In Episode 95, Rajkumari Neogy, Executive Coach at iBelong, joins Melinda in an in-depth discussion about how exclusion and epigenetics, the study of how behavior and environment can affect the way our genes are expressed and inherited, can impact our sense of belonging. They explore meaningful practices of empathy and representation to address transgenerational trauma and recover the affected parts of our brains from discrimination, racism, and other stressors that destroy our psychological safety. Rajkumari also suggests how managers and employees can work better together to create pathways for healing and cultures of belonging in the workplace.
- Learn more about Rajkumari Neogy
- Learn more about Rajkumari’s work at iBelong
- Check out Resmaa Menakem’s interview on ‘Notice the Rage; Notice the Silence’
- Read Resmaa Menakem’s book, My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies
- Check out Rachel Yehuda’s interview on “How Trauma and Resilience Cross Generations”
- Read Dr. Joy DeGruy’s book, Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing
- Read Dr. Stephen Porges’ book, The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological Foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation
- Check out Dr. Iain McGilchrist’s works to learn more about the brain’s left hemisphere and right hemisphere
- Check out Sarah Peyton’s book, Your Resonant Self, to dive into your own trauma and neurobiological healing
- Read Patrick Lencioni’s book, The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else in Business
- Read Patrick Lencioni’s book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team
- Watch or listen to EP89: “Creating Psychologically Safe Workplaces For LGBTQIA+ Folks”
This videocast is made accessible thanks to Interpreter-Now. Learn more about our show sponsor Interpreter-Now at www.interpreter-now.com.
- “Language is the most powerful tool that we have at our disposal in which we can leverage rewiring ourselves and others. Every single conversation, we are rewiring someone. And in every single thought that we have, we’re rewiring ourselves. So, when we start to think of the magnitude of how much we speak and how every sentence coming out of our mouth—or shuffling through our thoughts—is shifting and rewiring us constantly, this means that now we have an opportunity to take time to shift over to the right hemisphere and really understand, unpack, and master the relational aspects of how we speak. We have already mastered effective ways of speaking…, everyone understands being productive, being effective, being a high performer, and how to achieve…. Learning to speak a new language of kindness, of care, of empathy, will rewire brains, minds, hearts, and the nervous system.”
- “When we see versions of ourselves out in the world, our nervous systems move into calm. When we don’t see ourselves in the world, our nervous systems move into panic. If we have continually not seen ourselves, then we are living in an undercurrent of panic we’re not even aware of. Over time, we may have coded that as a threat or discomfort.”
- “When we have this experience of empathy, we step into oxytocin.., into endogenous opioids. We move into a place of appreciation. We move into a place of connection, vulnerability. We build a community…. We start to begin to allow ourselves to trust each other through that level of safety. When I’m able to name needs that are not being met for you in the moment of your pain or your hardship, and really kind of start to see you, to value you, to hear you, then that creates even more of a place of safety for you, and then that empathy is then reciprocated back to me. So there’s this beautiful, cyclical experience that happens through empathy.”
Executive Coach at ibelong
Rajkumari has worked with organizations worldwide, including HelloSign, Slack, Glympse, Salesforce, Gainsight, Twilio, Google, Guidewire, Intera, WhiteOps, Trumaker, Stratus, Ever AI, Walt Disney Animation Studios, Wells Fargo, Cisco Systems, Facebook, United States Digital Service (USDS), Shuddle, HopSkipDrive, Autodesk, Amazon and Adobe. In 2013, S/He founded iRestart, which provides expertise in the areas of leadership development and organizational epigenetics. S/He is the creator of the iRestart coaching framework, the Disruptive Diversity Boot Camp, and the author of The WIT Factor: Shifting the Workplace Paradigm by Becoming Your Optimal Self.
Possessing a rare blend of techno-babble and touchy-feely, Rajkumari brings my keen insight and systems-thinking perspective to provide holistic and integrative solutions when addressing complex problems. S/He believe that the qualities of passionate self-reflection and dedicated curiosity (two sides of the same coin) define true leadership.
