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This episode was originally recorded as a LinkedIn Live and features a conversation with Jennifer and JBC Vice President Adrienne J. Lawrence honoring George Floyd. Discover what’s changed since the death of George Floyd, and what more we can do to continue breaking down inequitable systems of racism and oppression.
Listen in now, or read on for the transcript of our conversation:
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ADRIENNE LAWRENCE: Because we saw with George Floyd in that time, it did seem to galvanize change. Having these conversations that we were generally told we weren’t supposed to have, and now that’s the thing that has changed, that is beautiful, and that is not rolling back. People are not afraid to speak out. People are using their voice on social media and they’re pushing back and they’re bringing up instances of inequity or mistreatment. The thing is that companies can’t shy away from these issues that historically people have been told to ignore either because the voices that were impacted most by the inequities didn’t have the power. With social media and also the advent of just having these conversations more and more, a lot of companies and their leadership need to get hip to the game to realize that, if you are not speaking on this, that means that you are not addressing it, you’re not confronting it, and it is a breeding ground in your organization. There’s a potential that you will be called out.
DOUG FORESTA: The Will to Change is hosted by Jennifer Brown. Jennifer is an award-winning entrepreneur, dynamic speaker, bestselling author, and leadership expert on how organizations must evolve their cultures towards a new, more inclusive workplace reality. She’s a passionate inclusion and equity advocate committed to helping leaders foster healthier and therefore more productive workplaces, ultimately driving innovation and business results, informed by nearly two decades of consulting to Fortune 500 companies. She and her team advise top companies on building cultures of belonging in times of great upheaval and uncertainty. Now, onto the episode.
Hello and welcome back to The Will to Change. This is Doug Foresta. Today’s episode was originally recorded as a LinkedIn Live and features a conversation between Jennifer and JBC vice president, Adrienne Lawrence. The conversation is in honor of the second anniversary of the death of George Floyd. In the conversation, Jennifer and Adrienne discuss what’s changed since the death of George Floyd and what more we can do to continue breaking down inequitable systems of racism and oppression.
This is really a rich conversation. Jennifer and Adrienne talk about and share some concrete examples of how leaders have changed, what needs to continue to change, and discuss the specific actions that need to happen in order to create and continue to create more spaces of safety, belonging, and inclusivity in the workplace. All this and more, and now onto the episode.
JENNIFER BROWN: I’m delighted to be joined by you, Adrienne, one of my favorite colleagues, to converse with, to hold space with and for and alongside, and also just to reflect on the whirlwind that we have been through and where it all has left us. Sitting here today, two years hence, perhaps in an unexpected place, I think, and we’ll get into that. I wonder if you agree, and not in the greatest sense.
I know when we were preparing for this, I was deeply curious and just wanting to hear, Adrienne, how you feel today witnessing this day, thinking about reflecting on the past couple of years. All that we had hoped for, all that has come to pass and not, and even where we are now, which changes day by day with all the tragedies of the last couple weeks even. It is a lot to hold. Share with us what’s happening. What are you feeling and thinking?
ADRIENNE LAWRENCE: I would say that being in this moment where it’s supposed to be one of reflection, yet we are grappling with issues with common sense gun rights, as well as the loss of life, completely tragic and unnecessary. It really seems to almost hold a similar tone in the thought that I don’t think much has truly been done, that nothing is really changing significantly. We did see, upon the murder of George Floyd, we saw widespread protests, we saw a lot of organizations and individuals professed that they would be doing better. We saw changes of things that were inherently racist on their face, but that America had deemed to be acceptable. We saw a reckoning. But at the same time, we also saw, in the aftermath, pendulum swings back, where we’re seeing attacks on voting rights. We also have seen a lot of interactions and behaviors that really reflect the thought that maintaining the status quo that was pre George Floyd is something that a number of people in positions of power would like to maintain. It’s unfortunate and there has been some progress, which is great, but it hasn’t been what was promised or what should be.
