It is a competitive world. But even with our differences, we can foster an inclusive culture where everyone is given opportunities to make an equal contribution. But where do we start? Founder & CEO of CareerAgility LLC, Julia Geisman joins Rosie Zilinskas to discuss the different facets of culture. She talks about the importance of an inclusive mindset in a culture that embraces differences. Julia also shares how empowered women can be agents for change and help promote inclusion and equity in the workplace. So tune in to this insightful conversation and learn how women can regain power and be our own heroes.
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Inclusion And Equity: How Women Can Affect Change With Julia Geisman
In this episode, we are going to be talking to Julia Geisman. We are going to talk about quite a few things within the corporation, corporate culture, and what it means when a company says something but does something different. We are going to touch a little bit on cognitive dissonance, and one of the most important topics is why women must become change agents.
Julia, thank you so much for being here on the show.
Thank you, Rosie.
I know that you are very knowledgeable about corporate culture. Can you tell us a little bit about what corporate culture is? What does it mean?
The question is, “How does corporate culture influence behavior?” That’s the big question because human beings are very contextual, and we adapt to our culture behaviorally. The organization consists of collective values. It usually comes out of the senior leadership, more specifically, the CEO. It’s the CEO that sets the culture of an organization, and sometimes, it’s very tacit.
In other words, it is never explicitly defined, although oftentimes, you will see listed on the website corporate values and so on. There are certain assumptions. There are the espoused values of the organization, which is, “This is what we say,” then there’s the tacit, which is not spoken but if you were to look around, you would get a sense of what’s going on.
For example, an organization may say they are team-oriented. This is a little bit different because we have a hybrid situation now. Not everybody is in the office at the same time but those people who are in the office, are there a lot of closed doors? Do you see a lot of people working together? That would be a tacit understanding that it’s probably not team-oriented because there’s nothing that fosters that team environment.
There’s another subtle piece to it, which are the unspoken assumptions. This is a tough one for women. For example, the organizations may say, “I believe in family time,” and yet if a woman particularly needs to take family time, it is held against her, even though the espoused value is, “We support family time.” Edward Schein is the one who came out with these three different definitions of culture. Culture is the environment of the organization that is the collective understanding of how to behave.
Julia, do you think that corporations are purposefully deceiving new employees? Do they truly believe that they are, like in the example that you said, team-oriented but blind to it? What is the loss in translation there?
Let me share with you the results of the inclusion assessments that we conduct in organizations. We look at the culture, development, and advancement opportunities, as well as the overall support individuals, receive to be successful in their jobs. That could be where they feel psychologically safe, and this is particularly true of women and people who are marginalized. We administer this assessment to everybody in the organization, including the CEO. It’s because we want to know if the organization is aligned with the espoused values, systems, processes, and so forth.
The very first set of statements is around personal beliefs regarding the importance of an inclusive work environment. We ask people to rate their level of agreement on a scale of 1 to 10. This answers your question. What happens is that everybody rates the importance of an inclusive work environment in the 8s. Remember, it’s on a 10-point scale, and sometimes 8.5. Everybody is pretty much aligned with that. When you have statements about the culture, that drops off precipitously. When we look at the data around that, we have to ask, “Why is that so?”
From our perspective, it indicates either political correctness or cognitive dissonance. In other words, people are not walking their talk or a true belief in the importance. Now, if it’s the true belief, individuals will probably not stay because the environment does not align with what their beliefs are. That’s an indication of a problem with engagement and retention. If it is talking from both sides of your mouth, that’s political correctness. That is the problem. People are doing things out of political correctness more times than not. The subset of that is cognitive dissonance, where they might believe it but their actions don’t reflect it. Part of that is that they are unconscious of their actions. They are totally unaware.
There’s a certain responsibility for women to want to assume the role of a change agent or change maker. A lot of people think it’s forcing people to do differently or to be different. It’s like, “You are a White male and are privileged. Therefore, you are bad, and you should behave differently.” That’s not the most effective way of having a sustainable change. In change management, you meet people where they are, build that trust, and then you can lead them.
Tell me a little bit about what you said meet people where they are. Can you give me an example of that?
Let’s say a woman feels as if she doesn’t have a strong voice. Rather than being punishing and aggressive about it, first of all, depending upon the relationship. You have to honor whatever the relationship is. If it is your manager and you are in a meeting with other people, particularly if you are the minority in the meeting, the usual behavior is, “All the women know this. It’s mansplaining and talking over women. If a woman is making a suggestion, then nobody acknowledges it but the male colleagues make the same suggestion, everybody is like, ‘Look at that.’”
We all know that as women. Men don’t understand that. Truthfully, they are unaware of that. I want to use that as an example of a couple of things women can do. When you feel as if you are not heard within a meeting and somebody else co-ops when you run with your idea, this takes confidence. I always say, “Steve, I’m so glad you liked my idea. Let’s work together to make it a reality.” What we are doing is we are owning and aligning ourselves with that person. It’s done in a non-threatening way.
