By Chuck Shelton

In last week’s article, we looked at eight D&I problems that white male inclusion helps to solve. This week we dig into the animating emotional undercurrents of white male engagement: the reality of fear and the need for safety.

This four-week series builds on the findings, recommendations, and learning from the ongoing Study on White Men Leading Through Diversity and Inclusion. This is the first research to analyze and improve the effectiveness of white men as they integrate diversity and inclusion into their leadership work. For more on the research, and to download a free copy of the Executive Summary, go to

Let’s look at the nature of fear and safety, how these dynamics tend to manifest in behavior, and options for leading ourselves and our people so we pass through fear to build safe personal and team relationships.

What is it?

When humans experience fear, we perceive a threat, we feel the spark of agitation, the pinch of anxiety, the sense of uncontrolled risk, the impulse to flee or fight. Fear is a universal emotional reality – it is one way we are all alike. Fear operates in us across dimensions of diversity and levels of leadership.

It is perfectly reasonable to fear for our physical well-being. That so many women, worldwide, still constantly calculate their personal safety is a sobering reflection on masculinity gone awry. In the context of white male inclusion, there’s plenty of fear to go around:

• Many white men fear blame and shame; we often fear people we don’t know, based on our stereotypes of them; sometimes we fear our own ignorance and our diverse colleague’s fluency with D&I; some white male managers fear that leaning too far into diversity will hurt their careers.

• Throughout the process of the White Men’s Leadership Study, the fears of ‘diverse others’ (those who are not white men) also came to light: a concern that white guys will take over D&I, the risk to opportunity if they actually engage white men with position power, the challenge to change their minds about what white male leaders are willing to learn.

Fear may or may not have a basis in rationality. But it manifests as fact in the behavior of our co-workers, and in our own leadership.

How do colleagues tend to express their fear?

The 2012 round of the Study ask no questions about fear. But fear was expressed and discussed in focus groups, quiet conversations, and in the text box answers on the survey. What does fear look like? A few examples:

• It’s too risky to use the words ‘white men’ – it may even be racist

• It’s not safe to ask these survey questions – what if employees raise concerns we don’t know how to fix?

• Sometimes I avoid providing corrective feedback to women and people of color, so I don’t get in trouble

• Of course we need diverse talent, but they have to be qualified

• If I fill out this survey, maybe:
– I’m just helping white men gain more power
– My honest answers will be tracked back to me for punishment

• If we try to include white men in inclusion, we might interrupt their denial and risk open conflict

• There’s no way that it’s safe for me to raise real issues, like incentivizing executives to mentor diverse people – in effect, demotivating them to mentor me because I’m a white guy

• Race and gender are a Boomer obsession – we have equality now, and it’s unproductive and lame to keep talking about white men

• I just don’t believe that men will change

• Things are fine now; after all, we have black President – you’re making my life harder by spotlighting white male leaders

• Some of the survey results don’t put our organization in a positive light, so we prefer not to mention our participation to the media

This is a tiny list – there are hundreds of additional behavioral indicators of D&I-related fear at work.

Even as I wrote this list, I found myself dismissing the fears that I do not feel. Perhaps this is a tendency in all of us that we should fear: our inclination to devalidate another person’s fears. Speaking as a white male executive, my fears around diversity and inclusion are completely real to me. For instance, after fighting sexism and racism for 46 years, I still fear being called a sexist or a racist (e.g. see the ‘reviews’ of my book on Amazon). Do I hope people will understand that my fear can impact my leadership? Absolutely.

How can we navigate through these fears?

First, take personal responsibility for facing and handling your own fears. This can be difficult for men of every ethnicity: to admit and explore our fear is atypical manliness. For us white guys, it’s even harder to discuss our fears about D&I with people who are more fluent with diversity, or with those who are supposed to follow our lead. This takes courage and ego control.

Second, establish permission in your workplace to acknowledge fear, and to address all aspects of relational safety. At the group level, this is achieved via behavioral groundrules (see below). Most often, private discussions are the appropriate venue for fear and safety issues that arise.

Finally, train each person for fluency with the intent – impact challenge: the ability to inquire about another person’s intent, while offering honest “I statements” about their impact on you.

Human differences fuel all manner of fear – our history as a species demonstrates this truth. We must acknowledge that leading on white male inclusion will require fear management.

But, wonderfully, the story of humankind is infused with the capacity to create safe spaces and safe relationships. So there’s a positive strategy in this work: lead by baking safety into our relationships with each direct report and within our team.

What is safety?

Some of the best safety programs in companies where employees face physical risk – utilities and construction, for example – operate with a guideline that protects people and drives down accident costs. It goes like this: “We want you to go home whole.” The value embedded in this saying motivates safer decisions, actions, and results.

Wholeness also includes emotional and relational safety. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs teaches us this truth – our need to feel safe is non-negotiable and ever-present.

I encourage you to specifically define in your own mind and heart what makes you feel safe at work, when it comes to global diversity and inclusion. And then, in your capacity as a leader, share your thinking and help your colleagues to do the same. Over time, this produces a powerful common commitment: we will work together today in a way that ensures that everyone goes home whole tonight.

That sounds safe to me.

How do colleagues tend to express their need for safety?

When people in our sphere of influence don’t feel safe – when they behave in fear – customers are ill-served, innovation falters, productivity slumps, conflict simmers or boils over, relationships suffer, team output languishes, top talent leaves, results tank, and your career track takes a hit.

When the people you lead feel safe, when they’re confident that they can bring their best to work and go home whole, then…well, the healthy opposite of every outcome in the previous paragraph occurs. Some of the companies that sponsored the Study are leveraging their learning on white male inclusion to build just that kind of workplace.

How do we build relational safety?

To lay the foundation for white male inclusion, our research shows that the best teams learn to live into five ground rules:

1. Trust – We will make and keep our promises with one another, over time.

2. Respect – We will honor and esteem one another’s character and contribution. A primary behavior: listen for understanding.

3. Candor – With respect in view, we will try to say what needs to be said in a way the other person can hear it from us.

4. Tone & Focus – We will communicate constructively, and focus on intent–impact.

5. Conflict – We expect differences of opinion, identity, and experience, and we are mutually accountable for high-performing conflict resolution.

Admittedly, fear and safety are big topics that grow even more complicated with gender, race, and position power factored in. For more, take a look at the eight essays on ‘Managing Emotion’ in Leadership 101 For White Men.

As we focus on including white men in diversity and inclusion, due diligence requires us to face this challenge: when we ignore fear and safety, we put our leadership credibility at risk.

Fortunately, we can learn to lead by handling fear and building safety. That’s how we open the door to courageous conversations. Such transformative dialogue is the topic for next week’s piece.

Chuck Shelton is the managing director at Greatheart Leader Labs, the author of Leadership 101 For White Men, and the principal of the Study on White Men Leading Through Diversity and Inclusion. He has spoken, consulted, trained, and advised on leadership development and global diversity and inclusion for three decades, through more than 300 projects and presentations.