In Episode 106, Lisa Gelobter, CEO of tEQuitable, joins Melinda in a discussion on ways to address interpersonal conflict in the workplace. They discuss the true costs and consequences of interpersonal conflicts for an organization. Lisa shares an open-ended question framework tEQuitable uses in their process that can help us all create constructive conversations at work and shift team cultures. They also look into the Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) for managing workplace conflict to improve business outcomes.
- Learn more about Lisa’s work at tEQuitable
- Download the CPP Global Human Capital Report, “Workplace Conflict and How Business Can Harness It To Thrive” (PDF)
- Read Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace: 2022 Report
- Download KPMG’s report on “Enhancing the return on investment for GRC implementation” (PDF)
- Learn more about the International Ombuds Association (IOA)
This videocast is made accessible thanks to Interpreter-Now. Learn more about our show sponsor Interpreter-Now at www.interpreter-now.com.
- “[For] people who don’t feel like they’re being treated fairly, 80% of them spend significant time basically ruminating on the bad behavior and 48% of them deliberately reduce their efforts. And the problem is it also snowballs; it doesn’t just stop with them; it actually starts to bleed into interactions with coworkers and, potentially, even customers.”
- “You can’t force people into taking action the way you personally believe they should because it’s about actually centering the employee, not the organization. So figuring out how to center employees; set them up for success, empower them. And then making change and really listening. Once you start hearing the stuff that comes up, how do you actually listen to it and take action so that you can create this feedback loop, so there’s real change?”
- “Techniques around team-building could include…, for starters, getting to know people on [a] personal basis…, not just for work topics…. You don’t have to be talking about your actual personal life but the idea of sharing things that bring you joy…; you can make them workplace-related, [like] an experience that you had at work… where you learn something interesting or new…. There’s this [technique of] creating commonalities that can be based in personal and social… to think about how to create a culture that brings people together, supports each other, and lifts each other up.”
CEO of tEQuitable
Lisa Gelobter is the CEO and Founder of tEQuitable. Using technology to make workplaces more equitable, tEQuitable provides a confidential platform to address bias, discrimination, and harassment.
Lisa has worked on products that have been used by billions of people and pioneered several Internet technologies, including Shockwave, Hulu, and the ascent of online video.
Previously, at the Obama White House, Lisa was the Chief Digital Service Officer for the Department of Education, and prior to that she served as the Chief Digital Officer for BET Networks at Viacom.
Lisa has been named one of Inc.’s 100 Women Building America’s Most Innovative and Ambitious Businesses, Fast Company’s Most Creative People, and serves on boards for: the Obama Foundation, Times Up, and The Education Trust.
Lisa is one of the first 40 Black women ever to have raised over $1mm in VC funding.
She is also proud to be a Black woman with a Computer Science degree. Go STEM!
MELINDA: Hello, everyone. I’m Melinda Briana Epler, Founder and CEO of Change Catalyst and author of How to Be an Ally. I’m your host of Leading With Empathy & AllyShip. Welcome!
Allyship is about learning, showing empathy, and taking action. That process often includes learning, unlearning, and relearning, then building empathy for people with different experiences, and above all, taking consistent action. So each week, we’ll learn from somebody new. Please be open to new ways of thinking and understanding. You can learn more about my work and sign up to join us for a live recording at ally.cc.
Let’s get started.
Hello, everyone. Today, our guest is Lisa Gelobter, CEO at tEQuitable. We’ll be talking today about interpersonal conflict in the workplace, the cost of interpersonal conflicts, how each of us can work to create more constructive conversations and to improve our workplace cultures, and how we can measure changes to improve business outcomes.
Welcome, my friend.
LISA: Thank you, I’m very happy to be here. And I also think this is a great topic because I think people intuit that there’s workplace conflict, but actually surfacing it for discussion, I think, is really important. So thank you for giving me the opportunity.
MELINDA: Absolutely. For everybody’s benefit, I was thinking about when we first met, and I believe that was at the White House back in 2016, I think. You were working for Obama, and Wayne and I were visiting for White House roundtable on diversity in tech, I think. You were all working to push change in the tech industry at the time, and I distinctly remember, you gave us a private tour of the White House, which was very special.
LISA: Yeah, I will say, that was my favorite. So the Trump administration shut down West Wing tours, and I think the Biden administration is still just opening them up. But that was my favorite thing to do was to invite anybody that I knew, especially people who wouldn’t normally have access, and give them tours to the West Wing, which includes the Oval Office, the Roosevelt Room, and all that stuff. Yeah.
MELINDA: It was awesome. All right. So, Lisa, will you share a bit about your story, where you grew up, and getting all the way to how you ended up doing the work that you do today?