Women can’t be threatening at all. We can’t be aggressive.
Nobody can threaten. I don’t care. You can’t threaten me as another woman. It doesn’t work. People push back when they feel threatened. This is normal. We are hard-wired to push back when we feel threatened, and the threat can be in a variety of different ways. Going into conflict, a difference of opinions could be considered a threat. A threat to my capabilities, my intelligence, what I know, and my position creates conflict.
That threat will trigger an internal emotion in that person who feels threatened. They will either come out fighting, go after you in some way, will get angry or shut you down. What has happened in that experience of feeling threatened, they will behave in a particular way that is not collaborative. When you talk about conflict, why people behave the way they do, and when you try to make people change, they automatically feel threatened.
A little while ago, you said you have to be a change agent. What do you mean by that? We said that if you are trying to make someone change, they may feel threatened. What’s the difference there?
Remember I said change agent or change maker but the main thing is to meet people where they are. By meeting people where they are and building trust, familiarity or comfort, then you are no longer threatening. Going back to the scenario of the meeting. If it’s your manager who’s pulling the meeting together, you get co-op, you own it, and take it back.
You say to your manager with whom you should have a good relationship, and I’m assuming it’s a male because that’s what Corporate America is primarily, you call his attention to it and say, “Tom, I want to mention something to you, and I know you are totally unaware of this. What I’ve noticed in the meeting is that myself and another woman didn’t have much air time. I wonder if you are open to it if you could be a little bit more vigilant or be more aware of making sure everybody can make an equal contribution.”
That’s being a change agent. I’m unaware of many things until somebody says, “Did you realize that?” At that point, I can choose. I’m not changing. It doesn’t matter or, “God, thank you. I didn’t realize I had done X, Y, Z.” That in effect, in the way we interact with each other, we can oftentimes be change agents because we are broadening people’s awareness.
That makes a lot of sense. I like the fact that you said that first, we have to build that rapport. We need to make sure that there’s trust and some back and forth there, and then you can start introducing whatever changes you would like to introduce. That’s smart. When you were talking about conflict, to this day, it irks me so much that men can fly off the handle, and it’s the way they are. If a woman does the exact same thing, she’s called different names, not as respected or a variety of differences there. It’s very difficult to balance there.
Everything that a woman does within a corporate environment is a fine line so that’s no different. First of all, you have to understand that we have to own our emotions. This has to do with emotional intelligence. It’s funny that I have been having this conversation a lot lately. People talk about interpersonal conflict. There is no interpersonal conflict. It’s intrapersonal conflict. Why do I say that? Everybody has different triggers. Some of us have the same or very similar triggers.
The issue is that when something comes along that disrupts the status quo, it triggers an emotion in us, and our reaction is to externalize it. Some people don’t. They suppress it, get angry or are passive-aggressive, and all sorts of stuff are going on but it’s still there. Their passive-aggressive behavior can trigger other people. If you come along, Rosie, and you say something to me that triggers an emotional response in me, I react to it, and it triggers an emotional response in you, kaboom.
If I get triggered, I externalize my triggerness and say something to you but you don’t get triggered. How do you deal with it? You deal with it as a problem-solving situation or as an opportunity to say, “It seems like you are upset about something. How can I be supportive?” This is why I say there is no interpersonal. You need to monitor what’s going on for you. That’s conflict. Interestingly enough, within the organization, we are all conflict-averse.
This society is conflicted averse, and corporations are nothing more than a microcosm of our society. Organizations are conflict-averse, and when you have differences of opinion, you will have conflict. The problem is that we associate conflict with combativeness. It’s combative because, a lot of times, we suppress our emotions. When you were talking about men can be expressive and blow up, it’s because something is going on. It causes them to quack. It’s the proverbial can with the spring-loaded snakes in, and you open up like the Jack in the box.
What happens is if you understand the conflict is nothing more than differences and if you want to have robust solutions, dynamic organization, and be in an organization or an environment that stimulates innovation, you are going to have differences. That is the key. In fact, I was listening to a podcast by Adam Grant. He was talking about organizations that are the most creative and successful are those that have a lot of differences of opinions or perspectives. This is why it gets complicated, and there’s a lot to unpack here. The key has a culture that embraces differences in the spirit of learning.
If the corporate culture is based upon a learning organization, it embraces differences. That’s number one. If the individuals within the organization have an inclusive mindset because that’s fundamental to the culture of the organization, then when individuals experience a difference in perspective rather than pushing back or feeling threatened by it, say, “That’s interesting. Help me understand where you are coming from.”