JENNIFER BROWN: And what was committed to. That powerful, giant sucking sound of returning to status quo and comfort, but even more so, you and I talked about the pendulum swinging and all of the mobilization against a lot of the principles that we thought were being revealed and talked about and would become perhaps part of “the norm,” and not my favorite word, but then to witness the backlash. Did you anticipate the backlash being what it has been, as strong as it has been? I know, when you look at the arc of the moral universe being long, but it bending towards justice, I think about that quote by MLK, and it inspires me, but it also… I’m sober about it. I’m very clear-eyed about that quote, because we need to bend it. We need to bend it every moment of every day, and if we don’t bend it, somebody else will bend it in the opposite direction. I feel like that’s perhaps what we’ve seen. I guess I wonder, were you cynical enough to see that we would be dealing with what we’re dealing with now?
ADRIENNE LAWRENCE: Oh, absolutely. The thing is, and when we look historically, and Carol Anderson did an exceptional job of this in her New York Times bestseller, White Rage, in documenting history and the reality that anytime there is an advancement with the black community, even if it comes to just simply getting justice, being treated with the equities of the judicial system, then there is a pendulum swing, a push back. There is retaliation, so to speak. And we’ve seen that. We’ve seen that in the number of police shootings, murders that have happened in the aftermath. We’ve also seen that in the voices. People who are speaking up, people who are getting exposed for the things that they are doing despite being in positions of leadership, law enforcement. It’s unfortunate, and these attacks also on diversity, equity, and inclusion like we’re seeing with the Stop Woke Act in Florida. All of these things are part of the retaliation.
This fear that the majority has that they cannot continue to maintain the behavioral patterns of oppression. The thought that know your place is no longer an acceptable way of treating others, particularly us marginalized individuals. That’s what we are seeing, and it’s something that we’ve seen across history. It’s something I always expect when there is any semblance of justice, and it’s very, very scary, because we don’t have to live this way.
JENNIFER BROWN: True.
ADRIENNE LAWRENCE: None of us. Yeah.
JENNIFER BROWN: None of us do. No. Yeah. The power of, I guess, dashed hopes has been on my mind and heart a lot because it somehow damages us. While it may galvanize us for the fight, it also ruins our faith that change is possible. I wanted to quote Charles Blow in The New York Times. I just want to read this paragraph and get your reaction.
He says, “I’ve learned not to expect much from America. It has a deep capacity for change, but a shallow desire for it. I’ve embraced the “wise desire” not to be betrayed by too much hoping, as James Baldwin put it. But I worry about young people in all of this. It is their faith that’s most vulnerable to damage. They were the ones who most believed that change was not only possible, but imminent, only to have America retreat and retrench.”
ADRIENNE LAWRENCE: Yeah. That would be wholly accurate. It’s very difficult. It’s an act of not only courage, but almost obstinance to have hope and to advocate for it and to push for it, because we’ve been told time and time and time again to know your place, to how dare you. Yes, there are instances where there is the one, I’d almost say sacrificial lamb, where the system decides to actually provide some semblance of justice, and we see those peppered throughout occasionally, but they are not the norm.
What’s the norm is oppression, abuse, mischaracterizing facts, refusing to acknowledge the pain, refusing to acknowledge the systems that are institutionally built and maintained in a way in which they are to maintain these oppressive structures. To even have that desire for hope, to even want to be able to tell the future generations or your children that things will get better or that their voice will matter. Arguably, it’s disingenuous at this point. But as far as I’m concerned, it’s something that we have to keep doing, because as we all continue to learn and each and every one of us continues to educate ourselves and to get a little bit better, we can be the change. But we definitely need people to be involved in doing that and committed to doing it.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right. I think of generational energy, if you will. Right? And that fire that some of us, as we get older, we feel that fire change in us. Right? For a lot of reasons. But I’m really so inspired by younger generation and that hope they need to have and the faith they need to have that they can change the system perhaps in different ways, hopefully in different ways. Because what we’ve done sometimes, Adrienne, I think what we’ve done hasn’t worked. I think about being in DEI for so many years and decades. Right? You too. What about our approaches hasn’t been effective to change the numbers, for example, for representation at different levels of organizations? No matter what the date… We’ve been armed with the data. We have been as strategic as we humanly could be, and yet to be not further along is really dispiriting for every generation.
I do wonder what sorts of change tools you’re seeing the younger generation utilize that does inspire you, that gives you hope? You and I are different age groups as well, so I don’t want to say us and them. We look at these things differently, I know. You also come from a legal background, too, so your lens on a lot of this from an identity perspective, professional perspective is very always really compelling to me. What have the older generations of change-makers missed, and what is afoot that does give us hope about how change may happen and when?
