Trayvon Martin, Racial Profiling, Groupthink and Team Dynamics

This business blog focuses on team building and issues directly related to team and corporate effectiveness. For this reason, I rarely explore my personal views on events in the public arena on this blog. As a rule I tend to keep my personal views private and only make my professional opinions public.

Every now and then, an issue arises that is so compelling that I feel it is important for me to weigh in. I am not an American and I don’t live in the USA. Notwithstanding, the circumstances surrounding the death of Trayvon Martin and the verdict in the George Zimmerman case that was delivered one week ago today make it impossible to remain silent about what I perceive to be a serious miscarriage of justice.

I have followed the Trayvon Martin case since the news about the shooting of this unarmed 17 year old first broke. (He had just turned 17.) Now that the verdict has been delivered, what many feared has taken place.  George Zimmerman has been declared “not guilty”. There are several disturbing aspects to the death of Trayvon Martin and the verdict.

I have been working on this blog  post since the verdict was delivered. I have timed the release of this blog post for the moment when the verdict was delivered a week ago. I will keep my comments brief and link them to team effectiveness.

Why the Trayvon Martin Case Haunts me

As a mother, this case haunts me. Teenagers of every generation tend to dress like their peers. As parents we can discourage this, nag and point out all the reasons why this is not a wise choice. I confess that, long before the death of Trayvon Martin, I’ve even hidden my son’s Black hoodie that was given to him as a gift.

Ultimately, young people get to the stage at which they must make their own decisions and choose their own clothing. Also,  you can’t keep them locked up or give them curfews and ground them for violating them forever. They go away to university. They get jobs away from home and, at some point, they must make their own choices.

When I saw the video footage of Trayvon Martin from the 7-11 cameras, my heart skipped a beat. You see until Trayvon turned and faced the camera, that could have been my son. Similar build, similar clothing. Many teenagers Black, White and Asian dress the same way. If my son had walked down that street, George Zimmerman would have known nothing about him but there is no doubt in my mind that he would have profiled him too.

Racial Profiling

George Zimmerman knew nothing about Trayvon Martin yet he judged him as being “up to no good”.  Based on what? Let’s not sidestep the issue. All George Zimmerman had to go on was what Trayvon Martin was wearing and his race.

Profiling also kicked in when the jury determined if Rachel Jeantel was a credible witness. She was black and overweight and they had difficulty understanding her as she has an underbite that interferes with her speech.  So, she was deemed to be not credible. By contrast, the white jurors who spoke standard English were perceived to be credible.

How are these dynamics played out in the corporate world? Prospective job candidates and, once they are hired,  team members are often judged based on superficialities. When I’ve facilitated behaviour based interviewing workshops in 6 countries, I’ve cautioned executives and hiring managers that the slick candidate in perfect corporate attire, might just be a con artist. I’ve also pointed out that the a Black candidate who is confident is often judged as “arrogant” and a woman who is appropriately assertive is often labeled aggressive. For example, when the word “too” is placed in front of a positive adjective to describe a member of a visible minority group (e.g. over confident, too polished), it’s a sure sign that profiling is going on.

Here is another example. Companies brought in “dress down” and casual Fridays a couple of decades ago and provided few dress code guidelines. They then started to judge anyone who didn’t conform to an unwritten standard and wear golf shirts and Dockers.

It’s important to move beyond the superficial, dig deeper and evaluate individuals more objectively. In the corporate world, profiling can cost people their livelihood or a promotion. It’s a slow death. On February 26, 2012, it cost Trayvon Martin his life.

Character Assassination

Another aspect of the Trayvon Martin case that is highly disturbing is the attempt to assassinate his character. It is totally disgusting to see attempts to say that Trayvon Martin deserved what he got. If you think I am exaggerating, a simple Google search will turn up blogs calling Trayvon a punk and a thug and referring to his parents as “bad parents”. (I will not link to them and promote them.)

I have never met a teenager who is perfect. Most teenagers make mistakes. That is why they need parents to guide them and try to show them the right path. Many teenagers test limits and show poor judgement. Some engage in risk taking behaviour that horrifies parents. Canadian broadcaster and scientist David Suzuki explore the reasons for this in Surviving 🙂 The Teenage Brain.

As the pre-frontal cortex of the adolescent brain develops, teens gradually learn to consider the consequences of their actions and display sound judgement. This takes time and they make mistakes. For this reason, I did not give my son permission to participate in social media as a teenager. When I discovered he had opened an account at school, I urged him to exercise great care about what he posted. I advised him to be careful and pointed out that anything he posted could come back to haunt him.

To imply or in some cases state that Trayvon Martin’s youthful lapses in judgement and mistakes mean that Zimmerman was justified in killing this unarmed teenager is despicable. People posing this argument should be ashamed of themselves. It is telling that they don’t bring up George Zimmerman’s history of violence. In fact, until there was public outcry, the police didn’t even investigate George Zimmerman’s criminal record but they did try to see if they could dig one up for Trayvon, a juvenile. They couldn’t.

This video discusses a famous person who made serious errors in judgement as a young man  but he was given a pass. Definitely take the time to listen to it and compare his experience to how some are attempting to vilify Trayvon Martin.

Similar dynamics are at play in the corporate world. If someone is passed over for promotion and they suspect it is due to their race and ethnicity, rarely is there an attempt to conduct an impartial investigation to uncover the truth objectively. Instead, the character assassination begins. Every effort is made to justify the decision by tarnishing someone’s reputation even if the individual has had glowing performance reviews and no concerns about his or her performance have ever been raised or documented.

Groupthink

Finally, based on the interview with Juror B-37, it appears that groupthink may have been at play in the jury that was initially split. Here is the Juror B-37  interview transcript. She even spoke of other jurors putting pressure on a juror who really wanted to leave. 5 jurors voted and the 6th one finally caved into group pressure resulting in a verdict of “not guilty” instead of a hung jury. This has subsequently been confirmed by Juror B-29. When Groupthink kicks in, the wrong decisions are made on juries and in the corporate world….sometimes with serious consequences.

The Aftermath

In summary, racial profiling can mean that the best job candidate is discounted and the wrong candidate joins the team. Character assassination is used to cover up and justify decisions instead of evaluating them objectively. Groupthink ensures that many teams continue to make poor decisions. Together, the same dynamics that played out in the Trayvon Martin case are alive and well in the corporate world and they undermine corporate effectiveness daily.

Photo Credit: WarmSleepy

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