What DEI is Really About with Stacey Gordon

Stacey Gordon

We are releasing this episode just a few days after Elon Musk dropped his bombshell tweet, “DEI must DIE”, stirring the pot in his typical fashion. He argued that the point of DEI was to end discrimination, not replace it with different discrimination.

This latest outburst against what he calls the ‘woke culture’ reassured me (again!) that getting off Twitter a while ago was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. But, in the spirit of understanding the full spectrum of opinions on divisive workplace issues, I ventured way out of my comfort zone. I trawled through the quagmire of comments on Musk’s post, bracing myself for what I’d discover.

Predictably, a significant chunk of Musk’s fanbase wasn’t articulating their points with grace, veering into overtly racist territories, spouting hate and inflammatory rhetoric. But there were also some voices expressing concerns with a more measured tone. They raised flags about the potential pitfalls of diversity quotas, challenging the idea that DEI might prioritize representation over qualifications and merit.

As I perused the comments, I wished some of the folks in the thread could hear my conversation with my guest today, Stacey Gordon.

In my conversation with Stacey, our emphasis is on how an inclusive environment that genuinely values varied experiences and perspectives leads to more robust, innovative, and resilient organizations. This isn’t about pandering to political correctness; it’s about building more adaptable, more creative, and, ultimately, more successful organizations.

The key takeaway here is that DEI isn’t about giving an unfair advantage to certain groups; it’s about leveling the playing field so that everyone, regardless of their background, can thrive. It’s a nuanced argument that requires abandoning simplistic, binary thinking and embracing a more complex, but ultimately more rewarding, view of humans in the workplace.

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More about Stacey Gordon

Stacey is a workplace culture consultant, global keynote speaker, author, and facilitator of learning with a focus on strategies for inclusion. With nearly two decades of DEI experience, as the founder of Rework Work, her goal is to create belonging at work. Stacey has been invited to partner with organizations such as American Express, GE and ADP and has been published in Forbes, Fast Company and Harvard Business Review. Her unconscious bias course has the distinction of being the #1 most watched course on the LinkedIn Learning platform and she is the author of the popular DEI book, UNBIAS: Addressing Unconscious Bias at Work. Her approach is fundamentally rethinking how we approach talent and culture in the corporate world.

Her insights offer a pragmatic view: diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) aren’t about displacing meritocracy. They are about expanding our definition of merit and recognizing the multifaceted value different perspectives bring to the table. She offers a shift from a myopic viewpoint to a perspective where a diverse team isn’t just an ethical imperative but a strategic advantage.

Episode transcript

Aga Bajer 0:00

Welcome to the CultureLab. I’m your host, Aga Bajer. This podcast helps you turn your company culture into rocket fuel for meaningful growth. It gives you the tools and inspiration to make work, synonymous with fun, meaning, and belonging. This is where we explore how to cultivate remarkable cultures, cultures that scale and evolve as our businesses grow, and the world keeps on changing.

Stacey Gordon 0:31

So we first have to actually even figure out why are you hiring for diversity in the first place? I’m also using air quotes when I say for diversity, like why are you doing this? Because if you’re just bringing people into the workplace, but you haven’t created an inclusive workplace culture, then what happens is those folks leave. What is even more pervasive is they leave and then the leaders, the team leaders say, the hiring managers say, well, see I told you, they couldn’t cut it in this environment. And it’s like, no, actually what it is, is they can do the work. They just don’t want to work with you. Because your environment is toxic, and you’re treating them in a way they realize like I can be treated better elsewhere, so they leave. So then you get into this vicious cycle.