LISA: Absolutely, it’s interesting. If you know my background, I never would have thought I had ended up where I am today. But here I am. So it’s been an exciting journey. For starters, I am a Black woman with a degree in computer science, which unfortunately makes me somewhat of a unicorn, which makes me cry pretty much every day. But one of the things I also really like to talk about is, we’re getting much more comfortable talking about race and gender in the workplace. But what we don’t really talk about that much is socioeconomic status. So I come from a low-income background, both my parents are immigrants. And while I do have a bachelor’s in computer science from an Ivy League school, it actually took me 24 years to graduate from college. So I am a proud member of the Class of 2011, although I started in 1987. It turns out that when you pay for school for yourself, and you have to work 40 hours a week, it’s hard, and it can take a while. So I finally did get it done.
LISA: Thank you. I’m proud, I will say. I have friends who were very upset with me about how long it was taking, but it’s like checked off the list. So for me, I mean, look, my journey, I’m very grateful for it. I’ve been fortunate to work on really transformative technologies. I was a software engineer on Shockwave, which in the early to mid-90s basically introduced interactivity, animation, multimedia to the web, like made the web move. I went on from there to help launch Hulu. I ran digital at BET, the television network, Black Entertainment Television, which is a Viacom network, sister company of MTV. Then I went to work at the White House under President Obama, where I served as the Chief Digital Service Officer for the US Department of Education.
So for me, that was where I really fully internalized just how much we really could harness technology to solve what had been previously thought of as intractable problems. How do you make systemic level change? How do you make societal level change? So while I was there, one of the projects that I worked on was something called College Scorecard, which in just over three years was credited with improving college graduation rates in the US by 0.5%. Like, that’s the idea. How do you have significant impact at scale?
So as I was leaving the administration trying to decide what I wanted to be when I grew up, because it is a journey, I was like, look, this is not rocket science. If we can send a Tesla Roadster into outer space and create space debris, we can use some of those same best practices, product development strategies, innovative approaches, right here on our home planet, to solve some of the issues for the underserved, the underrepresented, and underestimated. So that’s how tEQuitable came to be.
So I am currently the CEO and Founder of tEQuitable, and we are using technology to make workplaces more equitable. Our mission is to really help companies make work culture that’s going to work for everyone. So that’s kind of my journey and how I got here. It’s been a long road.
MELINDA: I love it, thank you for sharing. So we’re going to talk about a piece of that bigger work that you do, specifically focused on interpersonal conflict today. First, can you share what we mean when we say interpersonal conflict, and what does that look like? Maybe you can give us some examples, too.
LISA: Yeah, absolutely. It’s interesting. So there is research that has been done on all manner of kind of workplace culture, and especially on workplace conflict. So what’s interesting is, there’s a CPP study that talks about how 85% of employees, so an overwhelming majority of employees, at all levels, experience conflict to some degree. It can span the gamut from, “I joined a Zoom call with 20 other people on it, and my manager didn’t see me, and I heard him talking about me.” Or it could be, “My peer on another team is always taking credit for my work.” So I actually have a tonne of examples, and I want to go into some of the details of what I think about some of them. And there’s also the microaggressions and the microinequities. That like, “Oh, you’re Black, but you’re so articulate.” Those kinds of things. There’s the like, “Oh, you’re a third generation Chinese American, but you speak English so good.” So there’s a tonne of the things that are kind of coming at you, that can be really subtle. There can be things like around ageism. Somebody saying like, “I don’t mean to be ageist, but my boss is 75 and is having trouble using calendars and the tools, so the team is having struggles with it.” So there’s interpersonal conflict.
Again, sorry, just to be clear, tEQuitable is neutral. There’s not a good answer and a bad answer. There’s not a right answer and a wrong answer. There’s not fact and fiction. So it’s about like, what you’re experiencing is true to you. So that’s interpersonal conflict between people. We have something else that we’re calling it for sure, like organizational friction. So it can include things like, and we’ve had some really interesting ones.
So some of the ones we get are things like, the administration is aware that our executives are really bad managers, because they get promoted because of their expertise, not because of their people management skills. So it is a thing that as an employee you might be feeling. It is still kind of workplace conflict, but it’s directed more at the administration than one particular human. We’ve had people kind of use our platform for when there’s a policy change, so a change in scheduling or incentive structures or things like that, that people will then call up and try to raise up as an issue. Because again, they’re feeling aggressed by it, but not feeling comfortable enough to be able to surface it. Then we had another one that was really interesting, which was, at some point, the receptionist at the front desk of the building was moved from a person to a video display and video monitor. So somebody wrote in and was like, it’s making me feel uncomfortable, like I’m under surveillance. So it’s just all of these things.
Like, when you think about the world of workplace conflict, it really can span the gamut between all of these different types of kinds of issues. Again, these are ones I rattled off that kind of were at the top of my mind. The other thing is that CPP study talked about how US employees spend 2.8 hours per week dealing with conflict. So it’s nearly 140 hours per year, and that’s about $359 billion in paid hours. It’s real. It’s not like a thing that you can poopoo and shoo away. It is really affecting everybody in all the organizations at all the levels. I have some more stats when we get into it, that can talk about how it manifests, what the repercussions are. But the real thing is, is we think about it.