MELINDA: Welcome to Leading With Empathy & Allyship, where we have deep real conversations to build empathy for one another, and to take action to be more inclusive, and to lead the change in our workplaces and communities.
I’m Melinda Briana Epler, founder and CEO of Change Catalyst and author of How to Be an Ally. I’m a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion speaker, advocate, and advisor. You can learn more about my work and sign up to join us for a live recording at ally.cc.
All right, let’s dive in.
MELINDA: Well, hello, everyone. Today our guest is Rajkumari Neogy, executive coach at ibelong. You all had heard or seen Rajkumari before earlier in Episode 89, where we discussed how to create psychologically safe spaces at work for LGBTQIA+ folks with Valentina Jaramillo and David Ciocca.
Today, we’ll pick up where we left off in our last session on epigenetics and psychological safety. In this episode, we’ll discuss the role of epigenetics and belonging, in particular. Rajkumari will explain in much better detail, but essentially, epigenetics is the science that focuses on how behaviors and our environment can impact our genes and genetic expression.
Our environment can actually change how our genes work, which is important when we’re addressing the impact of exclusion, microaggressions, racism, ableism, and other -isms that can impact how we navigate the world, how we present ourselves in the world, not just in our minds and careers, but also in our bodies as well. So, hello again, Rajkumari. Welcome.
RAJKUMARI: Hello, Melinda. Thank you so much for having me.
MELINDA: Yeah, glad to have this conversation today. I’m excited to continue where we left off before.
RAJKUMARI: Yes, I’m very, very excited to also continue the conversation, considering where we are in the world right now.
MELINDA: Yeah, no kidding. No kidding. In our last session, we didn’t talk much about your background and your life. Let’s start by just talking a little bit about that. Can you share a bit about you? Where did you grow up? How did you come to do the work that you do today?
RAJKUMARI: Absolutely. Oh, wow. I don’t get to often actually share that, so thank you for asking.
RAJKUMARI: I was born in Canada on the East Coast, Montreal. The coldest I’ve ever experienced was -44 with the wind chill. That was cold. That froze my jeans on me when I was walking Downtown in Montreal.
MELINDA: Your jeans and your internal genes, I think maybe too. Wow.
RAJKUMARI: I left. When I was 10, we came to Los Angeles, California. That was definitely a shock. I spent the year wanting to go back home to the suburbs of Canada, but that did not happen. I have been here ever since good four decades later. I’ve been in the Bay Area. We left LA and came to the Bay Area a year later, Palo Alto.
And then, I like to say that I was born in startups. And then, I graduated into the tech world of Adobe and Facebook. The first part of my career was as a technologist. Ironically, I can’t even operate my iPhone at this point in my life, which is hilarious. But I’ve traveled the world many times around as an expert in DVDs.
MELINDA: That’s really helpful now.
RAJKUMARI: Right. Exactly. I was part of the DVD Forum when it was first getting started. As we all know, DVDs barely exist now. That was an interesting moment, but I just laugh at the fact that I used to be hardcore into technology, and now I can barely operate anything except my car. I do well with my car. That’s all that matters.
MELINDA: How did you end up doing the work that you do now? What is that work? How did you end up there?
RAJKUMARI: Yes. Well, I feel comfortable saying this now, but I actually did not enjoy my job at Adobe at all. As a technologist, it required more and more technological skill sets that needed to be constantly updated. I was always in the L&D world. What I loved about my role was the people.
I remember a moment at Adobe. I think it was about a year and a half into my job. I had traveled somewhere in the Midwest. At one moment, the vice-president of that company, of that department, pulled me out into the corridor and said, “Hey, are you noticing the dynamic between this person and that person?”
I said, “Not only am I noticing the dynamic of that person and that person, but I’m also noticing your dynamic and how it’s actually impacting the dynamics of everyone.” It was at that moment that I realized that my superpower is to really see how humans interact and to kind of deconstruct and disseminate what’s happening. Kind of really unpack what’s happening and share that with people.