What I hear you say is that everything is pretty much layered because you, as an adult employee, are going to encounter that conflict. It’s up to you not to react to that conflict so that you can have an emotionally intelligent conversation with the other person and resolve your differences to solve the problem.
For example, one of my big hot buttons is feeling like I’m not heard, and I know exactly where it comes from. I can tell you about my childhood experience.
I have to hear, Julia. Tell me. Spend 2 or 3 minutes telling us about your childhood experience where you know exactly where that comes from.
This is revealing. My mother was bipolar. Fundamentally, there was a challenge. I would say things, and she wouldn’t hear or wouldn’t honor them. It showed up in other parts of my life too. It happens to a lot of us. Interestingly enough, it also shows up with my brother, so there’s family history here. If I feel like I’m not heard, it triggers a sense of frustration and anger. I have to monitor that because I know that’s where it’s coming from.
This is the other thing that I’ve fine-tuned in my behavior. If I’m not heard initially in making coaching, I don’t know about you but I push until I hit a wall. When I hit that limit, it gives me insight into the person, then I figure out another way to communicate or engage with that person. For example, I communicated with the corporate department head of an international law firm. He had an anger management problem it was impacting his entire department.
I recognize anger management because of my brother, frankly. I kept working with him and saying, “What about this?” It’s more on a personal level. He said, “That’s it. I like myself.” The approach I took was, “Let’s talk about how it’s impacting your business.” We kept it at the business level. One of the things we did was to do a 360 with him, and he didn’t respond. I’m going over the results with him and I said, “Don’t you want to know how you measure up to other people that are in similar positions than you?” I knew he was highly competitive, and that got him to do it.
At the end of the coaching engagement, he said to me, “You are brilliant on the way. You never lost focus. You knew exactly what you wanted to accomplish with me but you did it in a way that I understood.” That’s important because if you are so blind by your own emotions and goals, you can’t see and hear what’s going on with the other person or the environment.
That actually helps managers understand what they need to do to be effective leaders with their teams. If they are the coaching client that you said, if they are thinking that they are doing it right and nobody else can tell them what to do or whatever, they are never going to get anywhere. If they don’t have that emotional intelligence and are open to hearing like, “Don’t you want to see how you compare to everybody else,” then the curiosity probably got him more than him wanting to improve because apparently, he didn’t need to improve.
He liked himself fundamentally but again, men have a more difficult time with the emotional stuff. Here’s the funny part of it. I ran into him at a restaurant with his wife a number of years later, and he introduced me to her. She said, “You are the person who changed him.”
Good for you, Julia. That’s incredible.
That’s what I mean about meeting people where they are, and then you can lead them. This now ties into Disney and how that has affected not only women but also men. I deconstructed Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and put a messaging in it. There are seven negative messages in there for women. The long and short of it is to kill your competition. That’s why women are like, “Why are women not supporting each other in the corporate world?”
Competition with women is very different from the way men compete with each other. That’s more positional and hierarchical. With women, it’s more about Mama Bear syndrome, especially a woman who had to fight and claw her way to the top. It feels like, “I paid my dues. You have to, too.” There’s that piece but there’s the other piece, which is being very protective of her home, which is her heart. Kill your competition, be beautiful, be subservient, and whistle while you work.
We will take care of you if you are happy and so forth. When she dies, this is perverse. She’s so beautiful. The dwarfs couldn’t bear to bury her in a coffin but they put her in a glass coffin in the middle of the woods. Couldn’t you wonder why? The metaphor for that is that you are beautiful and dead. Here’s the version I read from Grimm Brothers. The Prince comes along and sees her and he’s like, “She’s so beautiful. I have to have her back in my castle.” She’s a beautiful trophy but dead. He buys her, and on her way to the castle, the poisoned apple pops out of her mouth, and she becomes alive. She goes off to the castle happily ever after being that trophy. That’s sick.
With a stepmother, that highlights the fact that women don’t support women too.
I have another caveat about Beauty and the Beast. When you look at all the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales it is all about empowering women, even Shakespeare with Taming of the Shrew. Kate was considered a shrew. Therefore she had to be tanged and subjugated. Women are taught to be disempowered. It’s in there constantly. The question is, “How can women regain their power?” That’s why I say, to do that, you have to own your role as a change manager because that’s a powerful position but you can’t go in there with blazing guns or bazookas.
If you remember Beauty and the Beast, according to Disney, Bell is smart and doesn’t want to have anything to do with Gaston, who is handsome but stupid. Her father gets captured by the beast. She, on her own terms, goes to the castle to rescue her father, who is in a vulnerable position. She’s the rescuer. They make a deal with the beast that she will stay there as collateral while her father goes off and does what he needs to do.
She knew unequivocably that he will be back, so she was involved in the agreement. Meet people where they are. She is unconditional in the way she’s dealing with the beast, dances with him, and so forth, according to Disney. In doing so, she’s meeting him where he is and accepts him for who he is. She breaks the spell, and he emerges. She allows him to be fully who he is. Here’s the interesting piece. That Fairytale was originally written by a French woman back in the 1700s.