Again, same part of that same study, it talks about how employees who have outlets to help them resolve conflict, that 81% of them have had experiences that lead to positive outcomes with better understanding of their coworkers. So not only it’s a real issue, but it’s also addressable and fixable. So the question becomes not whether it can be avoided or mitigated, but the real concern is how you actually deal with it and how you empower employees to deal with it. That’s why interpersonal conflict is so important as an issue to address, and again, I don’t think we’re talking about it.
MELINDA: Yeah. Maybe we can go a little bit more into the details of how it affects us, and how it affects teams, how it affects individuals, how it affects workplaces. Obviously, it makes us happier at work when we’re not having to constantly work through unresolved conflicts, and obviously, it would affect our psychological safety or sense of belonging or engagement and our commitment to that workplace too, I’d imagine as well. Can you go into some of the details?
LISA: Yeah, I think you’re totally right in terms of that. So there’s all kinds of costs associated with it. First of all, you get people who are disengaged. So people who don’t feel like they’re being treated fairly, 80% of them spend significant time basically ruminating on the bad behavior, and 48% of them deliberately reduce their efforts. And the problem is, it also snowballs. It doesn’t just stop with them; it actually starts to bleed into interactions with coworkers and potentially even customers. So it really is an issue that is not siloed, it’s not contained.
Gallup has a study on the state of the global workplace that talks about how 63% of the world’s employees have essentially checked out. I mean, the numbers are staggering if you’re paying attention. I guess it says an additional 24% are acting out their unhappiness and undermining the accomplishments of the 13% who are committed to innovation and organizational progress. So again, it’s not contained. It’s not just, oh, I’m going to behave a certain way in this situation. But also, I am going to try to undermine other people’s work and the success of the organization as a whole.
MELINDA: I suspect some of that is deliberate, some of that is not. Because we have unresolved trauma, and if we’re experiencing things, it can come out. If we’re being modeled this certain way of interaction, we can then perpetuate that same interaction with other people, and then we also have unresolved trauma that can come out in all kinds of ways that can harm each other too.
LISA: Right. That then includes absenteeism, for example. So if people are disengaged, absenteeism is 37% higher, lower productivity, lower profitability. It’s a retention issue. People have less trust in the organization. They have less engagement. There’s less psychological safety. They don’t feel like they are empowered to speak up or take risks. It so permeates everything.
Just imagine, if you had this magic wand, where you could help people learn how to actually have healthy and open communication and good dialogue, and resolve some of these issues. Again, in terms of what tEQuitable does, sometimes, they just need to vent; they need to know they’re not alone in it, they need to know that they’re not the only ones experiencing it. So there’s kind of a whole gamut of things that people can do. It doesn’t always have to be like direct confrontation, that’s not necessarily always the right answer. So that idea of how do you refocus and reframe what a healthy culture looks like in an organization?
MELINDA: Yeah, and I think there are a lot of managers that just want to get their work done, that just want to do the work, meet their deadlines, get the promotions, and so on. They can be conflict-averse, can say I don’t want to deal with that, let’s not deal with that, and kind of gloss over things, and so on. I’ve heard of several managers doing that right now. It is a lot of things we’re dealing with in the world that can impact that as well, we just don’t want to deal with the conflict. But with all of the things that you’re saying, it’s so important to deal with it now. Because otherwise, you’re going to deal with repercussions of it later.
LISA: I mean, if you can see that your employees are disengaging, or are not as productive as they previously have been, it’s really important to get to the root cause of it, and provide them with the tools. You don’t have to be the one that deals with it. You don’t have to be the one that solves it. But like, providing an employee base with tools that will help them get to it will ultimately so benefit the entire organization.
MELINDA: And humanity, and we all want to go through this world in a way that we’re leaving it better than we found it and we’re treating each other like humans. Sometimes we forget that part too, and that’s so important as well.
LISA: I thank you for saying that, because that’s exactly right. I’ve got to tell you, because since I’ve been doing this work, and again, I’m not trained but I’ve been steeped in it. But it really is now my family interactions are different. It’s been like, I don’t know if I’ve become the peacemaker, and if that’s the right word, but it definitely feels like I’m able to have healthy interactions outside of work too, with my friends, with all of my social relationships. So it’s good work all around, to your point.
MELINDA: Awesome. So let’s talk about some solutions, how do we do this? What are some ways that we can address this overall, and then specifically, how can we create some constructive conversations at work?