It was a really valuable moment. I think this person had an aha-moment, actually. I think it started to shift a little differently in the room. We had two days together. I came back, and I thought, “You know what, it’s time to get a master’s in leadership development.” This is really what I want to do. I really want to work with people, but not with the technology aspect of it. And here we are, me being completely unable to use my phone except to make a call. I don’t know what happened.
MELINDA: You went too far, far away from technology.
RAJKUMARI: Well, I joke about that because I was so in my left hemisphere. For so many decades, really understanding the impact, the cause, and effect, the binary lens of technology. Like, this equals that. When you click this, this will happen. Right? How do you code this? And now, I’m all about the somatic right hemisphere intersectionality of things. So, I think that’s what happened. I may have lost a few neurons in the transition.
MELINDA: Change the way those neurons work, for sure.
RAJKUMARI: I think. Let’s go with that.
MELINDA: Can you share a bit more? I kind of gave a rudimentary definition of epigenetics, but can you talk a little bit more about what epigenetics is?
RAJKUMARI: Right. I think the definition you gave is spot on. I think a really simple way to understand epigenetics is by looking at it from a stress lens. The levels of stress that one experiences over the course of time start to impact how our cells show up for us start to impact and recondition, if you will, our nervous system.
I think a perfect example is where we are right now in the world. I can only speak for myself, but I certainly feel an incredible sense of heaviness. I think what I’ve experienced is this continuous challenge of painful experiences that I’m witnessing across the globe, in this country, and everywhere else, and to continually have this exposure to so much pain week after week, after week, after week.
I think for me, I’m coming up on two and a half years since the pandemic. I think many of us might be as well. I’m exhausted emotionally, and that is taking a toll on how I’m showing up. It’s taking a toll on the clients that I can hold.
I was recently invited to do a keynote at a conference in San Diego in September for the Early Childhood Mental Health Conference. The reason why I’m saying this is because I had to get vetted by a medical doctor about my epigenetics and the research and make sure I was sound. It was a really awesome conversation, which led down the road of secondhand trauma.
He was talking about how social workers and therapists are exposed to secondhand trauma. I said, “Whoa, whoa, whoa. Wait a second. What is that, and how does one get that?” It came to be that he diagnosed me over Zoom that I had secondhand trauma from the level of executive coaching and the holding of space that I do every single day. What I need to know/do moving forward is to really kind of take care of myself in a different way.
MELINDA: Yeah. Doing diversity, equity, and inclusion work also have that and some executive coaching to run inclusive leadership coaching. So, often helping leaders very early on in their understanding of diversity, equity, and inclusion. There’s definitely toxicity that can come about in this work and also in hearing people’s experiences, traumatic experiences, too. We can definitely take those on both in our minds and our bodies.
I started seeing a therapist almost exactly a year ago because I started to realize that you know what, there are ways that this stuff, the second hand trauma, is living in my body and how I think about things that I need to work through.
RAJKUMARI: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely.
MELINDA: So, let’s talk about how discrimination, how exclusion can impact our epigenetics. You kind of touched on this. I will say that in our last episode, which is Episode 89, we talked about intergenerational trauma and transgenerational trauma. We could talk a bit about that, but I want to also get to how this impacts the way we show up and navigate our work life, how this impacts our work.
RAJKUMARI: It significantly impacts our work. I was sharing Module 2 today on understanding humans at work. It’s a course that I deliver. Module 2 is all about exclusion. We start off with kind of talking about the three tiers of exclusion.
The first tier seems innocuous or innocent, but the reality is it’s not. It comes in the form of being interrupted, being dismissed, and being ignored. It grows into being blamed, ridiculed, humiliated, hearing something offensive, which kind of creates a shock in our body.
Tier two looks like bullying, micromanaging, gaslighting, refusing to be accountable or take feedback kind of a thing. And then the most atrocious tier is any -ism or phobia, so racism, Islamophobia, ableism, transphobia, things like that.
And so, when we’re on the receiving end of exclusion, this actually lights up the parts of our brain that registers pain. So, being on the receiving end of exclusion is like being kicked in the shin or being punched in the gut kind of a thing. It hurts. It really, really hurts.