ADRIENNE LAWRENCE: I definitely see that the older generations, a lot of them, in part because they are the vast majority of individuals in positions of power, particularly Congress and leadership and lawmakers, are trying to maintain a status quo or trying to reinforce, again, the power structures that they know well and that they know how to navigate, so whether it is rooted in Christianity, religious beliefs, or things that they experienced and grew up with that they would prefer everyone also adhere to it. They’re trying to reinforce a sense of rules as opposed to allowing people to define themselves for themselves and making space for that. I think in part it’s because a lot of society fears change.
I think a lot of humanity fears change because they don’t know how to navigate it. They don’t know how to control it. And that’s something I’m seeing from the younger population is that they’re okay with change. They embrace change, and also they’re doing them. They are more likely to be different, to speak out, and not to do this conformity dance that we’ve seen our generation, our parents’ generation do. The thing is, is we need younger generations to hold steadfast to that, to not give in and not to conform.
I think that definitely with the pandemic and the lockdowns and everything we saw, a lot of people did reassess their lives and what they want from it in even younger people. They realized that… I think it was kind of a reminder that this life is a gift. With the pushback we saw with the Great Resignation, that was a change, that was a challenge to the status quo, and that was largely led by millennials, who are the dominant numbers in the workforce now. Change can happen.
It’s a matter of people recognizing their own power and also being true to themselves. Hopefully, it would be great if we could see that in more arenas. Because again, this life is so short and we should all be defining ourselves for ourselves.
JENNIFER BROWN: I’m so addicted to TikTok, like so many of us are, but the millennial feeds about the way they view quitting and the sort of unwillingness to put up with things that older generations have from a belonging perspective, from a valuing of all of ourselves perspective is powerful and palpable and it’s real.
I hope even if it is idealistic and you and I know a more realistic application of it and kind of can see more of the long game, it’s intoxicating to see it and hear it and see folks demanding, not just asking, but demanding to be treated in a certain way and using their voice. I do see companies realizing, “Look, we’re nothing without our talent. We can either be command and control and shut this whole thing down.” I just heard today that Meta actually is not permitting talk about abortion in their Slack channels.
ADRIENNE LAWRENCE: Wow!
JENNIFER BROWN: Wow, right? Companies are making a lot of different decisions. Some we might agree with some, we may not, but you see the ones who are scared, and then you see the ones who are kind of leaning in to what you were just saying, which is this is our future. These are our future leaders. These are folks who are… We need to understand from a customer perspective, right? We need to have around the table, and why would they stay? What would engage them to stay a long time, right?
Because that’s always a challenge as well. What kind of environment can people be most seen and heard and therefore most creative and most innovative, because that really is… That is the whole thing. When you have a generation coming in, two generations now, generation Z, the oldest of whom is 26, I think, if I’m not incorrect about that, inclusion is like the a number one value of that generation. What the millennials started to put into place is really accelerating.
This is not going away. If anything, so much is coming up to the surface and being talked about, being dealt with or not. Really it’s very telling what leaders are deciding or not deciding to do, say, stay, silent on, support. I think we’re in this… I’m excited for this moment to see where this goes and have the approving ground for employers to see, did you really mean what you said two years ago when emotions are high and the demand for accountability was so loud?
It just shifted, right? I think it’s shifted into the hands of the younger workforce. Maybe we need to think of this as what began has kind of changed place. The pressure has begun to be exerted on the system in different places, in different ways. I know I’m trying to be kind of optimistic about this, but I don’t know if you agree. Where is that center of gravity now for the conversation?
ADRIENNE LAWRENCE: I think that’s a fantastic question in large part because I don’t think we know. Because as we saw with George Floyd in that time, it did seem to galvanize change. It got people to start looking at their behavior, how they’re contributing to racism, to particularly anti-blackness, and having these conversations that we were generally totally weren’t supposed to have, or the people who had those conversations out loud were indeed unacceptable or could not be part of the mainstream conversation.