LISA: Yeah, so this is literally what tEQuitable does. Actually, maybe I can talk a little bit about how we operate, and then I can maybe give some concrete examples of how things have gotten. So the way tEQuitable works, for example, if somebody makes a sexist crack, or tries to touch my hair, that’s not the totality of who they are. I’m not going to go to HR for that, because that feels like the nuclear option. I’m not trying to get them fired over it. But I would like the behaviors to change. Then the flipside of it is, if I feel like I’m being overly-discriminated against, well, then I want the company to take immediate action. So what tEQuitable tries to do is help the employee in either of those situations, figure out what their next step should be and how they can move forward.
Then simultaneously, oftentimes, companies don’t have a great sense for what’s happening on the ground in the day to day. So we try to provide data and insights back to them for that. So we provide a sounding board for employees, where they can come, get advice, explore their options, and figure out what their next step should be. Then while they’re doing that, we gather data that we anonymize and aggregate, and we use that to identify systemic issues within an organization’s culture, create a report for the management team with actionable recommendations. So for us, it’s really important that we work on both sides of the equation. So we can empower and support employees, but we can also help the organization identify and address issues before they escalate. We’re trying to create this virtuous cycle so we can make systemic change.
The long and short of it is, we are a third-party tech-enabled ombuds platform. So what people can do about it, actually the way we’ve developed, and this was all through, we do straight up product development, which means we do a tonne of user research. We’ve talked to, at this point, more than a thousand employees. It’s the question of like, well, in situations where there’s microinequities or microaggressions, or interpersonal conflict in any way that you want to define it, what would you like to have happen? So we’ve asked a lot of questions about that, and that goes back to sometimes they just need to feel heard, sometimes they want to get advice on what they can do about a situation. They don’t want to be told, oh, you shouldn’t have taken it that way, she didn’t mean it that way. There’s a lot of that. They want it to be fixed without it being their responsibility. So there’s all of this stuff that goes into it about given a situation, what do you want to have happen?
So the beautiful thing about the ombuds process, and we are organizational ombuds, and the tenets and principles by which every organizational ombuds live are put out by the International Ombuds Association (IOA). So we live by four principles. The first is that we are independent. So we’re not beholden to the company’s management structure. We are confidential, meaning we’ll neither confirm nor deny someone has even spoken with us. We are impartial. So we don’t advocate for the employee, we don’t advocate for the company; we advocate for fairness of process. Then we’re very specifically informal and off the record. So telling us something is not serving notice to the organization.
So the whole part of the ombuds process is part art and part science. It’s helping the visitor move from their position: what is it they think they want, to their interest: why is that so fundamentally important to them. Help them identify the outcome they’d like to have happen, and then develop an action plan to get there. So our approach, everything we do is super-actionable. One of the things that we say as part of our opening statement of ombuds is, we’re never telling somebody what to do, what we want to do is really empower the employee, give them back some agency. Because so often, they feel like the control is taken out of their hands. So for us, it’s really about kind of asking open-ended questions. If something’s going on, I’m like, would you want to talk to your manager about it? If the answer is yes, well, have you ever had a tough conversation with your manager? Have you ever seen anybody else have a tough conversation with your manager that has gone well? What is your relationship like with your manager generally? Like, what was your performance review last year? If you said something like this, how do you think your manager might respond? If you said it like that, would it feel authentic to you? Like, would you feel comfortable with it? What’s the worst thing that would happen if you actually said it that way?
So it’s really about helping them, and the sounding board is the perfect example. It’s really about helping them process and giving them the tools and help them get out of their own head. Because sometimes, they just need to say the stuff out loud. And because we’re neutral and judgement-free, it’s that idea of helping you figure out, what do you want to have happen and what’s so fundamental?
MELINDA: Yeah. So all of what you just said, I think, if you’re not in a position to use tEQuitable, you could also ask those questions of yourself, you could ask those questions if you’re a manager of somebody who’s having conflict with somebody else, if somebody’s confiding in you as another colleague, all of those things. Those are great questions to be considering. I love it.
LISA: Exactly. I’m sorry, what we’ve done, I talk in terms of tEQuitable, but it’s all built on the strategy of really asking the open-ended questions to really identify those four steps in the process. So one example is, somebody called up because they felt like a coworker was always taking credit for her work. It’s a matter of kind of asking those questions like, well, who do you think doesn’t know that it’s your work? As we asked those questions, she was like, well, I mean, the CEO knows it’s my work because I’m the one like presenting. Actually, all of tech support knows it’s my work. Because when there are issues, they come to me, they don’t go to her. So you’ve just got to ask the right questions, and at the end, she was like, well, oh, wait. Her taking credit for my work is actually a reflection of her and her insecurities and what she’s doing, and people will see that. I don’t gotta defend it, everybody knows that it’s my work. So just that kind of processing, it’s just a different approach to thinking about the questions.
