David Bernstein is an Affiliate at Counterweight and Principal of Viewpoint consulting. Follow him on Twitter @Blogunwoke.