This week the Starbucks coffee chain began encouraging its baristas to write the words "Race Together" on cups to get its customers talking about race. If you think this is an incredibly good idea, to have your coffee server proactively go out of their way to begin a conversation about social justice and race relations, then this article won’t really make sense to you.
Because on virtually every reasonable level, it is a very, very bad idea. I could walk you through the specifics of how this idea is bad marketing, bad customer experience, bad for business and yes, actually bad for race relations. But I am more interested in how such a bad idea gets the enthusiastic endorsement of the CEO, someone who you think would be much smarter than this.
At some point someone had the idea that baristas should write the words "Race Together" on cups to get its customers talking about race. Howard Schultz the CEO hears the idea and likes it – or maybe it was his idea. In any event, he mentions the idea to others around him, clearly excited about it, and what kind of feedback does he get? Do his people tell him what they REALLY think about this horribly bad idea? Probably not.
Because in most businesses, the employees quickly learn to gauge what the business leader REALLY wants to hear, and most of the time a leader truly just wants to be validated. For all of the talk about authentic feedback and creating an environment where employees are truly comfortable pushing back against business leadership, this is not the norm.
So Howard mentions the idea, people see the gleam of enthusiasm in his eye and hear it in his voice. He asks "what do you think?" and all he hears is:
"This is what the country needs."
And if anyone dares to meekly point out that this might not be the most appropriate or productive time and place to force a social justice conversation upon another person – upon a customer who just paid for their coffee, who probably just wants to get to work and start their day, who may in fact be very amenable to such a conversation at a different place and time – that person receives annoyed stares and cold silence for not understanding the CEO's brilliance.
And as much fun as it might be to make jokes about the stupidity of Howard Schultz, the reality is that every day many other business leaders make equally dumb decisions because no one gives them the candid feedback they really need. Of course this is mostly because the business leader hasn't fostered the kind of environment where that sort of feedback is encouraged.
I would love to hear your thoughts and comments about this. But please, nothing too preachy about social justice – I get it, I really do. But I haven't had my morning coffee yet.