We had another person. She actually called up because she felt like she was a leader of the organization, and she was going to take, I think it was two weeks of medical leave. But it turns out, she was checking herself into a eating disorder clinic. But she was like, look, I’m a leader in the organization, I believe we should be talking about these issues more. I feel like it is my responsibility to put myself out there and to actually discuss this with the team. So again, just with the asking of the questions, what she was saying was, her concern with it was that she didn’t want to get, it’s not pedantic responses, she didn’t want people saying trite stuff to her. So our suggestion was like, well, if you’re going to do this, tell them what you need from them, tell them how they can help you, or tell them what you want them to say. That’s okay. So just helping kind of reframe it.
We also of course surface the idea of like, hey, look, this is not your one and only opportunity to do this. If you are feeling unsafe or insecure, you can talk about it in six months, nobody will think less of you for having done that. Sometimes you’ve got to think about yourself and protect yourself. Yes, you’re still a leader in the organization, and surfacing it six months from now will still be okay and have the same effect. But again, as we continue to pull at it, it turns out that basically, she felt guilty for taking two weeks off, and she felt like she had to justify the need. So that processing, so much of it, it’s really interesting and fascinating, as you start to use these techniques, to try to actually understand what is at the root cause of it.
It’s been a fascinating journey, and we’ve learned so much, and we’ve gotten so much better! I feel like people have walked away with tools that have been just really, really great. Again, we’re not magic. Yes, we are a third-party tech-enabled ombuds. But ombuds have been around for centuries really, but in the US since about the 1960s. So it’s just practicing those techniques, and implementing them and putting them to work. It’s creating an informal channel, which again, you can do internally. I just count everything in tEQuitable, because that’s what I know, that’s how I think about it. I’m like, let’s solve the problem.
So I’ll give you two other examples. Somebody called up because they were applying for a promotion. Their manager said, oh, don’t worry about it, you’ll make it to the next round, because we have the Rooney Rule in place. That requires at least one underrepresented candidate being interviewed. She was like, she felt some kind of way about it. She was like, look, I don’t need any advice. I just need management to know that you cannot talk about diversity and inclusion initiatives this way, because it makes those of us who are underrepresented feel tokenized. So noted, got it, heard it.
But as we pulled at that thread a little bit, it turns out the crux of the issue was that she didn’t feel like she was being recognized for the contributions she was making. So we actually worked with her to develop strategies to get that validation from her boss, from her coworkers, and even externally. And she walked away like, Oh my God, thank you so much! Like, if I hadn’t spoken with you, I wouldn’t even have thought about some of those things.
So that’s the idea. It’s not coming necessarily directly at the problem. It’s really trying to get to the roots of it, and I think that that’s the core part of it. And it can be really successful. Again, it’s tools that you can then use going forward also.
Last story, and then I will stop talking for a minute. So we had somebody call up because she had brought an almond milk latte into the office, and she had a coworker who had a severe nut allergy. That coworker then went on the global Slack, and accused her in her global Slack of trying to kill him, to murder him. So she called up in tears, and she’s like, I’ve loved my job here for the past six months, I don’t want to have to find a new job, am I going to have to find a new job? So she’s stricken, one. Two, she’s like, who does that? Like, how do you malign my character like that publicly, but also like, what? But then third, she’s also Persian, and she was like, wait, are you accusing me of being a terrorist? So there was just levels upon level upon levels there. She didn’t feel like she was getting the support she needed from her organization or from her manager. Again, this idea of like, how do you build the skills to solve some of these issues?
So once she called up, for example, we suggested a few things. One, they were about to have a meeting: her, the person who had sent out the message, the person with the nut allergy, and then her manager. So for example, we suggested that she reached out to her manager and ask either what the agenda was going to be for the meeting, or what the ideal outcome that he was shooting for would be. Frankly, to encourage him to think about it ahead of time, because she wasn’t even feeling like she was getting that support. The other thing we ended up doing is we sent her an excerpt of the book, [Nonviolent Communications]. So that in the meeting, she could really be prepared to say things in a way that the other person might receive it, not put them on the defensive.
I’ve got to say, this is one of my favorite stories. Because she actually called us back up to say that not only had it gone well, and the situation was resolved. But also, her skip level manager had been so impressed with how professionally she had handled the conversation that he asked her to apply for a promotion to manage people. I’m like, that’s the dream, that’s the win!
So it is using these techniques and tools that are tried and true, proven practices, and learning how to basically get out of your own head. Sometimes, you need a sounding board. Sometimes, you need a friend who can ask you those same questions. Sometimes, you can just kind of follow through that workbook on your own. But those are the techniques, I think, that actually have proven results, if that makes sense.
MELINDA: Yeah, absolutely. I’m thinking about the scenario, the example that you gave before this last one, where it turned out the woman was not being recognized for her contributions. Can you share any ways that works to really gain that recognition?