And now that’s the thing that has changed. That is beautiful and that is not rolling back. People are not afraid to speak out. People are using their voices on social media and they’re pushing back. They’re bringing up instances of inequity or mistreatment. The thing is that companies can’t shy away from these issues that historically people have been told to ignore, either because the voices that were impacted most by the inequities didn’t have the power.
With social media and also the advent of just having these conversations more and more, a lot of companies and their leadership need to get hip to the game to realize that if you are not speaking on this, that means that you’re not addressing it. You’re not confronting it, and it is a breeding ground in your organization. There’s a potential that you will be called out, that it will become public at some point because something happened in your organization that you did not…
Because you weren’t speaking on it to address it and to confront it, there are people who are being burdened by it and they will use their mic on social media and speak out, and that will hurt your company. So many leaders need to realize that the summer of George Floyd, that that’s not just a one-off. That the repercussions, the fact that people are speaking out, that’s something that can continue to impact them.
Something I will note quickly is that shareholders as well are demanding racial justice change. Just recently the other day, there was shareholders at some large companies that were demanding to know what are you doing when it comes to racial justice and equity, just like they did when it came to sexual harassment and Me Too, because the reality is that this impacts our bottom line, ability to make money, consumer’s willingness to patronize our business and to do business.
One way or another leadership has to address it and they need to work to make their workplaces more inclusive so that they don’t get called out on social media and they don’t end up losing their jobs or having to be that shall always a “sacrificial lamb,” that they actually need to Institute change because money is… It’s an important factor to a lot of people in the game.
JENNIFER BROWN: Hello, yes. I believe they need to be working ahead of when the crisis happens. Adrienne, you and I and JBC, we find ourselves sometimes in the crisis conversation, right? The mitigating the damage, the apology for the lack of foresight and anticipation and planning, and I would argue skill building and language building that leaders need to be working on very often, like way more often than they think about it now. Because unfortunately, DEI, this thing called DEI, has been shuttled to the side of the desk for forever.
I mean, really forever, until two years ago. It was a struggle to get it beyond being viewed as a nice to have. And now we’ve had an opportunity, which I don’t think people have taken appropriate advantage of, to develop the language, to educate ourselves about what are people bringing in to the workplace virtual or otherwise. How is it you said burdening them, troubling them? What is on community’s minds and hearts that interrupts our ability in very real ways to be present, to perform, to be creative.
These are real… You cannot isolate the human from the environment. We’ve been shown the consistency of harm that happens in our society. We were shown that. We have been shown that. If we don’t know that, then shame on us. But I think the ability to talk about it is where I think people are stuck now. Maybe the desire is there, maybe not. I don’t know. I don’t want to litigate that, but the language with which to say, “I care about you. I understand that this, this, and this are going on.
And we support you. We are flexible because we understand that bring your full self to work is not just a statement, a marketing statement, but it’s literally something that we mean. We want to walk the talk about that.” That acknowledgement and that ability to say, “We don’t know the answers, but we’re trying to learn and educate ourselves, and we need your help to do that.” it would go a long way to have the right language, the right tone, the right authenticity, the right walking of the talk, even if the answers aren’t there, because the answers aren’t there.
I think we’re still trying to figure out, how do we construct this new workplace when the old one was so broken? We all kind of know this. Do you think it’s a matter of… And what would you coach folks around language? The intent is there, but they sort of exercise their activity or statements just in time comment of solidarity, that the signal that we support you and all humans in our experience and we are not isolated from the world in which we work. We want to name that, and we want to acknowledge that.
This is a space where that matters. Isn’t it just as simple as saying that? What is so terrifying to folks about doing that? Or is it a matter of not having the language?
ADRIENNE LAWRENCE: I do think people find it to be a little bit terrifying in part because the prior generations and the generation that most leadership comes from is one of isolated from humanity, of not necessarily knowing how to acknowledge, to lead with compassion. In teaching that, and I just did a workshop on leadership with compassion, and I believe Berkeley and Stanford both have departments in their business schools that focus on that because it’s such an important part because people cannot divorce themselves from their whole individual selves, from their humanity just because they clocked on.
Having leaders who can navigate that terrain, who may never have known what the experience is to walk in the body of being a black woman, but can still be able to articulate the fact that they see the pain going on and that they can be there to support. That goes a long way. It’s a very simple, simple thing to do. It’s just that these leaders don’t necessarily have those tools.