I have learned so much now about the Disney stuff. Interestingly enough, I knew one of my sisters had a person in her life. It was a coworker or something but that woman did not allow her kids to watch Disney movies. Back then, in college, I was like, “What are you talking about? Disney movies are great.” Now, I know for a fact that they were trying to build these wonderful stories but in the process, they were not highlighting women to the best of their abilities. One of the things that I always say is, out with the old Disney language, “Let’s use empower language for our daughter so that they can grow up being empowered.”
That’s a perfect example of men not realizing what they are doing. They are unconsciously perpetuating the behavioral or societal expectations between the genders. All the fairy tales truthfully promote behavioral expectations for both males and females. If you look at Snow White or any of the Grimms, the men have to be the rescuers. That’s a big burden for them.
They have to be problem solvers. They have to release and save you. This is another thing I talk about. I have a red lizard on my shoulder that’s trash- talking but the main thing that this little red lizard does all the time is that, “Who’s going to rescue you? How are you going to get out on this one? Who’s going to get you out of this one?” I am going to have to say, “Would you shut up? Go away.”
As old and experienced as I am, I still deal with that. This is also part for women to know your stories. Those stories come from fairy tales, your family, and your community. My story of not getting frustrated because I don’t have a voice. There are so many sources of the stories that we hold inside of us that limit us. We must be willing to look at those stories and then say, “How are those stories getting in the way?” Some of the stories are fine. You don’t have to do anything bad but those stories that you deem as being limiting are opportunities to grow and manage but it’s a long process.
We learned so much now about Disney specifically but I like the fact that this conversation has been so good for women in corporate. It’s because it uncovered the fact that now we are aware that we have to be change agents, whether it’s at home or work. That’s the whole purpose of me starting this show and promoting that women need to know that they are self-sufficient. I talk a lot about, again, girls in confidence. Actually, I read a statistic. I was horrified that girl’s confidence peaks at age nine. A clinical psychologist did a study on that. That’s absolutely horrifying for girls’ confidence to peak at age nine. One of my other guests is a therapist.
She said, “Confidence peaks at age nine but then a lot of times, women don’t pick up that confidence. They are working on confidence in their 30s because now they are trying to get that promotion or move up the ladder.” Between ages 9 and 30, women are going through the motions, not even realizing what is happening in their life until a light bulb turns on, and they are like, “I need to become a change agent. How do I do it? I must start working on my confidence and all that good stuff.”
Confidence is an evolutionary process. In your 30s, in some ways, it’s fake it until you make it, so you are in practice. You are practicing and so on, and then when you reach a certain age, you get to the point of saying, “I don’t care what people think. This is who I am. I’m constantly learning about myself and the impact that I have on the world but fundamentally, I don’t care.” That’s why I say it is evolutionary because it will increase with age, and the stakes are higher but lower.
I get that. That’s very interesting. Julia, this has been a fantastic conversation. I would like to ask you if you have two tips that you can provide women in corporate to continue to think about advancing in their careers.
I’m going to give you three because I’m generous. One is to acknowledge and own your accomplishments and to be able to articulate them in business terminology. The other is to know your barriers and to be able to manage them. The third is to ask for what you want. Read the terrain and ask for what you want in a way that people understand. Going back to the example of being in a meeting and somebody takes your idea. You are telling people, “I want to work with you. That’s my idea. I want to own it.” That’s another way of asking for what you want.
I love the fact that you said, “Mike, thank you for liking my idea. Do you want to work together?”
I would not say, “Do you want?” I would say, “Let’s work together.” That’s because if you say, “Do you want,” that opens the possibility of him saying no.
That’s perfect wordplay right there. I totally agree with that. That’s fantastic. Julia, thank you again for being here. Any final words that you want to leave our audience with?
The biggest thing that women need to know is that they are powerful and they have to own it. Until you own your power, you are going to run into problems and challenges. Know that you are powerful. I know that’s easier said than done but you will get there if you commit to getting there.
Thanks again for being here, Julia. I very much appreciate it.
Thanks, Rosie. I appreciate it too.
- Julia Geisman
About Julia Geisman
Over the last 30 years, Julia Geisman has been laser-focused on the people side of business to increase individual, team, and organizational success. Julia founded CareerAgility on the belief that inclusion is the DNA of organizations. For the last 15 years, she has been attacking the root causes of workplace inequities concentrating on inclusion. Julia has been a panelist and speaker at national and international conferences, has conducted hundreds of workshops and webinars, is a coach and trusted advisor to senior executives, and is actively engaged in organizations promoting inclusion and equity. She is known for her ability to provoke new thinking and her sense of humor.