LISA: Yeah. Again, part of the thing is, because if every situation feels so personal, I don’t want to say it’s hard to say like tried and true practices. But it is the framework of position, to interest, to outcome, to action plan. That is what I would say, if I had to give you one takeaway, I think those are the steps. Because, again, every situation is going to be different. Because I can’t say, one option would be, you should create a chart or a document or a memo that talks about how competent you are, how confident you are, and why you’re well-qualified for this role. Like, in a certain organization with a certain type of person, maybe that is the right answer.
For this person, it was really about, well, one, it was actually building up her own self-confidence. So one of the suggestions I think that came out of that was the idea of, on a weekly basis, keep track of your own accomplishments. You don’t have to do anything with it necessarily. But just your having that in your back pocket helps you stand a little taller. Because you know, push comes to shove, you could whip it out at any time and actually have the proof if that needed to be. I’m not saying you need that. But let’s start with a little bit, which actually we’ll just kind of help you stand taller. That’s right, starting point.
The next thing is, well, so if your manager isn’t seeing all of these things that you are doing, is there a way that you could let your manager know, in a way that you are still comfortable with? Because depending on where you are, maybe you’re all about being like, look what I did, look what I did! But if that’s not your personality, you might have to couch it in team success, or business success. So there’s different ways to translate that. If you could, for example, when you have had an accomplishment this week, you could send out a note to the team celebrating the customer who had that success. So you’re taking the pen, and you’re getting to tell the story and tell the narrative, and that all by itself will give you some shine and some spotlight. But you can also deflect the success and not be like, look what I did, but look at what a customer successfully did!
So there’s all these different kinds of approaches and techniques, as you’re thinking about how to do that. I think for her, we talked about stuff that she could do with her manager, which was more along those lines of like, how do you make sure that he’s crediting you for your accomplishments for what you’re actually achieving? Again, in a way that’s going to make you feel comfortable, and also won’t feel like, look at me, look at me, look at me! Because that’s not who you are. If you are that person, then cool. And couching it in business terms. And then how do you actually build up that same respect level with your coworkers. Again, that could be lifting each other up. So maybe you start to try to change or shift the team culture, so it is a culture of celebration, so everybody’s celebrating everybody’s wins. Then the other thing is, look, the surest way to get your internal company to respect you and value you, is to have people outside the company see you lift you up. So the idea of speaking, of perhaps blogging, of creating a social presence. Again, that depends on what your goals are and what your aims are, and how to help yourself.
So I know I said a lot there, and I think there’s a lot of different techniques in there. But really, it’s grounded in position, interest, outcome, action.
MELINDA: Awesome. Maybe we could talk a little bit about, as you started to touch on that particular example of how to change the team culture. Are there other ways that you can take this process and these principles into the team overall? Are there ways that we can change and shift team cultures?
LISA: Yeah. So I think that, again, there’s a lot there. It also depends on the type of organization, not just the size of the organization, the size of the team, the power dynamics at play. So again, if I give examples, I just don’t want to presume that it’s a one size fits all. Because again, then who you are as a person is the thing that you may or may not feel comfortable with.
So techniques around team building could include things like, for starters, getting to know people on a personal basis too, not just for work topics. Again, some people are not comfortable doing that, and you don’t got to do that if that’s not how you want to show up to. If you’re like, I don’t want to tell anything about my personal life. Again, you don’t have to be talking about your actual personal life. But the idea of sharing things that bring you joy, or again, you can make them workplace related. So an experience that you had at work where you learned something interesting, or something new, or you had a customer experience that really shined a light on something and you were like aha, or you could take away something from it and do something different with it. So that idea, especially in this culture where so many of us are remote right now, and maybe off camera. So the idea of potentially doing like a coffee break for 30 minutes, rotating with different people. Again, some people are comfortable with that, some people are not comfortable with that. So that’s one option.
The other option, one of the things that I’ve suggested I know in the past is, create like a lunch and learn. So for example, if there is something that you were like, this is an aha moment for me, and it changed how I’m going to develop this or how I’m going to market this or how I’m going to whatever it is that you do, well, share that learning with the team. First of all, that also, by the way, lifts you up and get the spotlight on you. But it also gives you all something to talk about, which is not just like, oh, I’m doing this one thing today, and I’m fixing this and working on that. So I think there’s creating commonalities that can be based in personal and social, but they don’t have to be. They can be kind of work adjacent or work task adjacent, to think about how to, again, create a culture that brings people together and supports each other and lifts each other up. Yeah, those kinds of things.
MELINDA: Yeah, absolutely. I’m sure that you think a lot about this. Maybe you could share a bit about how you measure success. How do you know that this work that you’re doing is successful? On an individual level, I think it’s kind of more clear, because the outcome is the outcome that you’re seeking. On a team level and kind of at an organizational level?