Aga Bajer 1:18

Hi, friends! Welcome to episode 129 of the CultureLab podcast. This episode is brought to you by CultureBrained. A one of a kind accelerator program, where culture leaders get hands-on support and guidance on how to reach their goals faster, especially now, in this brave new world of remote and hybrid work. CultureBrained connects you with outstanding peers on the same journey, but also with world class experts, including people you know from the show. And they will help you identify and implement new, better ways of creating a culture where people do their best work. Check it out, it’s tinyurl.com/CultureBrained. No need to write it down. The link is in the show notes. Today we’re talking bias with Stacey Gordon, an extraordinary leader and thinker in the space. Her book on bias is an amazing tool for anyone looking to understand and challenge workplace biases. But before we dive in, I want to peel back the curtain just a little bit on the making of this episode. So, the backdrop to this recording was personally challenging for me. It took place just a month after I lost my mom to cancer, and right on the eve of my husband’s major surgery. So to say that I was not at my best would be putting it mildly. Stacey, of course was brilliant, as you will hear in the moment. But after the interview, I was convinced I hadn’t done justice to Stacey’s message. So I reach out to my team. And I say, “Hey, I have really bad news. I think I f**- up this interview. I think I dominated the conversation. My comments were disjointed. I was not in the moment. So I mean, can you check if it’s salvageable?” So they listen to the interview. And then they tell me, they think it’s great. And I’m still skeptical. So I listen to the beginning of our conversation. And to my surprise, I find out that I didn’t get into Stacey’s way as much as I thought I did. Why am I sharing this? I’m sharing this because I know that it’s a common internal struggle, many of us face – this critical voice in our heads that amplifies our insecurities, especially in times of vulnerability. We really are our worst critics. So as you listen to this episode, just remember that we all have moments of self doubt. And I think what’s important to have is the ability to challenge these thoughts and find strength in our shared human experiences. Now, let’s hear what the amazing Stacey Gordon has to teach us about creating more inclusive and unbiased workplaces.

Stacey Gordon 4:22

Hi, I’m Stacey Gordon. And I am a workplace culture consultant based in Los Angeles. And I have been in the DEI Diversity, Equity and Inclusion profession for about a decade at this point. And I’m excited to be here.

Aga Bajer 4:38

I am so excited to have you with us. Stacey, thank you so very much for accepting the invitation. Welcome to the CultureLab.

Stacey Gordon 4:44

Thank you.

Aga Bajer 4:45

The first question that I have for you is actually the question that I ask all of our guests, and it’s about the early cultural influences that shaped you as a person. How did you grow up and what impact did it have on you?

Stacey Gordon 4:59

I’m excited to answer this question, because, so I grew up, I was actually born in London. I lived there for the first 11,12 years of my life. And then my parents moved to Brooklyn, New York. So you can imagine growing up as a black person in England, in the 80s. And then moving to Brooklyn in the 90s, as a black person with a British accent.

Aga Bajer 5:28

Yeah, not an ideal scenario. What was it like?

Stacey Gordon 5:32

It’s very interesting. I think I learned a lot. And I think that’s why I’m so adaptable. Because, you know, I really had to adapt. And when I moved to Brooklyn, it was, you know, luckily, it was a British accent, which everyone loves a British accent, right. And so it was cutesy, and everyone was like, oh, speak to me say things. But then you got to a point where as I got to high school, it was like, if you don’t really understand the culture, it can actually get you killed. Right. And so I really had to adapt very quickly, to a completely new culture, especially from the outside, people look at me and assume that I automatically know the culture because I’m black. But then I would open my mouth. And they’d be like, who, what? They just didn’t know what to do with me. So it was a time of a lot of learning.

Aga Bajer 6:25

Yeah, I can only I can only imagine.

Stacey Gordon 6:28

Looking back on it now, I still tell my friends. I go, ‘What were you thinking?’ To take, and especially Brooklyn in the 90s was a really rough time, right? A lot of drugs, a lot of crime, a lot of violence. And I got dropped right in the middle of that. So, and I do credit, you know, my tough exterior was born out of that time. It also helped me to see things. It allowed me to go into spaces that probably I wouldn’t normally be allowed to go into. Because again, as long as you keep your mouth shut, everyone just assumes you belong, right? And it’s not untill you open up your mouth and start speaking that they go wait… Imposter.

Aga Bajer 7:11

Yes, yes. And your accent gives you away or the way you look gives you away. That’s why I said not an ideal scenario, because these situations when we’re super young and we stand out, either because we look differently and we don’t blend in or we sound different. They’re really tough, especially on kids. I’m someone who has lived abroad for a huge chunk of my life. And I also see my friends’ kids and how they struggle. A lot of my friends are expats and they move around quite a bit. And it really is a challenge, especially for kids. And I know, Stacy that you get asked this a lot, even today, I can only imagine that back then perhaps even more frequently. And I do too because of my accent. I now live in Greece. I’m blonde, and white, and I don’t look Greek. So people will ask me this question as well. It’s seemingly innocuous, but but when you’re hear: “Where are you from?” How does it make you feel?