One of the things I love about the work that I do with JBC is being able to give people the tools, to help people understand that they don’t have to have all the answers. Because when we talk about DEI, when we talk about workplaces, it’s a sociology. It’s something that’s always changing, and it’s also something that is unique to your own organization.
Having tailored language is something that you get to figure out from your heart based on your entity, but there are kind of some language structures out there that convey the message readily and effectively. Something kind of to bring up what I had mentioned before about organizations being called out by shareholders, next week, Alphabet Inc., that’s Google, their shareholders are going to vote on racial justice related resolutions just next week.
Also, shareholders at Amazon and Meta platforms, Facebook’s owners, they are pushing for there to be conducted of racial equity audits. The fact is that this is a driver and important part of business. Leaders are going to need to have these skills. I will also say that a lot of entities and organizations might be afraid as well to address these things, not just because they don’t have the script for it and they don’t necessarily know how to lead with compassion, but also because they fear that pushback. Again, like what we’re seeing in Florida, and the Stop Woke Act, that’s a way for the status quo, those in positions of power who don’t want to have these conversations, and also do not want to acknowledge the pain of marginalized people … Because acknowledging pain is a recognition of an individual’s humanity. So, with those pushbacks, some organizations will just feel they need to sit still and stay right in the middle, but that’s not going to save you nor will it be productive in any way. The fact is that there will always be individuals in the status quo who want to keep the status quo, and organizations need to be prepared for that. They have to decide who they are and take a stand.
That’s the important thing. You don’t have to take a side, so to speak, but you do have to take a stand. That stand should be behind your employees and behind marginalized groups who are being oppressed, who are facing human rights injustices, and uplifting your workforce, creating inclusive environments. So, walking away from the status quo so you can stand with your people, and stand with the majority of that from an inclusive position is where you provide for the legacy of your company, where you create a future. Where you create a future also that’s very successful, and that won’t get called out on social media or have a fallout because of shareholders pushing for racial equity audits. It’s such a powerful thing that a lot of leaders need to reckon with and be prepared for.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s absolutely right. You cannot accomplish anything towards the bottom line with folks who unfortunately are coping with a racist, sexist, homophobic world. Sometimes we read the studies that say companies are some of the most admired institutions in the world. There’s so much potential there. There’s so much potential for leadership, and protection of employees who are at risk in their daily lives. At the least what we can control, at the least in our sphere of influence. If that means we see companies responding to the abortion debate and laws that are coming down by flying employees to other states to get healthcare. So, to your point of it not always needing to be polarizing, it can be about healthcare, which is care for employees. Simple as that.
So there is a way to not get dragged down in the, “If we say this, then what happens? We’re taking a side,” this polarization. I say to leaders, “Do not get pulled into this in the narrative that people are presenting to you.” There is a third way, which is that we are for our people, and our people’s ability to thrive and experience safety at the very least within our sphere of control. And we’re doing everything we can to protect that, to support it, to become the kind of place … And this is my vision. I don’t know how we’ll ever get there. But at least the workplace, virtual as it is or not, is a place where I can fully realize my potential, all of me is acknowledged, my lived experience is not something people are afraid to talk about or name.
Right? My colleagues aren’t saying, “I don’t see color.” They’re not buying into the myth of meritocracy. Right? They acknowledge the differences that make a difference, and they’re equipped to say, “I may not know everything about those differences, but I’m endeavoring to learn. Here’s what I know. Here’s what I’m not okay with.” I also think it’s very important not just to share knowledge that we should be gathering, but also to say, “This is where I stand. These are what things I believe in,” and to not get dragged into, “Oh, that’s political.” I just think that’s so interesting. I just was on another leadership call and they were like, “Well, we just can’t address this because then it goes this direction.” I say, “Well, it doesn’t need to go that direction, and it doesn’t need to be unique.”
You can define the terms of this conversation and not let it go there. You can make it be about humanity. This is all that we’re asking for, and compassion. And honestly, if people would let themselves feel for a moment, we would remember that this was always what all of us wanted. My generation was never able to have it. We always had to bifurcate ourselves, we always had to leave ourselves at the door. I was closeted for years, and that is just a metaphor for everything we’re closeted about. As a woman, I wasn’t able to ever draw from my lived experience in terms of my wisdom and my insights and my value. It was something to be denied. So, wow, what a change now where I hear people speaking … You shared a story with me, if you’d be willing to share, Adrienne, about a certain word that triggered you on a recent call. Would you be willing to share that story? I thought it was beautiful because it’s something that never would’ve happened in the past.