LISA: Yes. So what I would say is, I think that there is: Oh look, I took an outcome and something changed. Yes, that’s win, win, win. The idea of reframing your mindset to think about agency, to think about the things that you can impact, like changing from passive voice to active voice. There are things like that, that all by themselves to me are wins. It’s learning some of those skills, like when you do make a list of your accomplishments, it shouldn’t be a list of your tasks. It’s not about outputs, it’s about outcomes. And then take it a step further, is that more sales or that customers are going to be happy? So again, it’s this reframing of the mindset, and kind of that dea of agency and empowerment, which is a thing that is so critical. I just think that those are some of the most important things. Yes, outcomes, making change, having a good end result, absolutely. But I think even the building blocks. Because you take that building block, that thing you learned for this situation, and you’re going to apply it four more times. So I think that there’s a lot there. So one of the things that we do is, we ask, one, did you see yourself reflected here, did this resonate with you? But two, do you now feel more confident in the next step that you’re going to take? So again, it’s not so much necessarily outcome-driven, but it’s confidence building also, and skills building.
Then the flip side of it for the companies, truthfully, it’s almost like getting a decoder to the whisper network. It’s having that, I guess, a decoder ring. But they’re all of a sudden hearing the voices of the voiceless. You know how executives like to do listening tours, but it’s like a listening tour, and also that feels a little bit more secure than being like: Hey, Ms. CEO, let me tell you about that. See, that’s quite intimidating. So being able to have a safe channel, to be able to surface some of those things. Think about costs, and you think about the impact, and the risk associated, reputational damage and lawsuits. There’s so much stuff on the company side that’s so important. So getting access to the rumblings on the ground, to pointers, to hotspots. Basically, it’s like the canary in the coal mine. It’s trying to give you a line of sight into something that you don’t typically have access to.
Again, this goes back for me to trying to make systemic change. So often, companies are like, tell us who! I’m like, well, well, is it really who, or is it a systemic issue? So I’ll give you one example. We had one company where, my manager takes credit for my work was one of the most popular pieces of content, most read pieces of content on the platform. I think for no other company is it a top three piece of content read. So we’re like, hey! This is different, let’s talk about it. Actually, the Head of DEI was like, I know what’s happening, it’s how we incentivize our managers, what he makes success look like for them that is causing this to happen. It’s not that it’s one individual or one human, it is really about figuring out like: Oh no, there’s something about the culture, how we speak, what’s acceptable, the norms, the values, the behaviors. Do we have the No Asshole Rule in place, are we actually living it? Doesn’t matter if you’re a high performer. If you are making other people feel bad, if you’re denigrating somebody else, if you can’t lift ships with you, that’s not who we want. That goes back to the example of the 10x coder. Everybody used to want a 10x coder, and now everybody’s like, actually, that’s not the healthiest way to actually build a team. Because you don’t just have one coder, you actually have a team of coders; you need people who can work together, or else it all falls apart.
So helping organizations get to that place where they understand what they need to change within their culture, and understanding how it’s manifesting. So they all have their written values, and those are nice. But unless they’re actually showing up in the day-to-day, unless leadership is disavowing bad behaviors, or, again, role modelling and exemplifying good behaviors. So that’s for me the other one is like, how to help the companies evaluate and see what’s happening on the ground, and then shift it, nudge it? Again, it’s a long-term play, these are not silver bullets. But it’s like, how do you help employees feel heard, how would you hear employees and then take action?
MELINDA: Awesome. So we don’t have a lot of time left, but I want to make sure that we caught everything that you wanted to say about this topic. Was there anything else?
LISA: No, I think I am just going to review. I mean, look, I think that interpersonal conflict has a huge impact on employees, on retention, on their engagement, their productivity, their loyalty, their trust in the organization. Also, ultimately in the bottom line, in the financial statements at the end of the day.
Oh, there was another stat that I was like, what? So according to KPMG, the annual cost of governance, risk, and compliance, consumes more than 6% of an organization’s annual revenues. This is part of why I know I was stats-heavy at the beginning, but because people aren’t, again, thinking about the real impact on the bottom line. It really is no joke, there’s a lot of money that goes into this. So I think yeah, surfacing how important it is, and how people really should be thinking about it. The impact that it has both on the employees, the organization culturally, but then the organization’s bottom line, I think, are the key components.
I think there are tools 100%, tEQuitable or otherwise, to try to figure out how to handle it. It has to do with having informal channels alongside formal channels. You still want to have employee relations. You still want to have HR. You still want to have a whistleblower hotline. But those are all formal channels, and the idea of giving employees an accessible and approachable channel. It doesn’t have to be like: Oh my God, everything is terrible! But it’s like, I’m always mistaken for the other person of my race in the building, even though we look nothing alike. It’s those kinds of things that can be so insidious and affect our day-to-day work lives. But there’s also research that shows that if you put interventions into place in front of those smaller issues, you can prevent them from ever escalating. So figuring out how to take that and apply it, it will actually create a way healthier workplace.
