Ending the Mindset of Taking the Path of Least Resistance
What stops us from doing our part in bringing equality into our lives?
Ed Dwyer, Co-Founder & President - Vigeo Alliance LLC
August 20, 2020
Most Americans support and desire a colorblind society where people are not judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. Yet, in a country 244 years old and the guiding light to the rest of the world, we are still struggling with this basic human right.
As I reflect on the raw emotions and turmoil that are literally tearing our country apart, I have concluded that it boils down to the fact that the majority of Americans live their lives through the lens of ‘taking the path of least resistance.’ We do not want to make waves. We do not want to upset anyone. We will outwardly agree with someone who is clearly off base, yet we lack the courage to call them out publicly and on the spot. Even though we feel emotions boiling below the surface with outrage, we say nothing! We do not want to offend anyone or turn a lighthearted conversation into a discussion around race and equality.
But if not now, when? One of the greatest books on organizational excellence and outstanding leadership is ‘Good to Great.’ One of the principle concepts in the book is that great organizations capable of sustaining excellence over time do so with employees that have the power and authority to check other employees on the spot when their actions and behaviors are contrary to the shared values of the organization. The notion of peer-policing in all levels is critical to maintaining the standards and culture of the organization. People are encouraged to not take the path of least resistance. They are guided by a common goal of stamping down any brush fire of unacceptable behavior that can spread like wildfire, if not contested.
Early in my career as a commercial banker, I had a manager that emphatically coached me about not taking the path of least resistance. In a tough situation with a client where the performance of the company was falling short of expectations set forth in a loan agreement, it was best to confront the situation head-on with the owners. Of course, that was a difficult conversation to have and required very emotional and contentious exchanges. My manager would ask me about how I addressed a certain breach of a loan agreement and she would point out each time how I was taking the path of least resistance. She pressed for an explanation about why I did not do what was necessary and appropriate for the circumstance. She explained that I was losing credibility with her and credit administration!
Her unrelenting inquiries forced me to assert confidence and courage to deal with the issues at hand and address them head on with my clients. I suppose I was afraid that the client would be upset and leave the bank, ultimately reflecting poorly on me. The reality was that the client knew that they had broken a covenant and often reacted with understanding and acquiescence. This life experience early in my career formulated a mindset of having ‘truth talk’ conversations with clients and, ultimately, with my direct reports and colleagues. It would prove to serve as a skill and practice that allowed me to grow in my career and as a leader.
The other gift this amazing leader provided me was to experience exemplary leadership firsthand. She had become the senior commercial banker in a regional Midwest bank at a time when women were barely in the commercial banking teams, much less leading one. She mentored me to be a better banker and a better leader. She shared with me her struggles of breaking through the glass ceiling and I appreciated her fortitude and grit to win the respect of the CEO and board, a path ridden with considerable resistance. She taught me the power of diversity in my early days of a 27-year career at the bank. She taught me to trust my gut over the numbers when they conflicted with one another. She taught me that leadership is the ultimate differentiator, no matter the make-up of the person. I reflect upon this now as we all deal with the racial tensions and raw emotions that come to the surface in all our lives. It makes me realize that many of us have pursued a path of least resistance in dealing with those around us that are different than ourselves. Perhaps all of us can be stronger, more courageous leaders by setting aside our worries and fears and choosing to engage in tough and crucial conversations. Listen and build a relationship before judging and making conclusions about another individual. When you see someone in your organization acting inappropriately as it relates to diversity, have the confidence and the courage to call it out and to have a conversation with that individual. Be sure to express your viewpoint and open direct dialogue, rather than lecturing. Do not think to yourself, ‘well that sure was inappropriate but now is not the time to confront him or her.’ Now absolutely is the time to address the divergence from our shared values and to draw attention to such insensitivity.
We are all better individuals, as friends, as coworkers, as leaders when we wield the courage and the trust to not take the safe path and to have the necessary tough conversations.
Now is the time we stop taking the path of least resistance and lead the change in our lives. Collectively, we will heal our country that so dearly needs a cure.