ADRIENNE LAWRENCE: Yes. I was giving a presentation to a client that’s very New York, very successful, amazing people for sure. But it is very corporate, and it was on the Monday that followed the Buffalo shooting. One of the words, because the client had created a plan and a mission, but they called it a “manifesto”. So when I was presenting to them their DEI strategic plan that I had brought together, I included the manifesto in it. And when I hit the word manifesto in giving the presentation, I started stuttering. I couldn’t get the word out, and then I finally just had to acknowledge. I said, “There are a lot of manifestos going around this weekend,” and my voice just started cracking and I was fighting tears. I just said to the client, “I’m not okay. I’m still very shaken by what happened in Buffalo and I’m not okay.”
I said, “But I think you’re amazing clients and I’m here, and this is what I teach in terms of bringing your whole self to work.” So, I can do my job and perform my job, but I also have to be my authentic self. And thanking them for grace in that moment, and I was able to move forward and get my voice together in a good 60 seconds or something. But the client was very grateful to me in the aftermath. They reached out, several members of their team, and thanking me as a reminder that they didn’t have to shut down their feelings, that it was okay not to be okay. Because they were in New York. They’re not necessarily near Buffalo, they’re in New York City. But still that they don’t have to just say, “It’s another mass shooting,” and move on. That they can feel it, and that’s okay.
And also the acknowledgement that others around them may not be okay either. I started that conversation appearing just fine and everything was well, big smile, the whole deal, and I think it really made them think that there are people around them with big smiles on, but who are not okay and are in pain. In these conversations that I have with clients in terms of inclusivity and allowing people to bring their whole selves to work, and feeling supported and uplifted, that’s what you should do to acknowledge the fact that, “Hey, I don’t necessarily know if you’re going through something, but I want to let you know that I support you. In the event that these tragic circumstances that just happened in our society, that that’s something that gets you. If you need some extra time, if you need to push something off or if you need me to take the assignment for you, let me know. I’m here to support you.”
That’s teamwork, that’s working together, that’s acknowledging an individual’s humanity. That’s not asking me to check Adrienne Lawrence at the door and just be a cog, and walk in to do my job. And that’s how you build relationships, that’s how you create inclusive environments, that’s how you lead with compassion. And you lower your retention rate. You’re able to provide people with support to be able to do their job, provide optimal performance. You have people who are loyal to you. It seems very simple, yet I think it’s lost on so many in part because our society didn’t allow for it. And now, especially with the murder of George Floyd, so many of us particularly from marginalized groups are demanding it, and so are consumers and shareholders. So organizations, they need to be prepared for it, and it would be all the better for them if they did.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s for sure. It’s coming from every side, like you say, and the drum beat is getting louder and the ecosystem is kind of closing in I think on those who refuse to change, those who are protecting the status quo, the way they are most comfortable. I always say this system wasn’t built by and for so many of us, and we’re really getting to the nitty gritty of that conversation. Now, are we fixing it? That might be where a lot more courage and commitment is needed, but at least we’re beginning to be extremely critical of these systems, and how broken they are and how much harm they perpetuate when they are unchecked.
We’re hearing about that and we need to encourage that. Because we don’t know what we don’t know in certain generations as well, and in certain lived experiences. We literally cannot perceive the water we’re in, particularly if that system works for us. So that makes the voice of others so critical. How are we going to know what needs to change, be rebuilt, be destroyed and rebuilt, be tweaked, be modified? How are we ever going to know? It’s very difficult to do this work from a certain identity, because I think we’re just not able to perceive. We’re too close to it, a lot of us, because it is the water we’ve been swimming in.
So the voices that are able to be objective about it, and critical of it, and suggest alternatives and improvements are our lifeblood for the future, truly. And to be afraid of inviting that feedback, inviting those insights because the slippery slope argument that I always hear … Adrienne, I’m sure you get it, too. “Oh, if we acknowledge this, and if we open this door, and if we … ” whatever. Even around ERGs and VRGs, I still have clients, I don’t know about you, “Oh, we don’t want to put those in place. We believe that they’re divisive.” Can you believe we are still getting this? Why are we still here?