Stacey Gordon 8:05

Every time I have to pause and I go? Okay, what? And I just now I ask, I go well, what do you mean? What do you want to know? And I think for people who have grown up in one area lived in one area, they don’t truly understand, like we talking about simple question, just answer the question. But it’s not that simple. Because again, depending upon the context, and where you are, it’s like: ‘Well, why do you want to know?’ Even asking where you’re from gives the connotation that you understand I’m not from here, I’m not one of you. And you want to know, you wanna be able to pinpoint what the difference is, right? So that you can, you know, do whatever it is you’re going to do with that information. And I get it. Sometimes it’s not that deep. Sometimes it really is just, you’re at a networking event, and people like, oh, so where are you from? Because everyone has come in from different areas. Right? And sometimes I have to remember that I’m like, I’m at a conference where people have come in from different parts of the United States, different parts of the world. And the where are you from? Usually in that context just means where do you fly from that morning? Right. And it’s not so deep as like: “Where were you born?” “Where did you grow up?” But it’s very triggering, because of just the background on that. And so I usually will have to ask people do you mean, where did I come from today? Where do I live? Now? Where was I born? Where did I grow up? Like, which from do you want?

Aga Bajer 9:38

Yeah, exactly. Because there are so many froms and your story, I think, is a story that reflects more and more individuals. Now people move around and they come from diverse backgrounds and answering this question becomes more and more difficult. And as you say, it also really has this assumption sometimes and I suppose it’s not always the case. But sometimes it does have this assumption that you’ve mentioned that you’re you’re different. You’re not from around here, and I need to put you in a box and understand, you know, what, what’s the label that I need to put on this box. So you know, thinking about your journey, as a kid growing up in London, and then suddenly moving to Brooklyn, and completely uprooting your life being thrown into this new environment that, as you’ve mentioned, was challenging. I can already see why you would end up doing what you’re doing today. But I’m also curious, because it’s an easy assumption to make. Was there something else? Was there a catalyst that made you decide to focus your work and your expertise on creating equitable, inclusive workplaces?

Stacey Gordon 10:48

Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think I’ve always done this work some aspect of it, and no matter what I was doing, in every role, every job I’ve ever had, but formally, what happened for me was, I was actually working as a recruiter, and just being privy to the biases that, you know, hiring managers had when it came to women to professionals of color. And I just, I noticed, I was like, Oh, it’s so much easier for me to get the white guy hired, right? Get them hired, I get paid, it’s great. I got a woman, or heaven forbid a person with an accent, it was an issue. And it would take longer. And really, the catalyst for me was I had a gentleman who, you know, we’d gotten him an offer, he was supposed to get hired, they said, Oh, we’re gonna send you the offer over and 24 hours. And it never came. And it took three additional weeks of me fighting for this candidate to get hired. And I thought to myself, Wow, if I was somebody else who didn’t care about this black guy getting this job, I would have just said, forget it. Let me go find somebody else who is more acceptable. And that guy wouldn’t have gotten the job so that I could get paid faster, right? Because if I’m working on contingency, I only get paid when the person gets hired. So the fact that I have to wait an additional three weeks and do all this extra work to get somebody hired after the CEO has said, Oh, no, we want to hire this person, we’re sending you an offer letter made me realize I was like, wow, I can just imagine the number of people that this has happened to and over time. And this is problematic, right? So that’s really what drove me to say, No, we’ve got to do something about this.

Aga Bajer 12:25

Wow. Yeah. I mean, it’s incredible. And it kind of takes my thinking in the direction of inclusion. Because once you realize how difficult it is, for certain individuals, with certain backgrounds to be included, starting from hiring to what their experience eventually is at work, there’s no going back, there is no unseeing once you realize what’s happening. And I think that for a lot of organizations, the first moment, they realized, yes, the system is broken. And we really need to change that, was the moment that led a lot of organizations to saying, right, we need to do something about this. And so we’re going to start by creating more diversity in our workplace. And theoretically, it would be easier to get hired if you belong to an underrepresented community, for example. But first of all, practically, and I think your experience was testament that I don’t think that the situation has changed dramatically since then. It’s not always easier. But also, it’s really interesting. What happens once the so called, and I’m doing air quotes now, “diverse candidates” are getting hired into some organizations. This is a long winded way of asking you, first of all, how do you define really inclusion in the workplace? What is it? Let’s start with a good definition?

