Ever since football player Colin Kaepernick refused to stand for the playing of the national anthem earlier this year in an effort to bring attention to racial injustice, the concept of taking a knee has continued to spread. In fact, players from nearly every National Football League team have let their knees hit the grass in solidarity. The controversy has gotten hopelessly tied up in politics, but let's agree not to take sides in that arena for a moment. Let's just look at the psychology behind the situation and why it matters to you--yes, you--as a leader.
What does taking a knee even mean?
In an article for Scientific American, Jeremy Adam Smith and Dacher Keltner systematically break down some of the meaning behind taking a knee. They argue that the act of kneeling probably has roots in mammalian behavior and that, ultimately, it's a gesture intended to show respect and submissiveness. They point out that it also can represent mourning, sadness and the need for protection.
Smith and Keltner assert that Kaepernick and other athletes who kneel still are showing reverence for the flag and anthem, as they don't turn their backs. But they are deviating from the cultural norms. That, they say, causes the amygdala in the brain to fire hard as it tries to discern if the deviation poses a threat. We become emotionally hot because the gesture challenges what we are used to. That alone has conflict potential.
More power, more misinterpretation and misperception
According to Smith and Keltner, people in positions of power are more likely to misinterpret nonverbal behavior. They struggle to read faces and emotions or see from others' points of view. There is an empathy problem. What's more, people in positions of power also are more likely to stereotype and miss behavioral nuances. So as predominantly white fans watch predominantly African American players, dominance and authority might make it incredibly difficult for fans--Vice President Mike Pence included--to see and understand why those athletes meet the ground.
Now, maybe you don't own a football team or hoist the flag as president of your nation. But as a team lead, mentor, CEO or entrepreneur, you have power every day. It's you who give the advice, make the final decisions. It's you who decide who comes and goes. You influence how others spend their energy and time and how they apply their skills. And if you don't consciously make an effort to stay connected and sensitive, that power can create the very us-versus-them atmosphere that rips businesses apart. Just ask those who ever have participated in or dealt with a walkout or picket line.
How to take action
So then the question becomes, "OK, well, then how do I keep the power I have from clouding my perception and judgment?" To offer just a few examples, you could
- Interact with employees for everyday activities like lunch instead of holing up in your office.
- Talk to workers regularly one on one to find out their stories and what their current needs are.
- Accept ideas from any level, inviting submissions from the floor up.
- Complete small gestures of humility and thanks, such as sending handwritten notes of appreciation.
- Delegate responsibilities where you can to remind yourself of others' strengths, letting others take the helm for you for days off, vacations, etc.
- Make it a point to give genuine complements each day.
- Rethink your salary/wage and benefits, as well as the use of C-suite titles.
These kinds of tactics don't diminish your authority. They merely balance it and keep you mindful. They let you practice interacting and responding to workers not as subordinates, but just as people. And if you understand your people, you'll be a significantly better and more effective leader than when you started.