Shame on you, I feel like as a leader … If you don’t seek the truth and you are afraid of that, then shame on us as leaders and institutions. Because that is the goal that we need to mine so that we can do the necessary work to prepare the workplace and the workforce and ourselves for the future. You were talking about legacy earlier, and also preparing this organization for a time when we’re not here anymore and that next generation of leaders has taken their place. What can we do now to prepare that, and not kick the can down the curb, and wait for others to really make the changes that are incumbent on us to make? I think that discomfort is a sign of growth. The Growth Mindset, I love that book and Carol Dweck’s work, and I think about, “If you’re not uncomfortable, you’re not leading.” So, really holding ourselves to that standard is powerful.
Adrienne, I have another question you just made me think of. You just modeled beautiful language around how to approach folks and indicate, “Hey, there may be something that’s affecting you. I’m here to be flexible. Please, let’s talk about it if you’d like.” How I can help, right? Some people will say to that, “I don’t want to tokenize my folks in having those conversations and checking in.” So I wonder what your answer is to that and what you would recommend. Some folks may not appreciate the check-in. Some also have strong feelings about being checked in with all the time. They feel it’s almost performative, and that somebody’s trying to check a box by checking in with people. So, what do you say when that fear is identified?
ADRIENNE LAWRENCE: Oh, I think we check in with everyone. I don’t think you isolate people simply because of the color of their skin or their ethnicity or their background. I think that you check in with everyone, because you don’t necessarily know where people are coming from or what they’re experiencing. Some of us have high levels of empathy for others. So, I don’t necessarily need to be Hispanic to have cried knowing that those 19 children were murdered yesterday. So it’s just important to recognize that we’re all coming from different places and not everything is known to others about where people are coming from. So you check in with everybody. You do. And you make it such a regular part of your discourse. And the thing is that is so powerful about that of showing you actually care is the psychological safety you create. That environment, because that informs and creates a habitat where you can have inclusivity where people are more likely to speak up or more likely to share if they have ideas or if they’ve made mistakes. The company is so much better positioned to be able to thrive and succeed if you have environments of psychological safety where people don’t fear being torn down or diminished or treated as lesser when they use their voice or make a contribution.
And so, by letting people know that you care that their voice is important, that their experiences are important, that goes a long way, a whole long way. And I remember one experience I had when I was working at my first law firm, one of the partners, actually two of them, came and told me to go home. And they were like, “You need to go home and get sleep.” And I told them, “No, I can do this. I’m going to do this.” And they were like, “Yes, you can do this. But the reality is that you’re no good to us if you’re tired.” So they were like, “You’re not responding to us telling us we care about you and need you to get sleep. So from the business perspective, go home, get well rested because if you’re tired, you’re more likely to miss things. You’re more likely to not necessarily be ideal in terms of your performance.”
So that really sat out to me and made me realize, well, they did tell me they cared and now they gave me the business reason for that as well. And hey, that’s what I needed to hear as well. But knowing that, it felt pretty good. And so that’s something that I definitely appreciated, because it also told me that they’re paying attention. They can see that she’s been always in the office, that she is a little bit tired. And that’s nice to know that somebody cares.
JENNIFER BROWN: Knowing you, I am not surprised. You were probably pulling multiple all-nighters. You don’t do that anymore, though. That’s not what we’re trying… Hopefully. Adrienne, I love that point. So many of our diversity dimensions are invisible. I would say the majority are. So the point you make about never knowing what someone’s going through or how somebody is experiencing trauma, re-traumatization on their own part or on part of a loved one. That’s why I think about sharing my pronouns as such a powerful thing that I do, not knowing who’s around me, not knowing and doing it anyway, because I know I just statistically I know that there are so many identities around me that are not perceivable and perceptible and I need to do the right thing. And I need to continue to open that door over and over again, regardless of the response I get. And remembering too, that not everybody in one community say that has been very impacted by something that happens is going to react in the same way too. So not to put all people in one bucket and say, “Well, you must be feeling.”