Stacey Gordon 13:55

Yeah, I think even before we start with the definition, I have to address the idea right? There is this pervasive view that because we are focusing on diversity, equity, inclusion belonging in the workplace, that somehow that means that underrepresented minorities, it’s easier for them to get a job. And we know that that is absolute BS, right? I don’t know how much cursing we allow on the show stock, mind my mouth. You know, there’s just some things that make you want to throttle people that they actually believe that somehow it is easier for a woman to get a job because there’s a gender initiative going on. Like you wouldn’t need a gender initiative. If it was easier for them to get a job. We have to create a whole entire program and basically force you to see the value in somebody. And I’d have to say, as a black person, and as a woman, the fact that I my literal job is to work to get other people to see my value is problematic, af. Right, like this is something that we should just, it should just happen. So the fact that even this whole initiative exists should help people to understand that it absolutely is not easier for a person of color, or for a woman to get a job, no matter what initiatives you’ve got going on in your organization, because if it was, we wouldn’t need them in the first place. Right?

Aga Bajer 15:22

Yeah, this is such an important point to make, right? Because I think there is there is that assumption that it is going to be easier because there’s so much focus on the metrics and the data driven approaches that basically look at you know, what’s the split, how many women, how many people of color, how many neurodiverse people we have, but we know that, unfortunately, it’s not really translating itself into reality for a lot of people. And thank you for underscoring that. And when you go basically through the wringer to get a job, and you get it, what happens then what are the experiences of people? Because I think you have, due to your work a front row seat to what’s happening in organizations? What’s the reality that people are being faced with very often after they get a job?

You know, to answer your question about what like, what is inclusion, you know, we’ve got diversity, equity inclusion, I think diversity is the mix of people, right? But inclusion is the act of valuing those individuals in your workplace, we also have to remember that inclusion is an action. It isn’t something we talk about. So if you aren’t actively including people in your workplace, right, then you’re not being inclusive. It’s not about something we just talk about. It is an actual action. It’s an activity when we get to hiring for diversity. Because I swear, if I had a nickel for every time someone says we want to increase the diversity of our talent pipeline, I wouldn’t be talking to you right now. I’d be sipping a martini on the beach somewhere? Because I’d be a very rich woman.

I hope it happens one day. And maybe I can join you.

Stacey Gordon 17:06

But it’s like, if we’re focusing on diversity only, then we’ve missed the point, because what we’re doing is we are looking at, okay, we don’t have enough of whatever, fill in the blank, right? And usually, that isn’t based in any kind of real goal. So we first have to actually even figure out why are you hiring for diversity in the first place? I’m also using air quotes, when I say for diversity, like, why are you doing this? Because if you’re just bringing people into the workplace, but you haven’t created an inclusive workplace culture, then what happens is those folks leave. What is even more pervasive is they leave. And then the leaders, the team leaders say the hiring managers say, well see, I told you, they couldn’t cut it in this environment. And it’s like, no, actually, what it is, is they can do the work. They just don’t want to work with you. Because your environment is toxic. And you’re treating them in a way they realize, like I can be treated better elsewhere. So they leave. So then you get into this vicious cycle. Well, we hired the woman and she didn’t stay. So I told you, it wouldn’t work out. So now we’re not hiring a woman. Right, we continue in this this vicious cycle.

Aga Bajer 18:18

I’m really curious whether you have seen effective ways of breaking the cycle, because I’ve seen the cycle playing out in reality so many times. And what has been shocking to me is that I’ve seen it happen in organizations that I thought were genuinely committed to creating a thriving environment for everyone. And that’s had genuinely good intentions when it comes to creating a workplace where everyone can thrive. And then after making quite a number of hires of extremely talented individuals that happened to be part of underrepresented communities. After a few months, these individuals told me, this is a toxic workplace, and I don’t want to work here. And so A, I’m assuming there is a blind spot in a lot of organizations. And you’ve alluded to it already, like you said, you reinforced basically that belief that these people are simply not able to succeed. So A, there is a blind spot, or B, I’m assuming also, even if something comes to the awareness of leaders in their own organizations, they are unable to take the right actions to correct what’s wrong, what’s going on, and how can you address problems like that they see when you realize that great talent is leaving your organization because they find the environment toxic.