I mean, we talked about the stories, the data is so important, and then creating constructive conversations and making it a healthy organizational culture. The real success is, there’s the organizational, there’s the shift, but then there’s also the one-offs and the individual wins, which is, again, not to be underestimated. So yeah, I think that it’s just multiple facets, but also a really important conversation to be having and for folks to be thinking about.
MELINDA: Absolutely. We always drive to solutions here, and we’ve talked about a lot of solutions. So we’ve equipped people with a lot of different ideas, a lot of different ways to take action. I want to ask you, what action would you like people to take coming away from our discussion today?
LISA: I think the number one thing for me, because this is what I end up hearing is, so there’s three audiences. So there’s diversity, equity, and inclusion folks, and allies. Anybody who’s attuned to that stuff immediately gets it. They know microaggressions and microinequities exist in all workplaces, and they know the impact that it can have. For HR folks and people folks, that idea of actually having data so that you can inform policy, so that you can in fact make change. Then there’s compliance folks, who are focused on reducing risk, reducing threats.
So I think that there’s kind of three different ways to approach it. But I would love, everybody we talked to is like, where have you been all my life? It is such a new concept, even though it’s based on ombuds, again, that had been around forever, that are proven model, and there’s a tonne of research and studies that show it. So all we’re trying to do is amplify, again, that position, interest, outcome, action plan. All we’re trying to do is amplify it, have more people have access to it, but also lower the hurdle, lower the bar for actually trying to get that advice. It doesn’t have to be for the big egregious stuff, but that there are solutions.
So one, that it’s happening. It’s happening at your workplace, I promise you. By the way, open door policy don’t cut it. Like, I appreciate that HR generally are the best humans with best of intentions. But they’re not even getting to hear about most of this stuff. So open door policy, I know that’s what you want people to do and that’s how you want it to work, and also, a lot of people want to force people into doing something. No, but you should come forward, but you have to do something! Again, taking that step back, you can’t force people into taking action the way you personally believe they should. Because it’s about actually centering the employee, not the organization. So figuring out how to center an employee, set them up for success, empower them. So really thinking about that, and then making change, and then really listening. Once you start hearing the stuff that comes up, how do you actually listen to it and take action so that you can create this, again, feedback loop, so there’s real change?
MELINDA: Fantastic. Where can people learn more about you and tEQuitable?
LISA: Thanks for asking. So tEQuitable.com, and that is the best place. Honestly, we put workplace tools and resources was up there too. So any interesting articles that we are seeing, if we actually see data points, if we see studies that are interesting. So it’s actually a great resource to just come and learn what’s available and how things might work too.
MELINDA: Thank you, Lisa. Thank you for sharing your wisdom, for being here, for doing the work you do as well.
LISA: Thank you for that, I appreciate it. I have to say, it is incredibly gratifying! Knowing that you are helping one human in a moment when they are feeling vulnerable or uncomfortable, that in and of itself is enough. But then actually knowing that you’re doing it across organizations, across industries, and then also helping to actually ultimately reduce the harm across the board by working, again, with the organizations too. I’m very, very proud of the work that we’re doing here and the change we’re trying to make.
MELINDA: Awesome, I’m so glad. So everybody, take action, keep taking action, and we will see you all next week.
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Thank you for listening.
Host: Melinda Briana Epler
Melinda Briana Epler has over 25 years of experience developing business innovation and inclusion strategies for startups, Fortune 500 companies, and global NGOs.
As CEO of Change Catalyst, Melinda currently works with the tech industry to solve diversity and inclusion together. Using her background in storytelling and large-scale culture change, she is a strategic advisor for tech companies, tech hubs, and governments around the world. She co-leads a series of global solutions-focused conferences called Tech Inclusion, where she has partnered with over 450 tech companies and community organizations and hosted 43 solutions-focused diversity and inclusion events around the world.
Previously, Melinda was a Marketing and Culture Executive and award-winning documentary filmmaker – her film and television work includes projects that exposed the AIDS crisis in South Africa, explored women’s rights in Turkey, and prepared communities for the effects of climate change. She has worked on several television shows, including NBC’s The West Wing.
Melinda is a TED speaker. She speaks, mentors and writes about diversity and inclusion in tech, allyship, social entrepreneurship, underrepresented entrepreneurs and investing. She has spoken on hundreds of stages around the world, including SXSW, Grace Hopper, Wisdom 2.0, the World Bank, Obama White House, Clinton Foundation, Black Enterprise, Google, Indeed, Capital One and McKinsey.
Watch Melinda’s TED Talk
Change Catalyst Co-Founder Melinda Briana Epler has spoken across the globe in hundreds of venues and virtual events. Empathy, Allyship, Advocacy, Microaggressions, Inclusive Leadership, and Building Inclusive Teams are just some of the topics Melinda has spoken on. Let us know about your next speaking engagement needs! Melinda has also spoken on how to build organizational capacity to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion, such as how to lead behavior change or how to build allies and advocates.
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