I think this is where allyship goes awry is, oh, I’ve learned a little and now I’m kind of empowered. And I’m in my allyship mode. Making that assumption that we know what the remedy is for folks. And I think we’ve got to be really careful about making assumptions. And also recognizing that people’s bandwidth, energy, mental health needs ebbs and flows on a constant basis in some cases. So I do think, some days we’re feeling very confident and stoic and strong, and other days we may be feeling really vulnerable. And so I do think the check-ins take into account, not just our identity and how people pigeonhole us, but also just that day. And so let’s not make assumptions about how everyone feels in a certain community.
And then let’s also not make assumption about what we think we know about how somebody across from us is riding through these times. And I love that acknowledgement, Adrienne, and you just never know. And that may open up a door to an incredible conversation, by the way, because what you’ve done is create psychological safety where someone feels they can trust you with what is derailing them, what is challenging them, perhaps something that’s making them uncomfortable. Opening these doors yields so much over time, maybe not immediately. And I think we’ve got to be playing that long game.
What do we say about trust? It is built through many, many actions and building trust around I am the kind of leader that you can not only trust with your full self, but that you know that I’m going to have your back, that I’m going to see all of you and that I’m going to flex around that so that you can give us and feel that you can give your optimal performance. I’m the kind of leader or colleague, by the way, this isn’t just leaders, where you can come and tell me exactly what’s getting in your way and I want to solve for it. I want to commit to that. Imagine, I don’t know if I’ve ever had a leader like that. Thinking back to all my years before being in this lovely community, I had nobody ever spoke to me that way.
ADRIENNE LAWRENCE: It’s a shame, but I hope it’s something that will be reflective of the future and how people lead, leading with compassion, creating psychological safety and creating environments where you do have that inclusivity, where you don’t make people feel that they have to tell you how they’re feeling, but simply that they can ask for support that they need. That’s a true way to invest in your team as well as to create that workplace that is ideal and that people want to stay at, they want to contribute to.
JENNIFER BROWN: Thanks, Adrienne, this has just been so soothing and I hope actionable for our audience. I hope this is really… We gave you a lot of language to use and to suggest to your leaders, if you’re listening to this and you’re saying, “Oh my goodness.” I’m seeing in the comments, some folks who really want this conversation to be something that’s shared across their organizations. And if language gets leaders unstuck and gets that first momentum, which is always the hardest piece. I think once you’re rolling with this stuff, you begin to build competency. You begin to build confidence. Even if it doesn’t go well, who’s to say? I even think an awkward approach is better than no approach.
ADRIENNE LAWRENCE: Yes.
JENNIFER BROWN: And just to name it and say, “I don’t exactly know how to say this, but I wanted to say it.” The gift of that is enormous. And that is how we can keep the legacy of George Floyd alive is exactly what Adrienne and I have been talking about today. And I do believe this is how cultures change. They’re massive, they’re complex, but these one-on-one, seeing, hearing, valuing, inviting, safety, protecting, this compassion piece is what’s going to shift cultures. If we all participate in this new way of being with each other, I do believe that the ocean liner of change, that gradually shifts will begin to shift through the efforts of each one of us to bend that arc every single day.
So as you think about this, push into the discomfort, embrace it because you know that learning is happening when that discomfort and awkwardness is there. And then, let’s have tons of space and grace to quote my friend, Sandra Quince, “space and grace for each other” Because we are all kind of awkwardly finding our way towards each other for a very different conversation, a very new conversation, a very needed conversation. And let’s remember that we’re all both simultaneously learning and leading at the same time. So thanks, Adrienne, so much for joining me. Any last thoughts you’d like to share?
ADRIENNE LAWRENCE: Just, I really encourage people to reach out for help. This is a specialty for a reason, but it’s just the gains that you get at the end of the day are something that is invaluable. And it is also something that you can see. And so for the betterment of your team, yourself, your organization, just reach out.
JENNIFER BROWN: Thank you so much. See you later, Adrienne.
Hi, this is Jennifer. Did you know that we offer a full transcript of every podcast episode on my website over at JenniferBrownSpeaks.com. You can also subscribe so that you get notified every time a new episode goes live. Head over there now to read my latest thoughts on diversity, inclusion and the future of work and discover how we can all be champions of change by bringing our collective voices together and standing up for ourselves and each other.
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