Stacey Gordon 19:51

So it’s a number of things happening all at once. And so again, we look for a solution to problem A and we might Find that solution. The problem is we’ve got problem A, B, C, D, and E. And they’re all converging together. And so you solve for one problem, not realizing that all of these things all have to be fixed and addressed simultaneously. And so that’s part of the problem, I think, is that culture is a mix of, you know, as you said, we might have an organization that has a good reputation. But then you’re surprised about people leaving, well, you have to look at where are they leaving from? Right? Is it a team? Is it a hiring manager? Is it a department? Is it a function, what in there is causing these issues? So I used to work for a company many, many years ago, I worked in the legal department, and our department was fine, right? It wasn’t very toxic or anything, it was just okay. But then you when you look at the different environments, within that organization, we operated one way, but you’d go to the marketing department, and they were on a different floor. And they operated completely differently. The way the offices were set up how people spoke to each other, you know, the everything was just night and day, very different. And then you go to the IT department. And again, very different, completely different department, I always say, Oh, I never want to work here. It’s so dark in here, and everyone is sitting hunched over their computers, it was a completely different environment, no one talked to each other. So you can’t look at an organization as a whole and say that organization has gotten it right. You have to look at the people. And you got to drill down. Because in every organization, there are departments that are thriving and doing really well. And there were teams that are toxic and awful. And, and that filters in, right. And so overall, especially when we do these employee engagement surveys, we do it company wide. And then we take all that information and we aggregate it. But do we really look like department by department to see what that looks like team by team. Because if you did that, and you really drill down, you would start to identify where the problems are. But we don’t get that specific.

Aga Bajer 22:14

Or, sometimes we do but then somehow the buck stops at that level. So it seems like basically, this person is familiarized with the data, they know that the leader, for example of a department, they know that they have some issues, but they are not being supported in taking action. And very often, especially in case of people who have created toxic cultures, it’s obvious, I think, to me that they probably would have done something different if they knew better, so they need support. And they need some guidance in how to resolve all these issues, and probably first really needs to look deep down inside and self reflect. Is this your experience as well, that leaders are not getting the support and the nudge to change something when they realize that they are the problem?

Stacey Gordon 23:16

They first have to realize they’re the problem. Right? And so for most leaders who are the problem, they don’t realize that. So there is a two fold, right? There’s there’s the side of there are individuals who are leaders who say, Yeah, I know that we can do better, and I want to do better, but they don’t know how, and especially in this environment that we’re in right now. People are very divisive. It’s difficult to have conversations and actually pose questions and have discussions without, you know, sides being drawn, and people having, you know, issues about that. Right. So just communicating right now is very difficult. It’s also where a very, I won’t speak for the entire world, but I’ll say in the United States, right? We have a very toxic leadership environment, which is that if you are a leader, you should know everything right, you should have all the answers. So most leaders aren’t going to say, hey, actually, I don’t know. But most leaders don’t know. And I think so it’s just even changing the narrative about what leadership means. Because if we are really thinking about this, we shouldn’t be expecting leaders to have the answer. We should be expecting leaders to help identify the answer, right? And that means or it’s even posing the right question, and then letting their team find the answer, right. That’s what leadership should be. But we have been very taught that leaders are supposed to have the answer, make the decision and just go with it. When nine times out of 10. These leaders have not been given any kind of management training. They don’t have any kind of leadership development. They have no idea what they’re doing. They were really good at their job as an individual contributor. and got promoted. Just because you’re really good at sales doesn’t make you a great sales manager. And when you haven’t given people support, as you said, or training or development or any of that, and you put them into a position where they are told that they’re not supposed to say they don’t know, we’ve created this recipe for disaster. But on top of that, we know we have people who have been in I think, in roles where we can see they are not doing well, they are dysfunctional. And the leaders themselves have not taken a stand and said, You know what, this is not acceptable. We need to fix this. They’ve said, Oh, well, you know, that’s just John, you know, that’s just how he operates. But he’s, he’s, you know, it’s good enough.

Aga Bajer 25:42

Yeah, exactly. I think one important piece is accountability. Because obviously support and nudging people to make a change are important. But I feel like there is not enough accountability, when it comes to know what are you going to do with the information that you have just received, because typically, what will happen is a department will receive their engagement survey or culture survey results, and some issues are evident. But I very rarely see a process in place where the leaders would be asked to come up with an action plan, and reach out for help to actually address these issues. And this is particularly evident, the higher you go in the hierarchy, which is a bit ironic, because we often talk about, right, this disproportionate impact that senior leaders have on on organizations and how big of a shadow they cast. And then at the same time, they are the people who in my experience, and I might be wrong, and please our listeners, if you have examples that prove that this is completely wrong, I’m really open to it. But in my experience, it’s often that these are the people that people who are at the top are the least willing to say, “I don’t know, I need some help here. I know that I have a problem, because obviously, my people are telling me, but I don’t know how to resolve it, so I need your help. I need some ideas. I need some further guidance around that.”

Stacey Gordon 27:15

Not just that they’re not willing to say they don’t know. But they’re also willing to say, “I do know, I have the solution. And you better all follow me.”

Aga Bajer 27:24


Stacey Gordon 27:25

Even though they’re absolutely wrong. So if we think about, you know, right now, we’re going through this withdrawal from, you know, pandemic withdrawal. And we’ve got all these headlines saying 90% of CEOs say that all of their employees will be back to the office by the end of 2024, beginning of 2025, or whatever numbers they keep throwing out now, right? And I just say, have we learned nothing. I don’t even have words, sometimes. Every time I see this, your employees are literally telling you, we don’t want this, you’ve allowed employees to leave, to relocate, to put their kids into different schools, to you know, live in an environment where they can have a better work life balance. And then you turn around and go, “Yeah, we changed our mind, get your butt back to the office.” I don’t understand how any leader worth their salt can actually stand up there with a straight face and say these things.

Aga Bajer 28:28

I know, it’s crazy. I’ve read this research too. And apparently, it’s 75% of CEOs who say that by by the end of 2025, they are hoping that their entire workforce is going to be back to the office. It’s nuts, it really is.

Stacey Gordon 28:45

Many of them are mandating it. You’ve got CEOs that are threatening to fire individuals who don’t come back. You know, it’s not just hoping they’re out here throwing down the gauntlet.

Aga Bajer 28:56

Yeah, yeah, it’s such a great example of how leaders are not listening. And some leaders, there are some leaders that are but but how unwilling they are to really, you know, use the skill of empathy that we would expect every human being to have, but certainly someone who is managing very often leading organizations of hundreds of 1000s of people, you’d expect that they would master that skill by the time they reach the position of a CEO, but obviously, it’s not the case. Well, having said that is their hope. And what are your thoughts on that? Because on one hand, this is the reality that we are faced with. And I know that we’ve been venting a little bit about what we’re seeing in organizations. But on the other hand, I know that you wouldn’t be doing the work that you are doing if you didn’t believe that there is hope. And I also know that you are doing really impactful work that really brings about positive change. So if you were to share with our listeners, when you are faced with a typical situation, which is perhaps not extreme. So not an extremely toxic environment. But you definitely see potential for improvement when it comes to diversity when it comes to inclusion when it comes to equity when it comes to a sense of belonging in the workplace, what are the important things to keep in mind? And I think particularly, I’d be super interested if you could share things that we rarely talk about when we have these conversations about creating workplaces that work for everyone.

Stacey Gordon 30:36

That is actually our mission at Rework Work, is to make workplaces work for all, we have to be thinking about all. And I know that in this environment, again, because we’re talking about DEI, again, this this pervasive thought that we’re only trying to make workplaces better for women or only for people of color. And sometimes it’s thought of to the detriment of others, right. And it’s like, that’s not the case, the goal is to make it work for all, you go into an organization and you realize that there are pay equity issues, we don’t say, “We’re only going to make it better for the women. Forget the men!” A rising tide lifts all boats, I think it’s really important to understand that DEI is about workplace culture, we’ve always looked at it as something that has to work for all it looks at teams, how teams operate, and how are we ensuring, you know, again, you can’t go in to an organization and say, we want to fix the entire organization. But you can look at teams, and start to work in those spaces, because team by team, you can make change. And those teams need psychological safety. For me, psychological safety is like the foundation, because when you have psychological safety, what that’s going to do is allow people to actually give feedback, it’s going to allow people to speak up and tell you what is what is wrong. It means that leaders are listening to what is wrong, they’re also listening to potential solutions. Without psychological safety, you can’t do any of the workplace culture changes that we want to see. Because psychological safety has that that basis of creating trust, right authenticity, and improving communication.

Aga Bajer 32:25

We’ve already had Amy Edmondson and Timothy Clarke on the podcast, and they really focus their work on building psychological safety. But I’m always curious to get insights from other guests around what can we do in practical terms to improve psychological safety in teams, because there’s a wide understanding of what psychological safety is, among most of people, now, they recognize the need for it. But I think we still struggle to find practical ways of cultivating that environment. So what would you point people to? What are the things to think about or practices to implement to increase psychological safety in our teams?

Stacey Gordon 33:13

So, again, it’s like talking about managers managing and don’t have any professional development or support, these are things that you’re going to need some support, creating. And so it is, I think, identifying programs, you know, professional development that’s going to help when you look at your team, a very simple thing that we always start with, is it’s creating a new way of communicating with each other. It’s first getting acceptance from everybody agreement, that you even want to do this together. Because starting there, now you’re already at least on the same page, right? So to be able to start and say, Hey, we want to be a better team, we actually think we could improve the way that we communicate the way that we collaborate the way that we work together. And if everybody is on board with that, you know, let’s have a conversation about that. And getting everyone to say, yeah, actually, I’d like to find some ways to improve team dynamics. Once you have agreement, that’s a great place to start because everybody’s on the same page. So now, where you go from there, you just it’s about creating agreement in every step. And it’s not that everyone has to be 100% on the same page of exactly what you’re going to do. But it’s creating agreement that if we disagree, that we can do that in this space, and that it’s going to be okay, and that if I disagree, I’m not going to be retaliated against if I disagree, you’re gonna hear me out. If I disagree, It’s because I have some alternative ideas for how we can, you know, move this project forward. And I just want to be heard, starting in that space, I think is really a great place to begin. And it sounds really cheesy but we have a little exercise that we give to teams. And we just say: in order to kind of start fostering this, we have them do what we call their personal weather report. It basically instead of asking people, because when you ask people, ‘How are you doing today?’ what do people say?

Aga Bajer 33:38

Well, that they’re fine.

Stacey Gordon 35:20

And does that tell you anything? No, right? It’s always what comes out of the mouth, Oh, fine, fine. Even if you woke up that morning and had a fight with your spouse, and you’re in a really bad mood, even if you got into a car accident that morning, and you’re late for work, right? You’re just like, fine, right? It means nothing. But we have found that with this personal weather report, when you ask people to say how they’re feeling in the form of weather, right, it opens up a little bit, you get a chance to finally understand a little bit of how people are feeling without them having to go into their emotions. And without having to be too vulnerable. Just seeing the impact of that I actually did it for a group that I was facilitating a workshop for a couple of years ago. And I always remember this because it was just so astounding. They were doing an all day workshop. And I was probably the third workshop speaker facilitator. I had them do a personal weather report. And one of the individuals said: “Actually, I’m not doing so great, and just like shut off his his zoom camera.” and dropped out of the meeting. And I was like, “Oh, okay.” And he came back 10 minutes later and said, I appreciate you actually kind of doing this, I found out that a friend of mine, a really good friend of mine passed away this morning. And so he’s like, I really wasn’t doing well. And just having somebody ask how I was doing and having to kind of put that into words made me realize that I wasn’t doing so great. And it was like he had sat through a couple of other facilitations that morning, right? No one had had any conversations, it was just we’re gonna get right into it, we’re just going to do work. And so what I think is really important about that is, especially as a team leader, you need to understand how your team is functioning. If you’re running a meeting, right, I want to know that if we’ve got a really important project coming up that half of you are not doing well, right, your your weather report is there’s thunderstorms, there’s like clouds and lightning on the horizon. I’m like, “Okay, let’s regroup, let’s maybe rethink the way that we’re doing things, something isn’t working. Right, it gives me an indication of how to be a better leader.

Aga Bajer 35:54

I really like that. And I think if I extract a principle out of this practice, it’s really making small steps in the right direction where people can actually learn that being vulnerable, open about how we feel, etc, etc. is okay, and it’s safe, and it’s welcomed in this environment. And then of course, once you get familiar with that, once you get comfortable with that, you can do bigger things like maybe being vulnerable and trying out something new that you haven’t done before, or challenging someone’s idea or contributing your own idea. But I agree that it often starts with really simple and really small things like asking, you know, how are you really not not as we usually do, but with a genuine interest in how people are doing. And I know that you’ve also been an outspoken advocate for the power of storytelling to drive inclusion, which to me, is a higher degree, obviously, of vulnerability. And I’d love to hear from you, if you could break it down for us. Why you feel like stories can do the things that for example, data driven approaches to inclusion or diversity can’t?

Stacey Gordon 38:50

You know, stories, I think, again, it’s that that vulnerability and just the humanity in us, I think you said it earlier, empathy. It is so much easier to have empathy when you hear a story versus data. And so sometimes you can take that data and use it to create a story. But the story is what we remember how that person was feeling, how it impacted them, that makes such a difference. I will say this is one of the reasons that even you know, and going back to this idea of bringing individuals back to the workplace, everyone says, oh, we need to be together so that we can collaborate. That’s true, right? Collaboration does work well when we’re together. But it doesn’t mean we have to be in the office together. 24/7, right. And when you’re able to come together and get an idea of just how things affect others, we really have to be empathetic. And I think as a leader, if you cannot find empathy, you really need to rethink your role. You’re in the wrong, right that you’re in the wrong role. I don’t want to go off tangent, but I think the other thing that is really important about leadership in this is that if you aren’t contributing positively to the workplace if you were the cause of attrition, if you were the cause of toxic workplaces, right, and toxic teams, if you were the reason that people wake up in a cold sweat on Monday morning and don’t want to come into the office, I feel like you were literally stealing from your organization, right? Because you haven’t you’re being paid to do a job. And not only are you not doing it, but you are actually being detrimental to the organization. From an accountability standpoint, it is so important to for leaders to really be looking at that. But from the storytelling standpoint, it makes the data more digestible. It helps us to kind of understand what it is that people are trying to convey. And without it, it we do have a more of an uphill battle. And it’s difficult for some people, right to create that story. In our article that we co wrote, Selena Rezvani, and I co wrote an article called, I forget the exact title now, but it was about storytelling and a Harvard Business Review. It’s that that space of we do have to be a little bit vulnerable. It’s not about breaking things down and telling people our deepest, darkest secrets, right. It’s not about creating best friends in the workplace, I don’t even really have to like you all that much. But I do have to want to be able to collaborate and work with you in this space. And being able to distinguish between that is important.

Aga Bajer 41:31

I heard this phrase, I think it’s attributed to Rumi and I use it a lot on the show, because it seems relevant in so many conversations, and relevant to what you have just said, which is understanding is just a different word for love. And I think it’s so true that once you understand where someone’s coming from, or what their story is, as you say, maybe you will not end up liking them, but you will certainly love them. I think in the sense of in the sense of love in Greek, there are eight different words for love. I know that in English, it’s quite limiting. And sometimes love feels really weird in the context of business. But I’m talking about the love that allows you to respect someone, and acknowledge their strengths, and be interested in what their needs are and what they need to thrive. Because they’re on your team and you are working towards a goal together. And so you are invested in this person, for me, it’s love. And when you understand someone, I think you cannot help but love this person and care for this person. So I can see why stories are so incredibly important. And we use stories in our in our methodology as well. And I wonder if we want to be a little bit more practical and help our listeners to incorporate that as a practice in their organization? What would be the process? And how do you go about it? So let’s say that you want to create a little bit more of understanding within your team, and you want to use stories to drive positive change in your team. You know, how do you start? What do you ask people to do? What’s the format for sharing stories? Can you speak a little bit to that?

Stacey Gordon 43:18

You know, you said there’s eight different words in Greek for love. And then you said invested. And I think that is probably the word right in English, that leaders can really step into is investing in their people. You know, why would you have people on your team that you don’t want to invest in? Or why would you have people on your team that you don’t, that you feel like you have to micromanage, like let people do their jobs, right, let them flourish? And what do they need to be able to flourish? I think it’s really important question that every leader should have the answer to about every person on their team. And if they don’t have that answer, that’s a good, gre