The research, I think I’ve shared this with you now several times, just because our conversations keep circling back to this. I think it’s just so powerful that those on the receiving end of racism have shown in MRI scans to have developed lesions. This is a heartbreaking piece of data.
Black babies born in the US have three times more cortisol, more stress right out of the gate. This is something that Resmaa Menakem who’s the author of My Grandmother’s Hands talks about. I think in his interview with Krista Tippett, On Being, that he mentioned that.
Do you know the song sticks and stones can break my bones but if you reverse it, words or names can never hurt me or something like that? That’s not true. That’s actually very untrue. Words are even more hurtful, because they carry with them a neurochemical signature. And so, the way in which we speak allows us to rewire our brain. So, the words that we use are really important.
There was a really interesting study that was done with individuals who I think only spoke one language, and they were asked to read names of flowers in Latin that they had never heard of, and different parts of the brain lit up. This was really interesting.
So, as we start to allow ourselves to speak with greater resonance, that is the key that allows us to create these cultures of belonging. It’s the key that brings us toward healing and integration with working with our trauma. This power of language allows us to neurochemically shift who we are, and that is what is so important.
In this conversation today around exclusion, one of the attendees shared that in her previous company, they really practiced a culture of appreciation. She went on and talked about how amazing it was, et cetera, et cetera. I said, “This is a perfect example of the neurochemical language that we use to create different experiences for each other.”
MELINDA: Can you talk a bit about when somebody has more cortisol in their system, when somebody has lesions from trauma that might be transgenerational trauma or trauma from discrimination, from racism, from any of the -isms? How does that impact how we navigate work, how we navigate our work life?
RAJKUMARI: Well, that’s a great question. I want to just preface this with that I am not licensed in any capacity. This is all opinion. Imagine carrying stress in your body. I think we can all imagine that. And imagine carrying stress in our bodies that we’re not aware of. That’s what the transgenerational aspect of the epigenetic piece is about, according to Rachel Yehuda. She talks about the fact that we carry traits, tragedies, and traumas in our bodies for 210 years.
According to Dr. Joy DeGruy, who’s the author of Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome, we carry it for 300 years. According to Resmaa Manakem, author of My Grandmother’s Hands, we carry it for 490 years. So, I would say it would be almost impossible to note all of the stresses that we’re carrying in our bodies, especially the transgenerational ones.
But what we do know are the stories. So many of us know the hardship that our parents and grandparents endured. That lens or that key into those stories is the through line to how we’re showing up at work. That through line allows us to understand that maybe because my mother had to go through the reeducation camps in China, or my grandfather survived the Holocaust in the concentration camps, or my lineage comes from slavery.
Or in my case, we lost a lot of land. We were ousted from parts of India that then became Bangladesh, the Muslim parts and sent to different parts of India. All of those hardships. And I wasn’t there for my great grandfather, right. I wasn’t there.
But what has been really beautiful is to witness patterns throughout the generations. So, in the research that I did, I noticed a pattern of wealth. That pattern was specific to loss. For example, the loss of wealth. It happened to my great grandfather. It happened to my grandfather. It happened with my father. And then, it happened to me. Right?
So, these are the opportunities for us to look for those patterns. Because maybe from that loss, I then gain a scarcity mindset. Maybe I will start to hoard things. Maybe I start to not see the bigger picture. Maybe a strategy is difficult for me. Maybe a growth mindset is challenging or even threatening. Maybe I can’t advocate for resources, or budget, or headcount because I just want to keep my group really small because that makes me feel safe. Right? So, all of these things start to impact our leadership styles unbeknownst to us.
MELINDA: Yeah. And then related to this, and I think you’re starting to get there too, is how does this impact our own identity and the way we see ourselves in the world.
MELINDA: I know this is a lot of the work that you do in your coaching and your work.
RAJKUMARI: It shapes us. It shapes who we are. There’s some research that shows that social status is embedded in our DNA. What? What?! You know, I grew up as a child hearing every single day from my parents, from my father’s side, my grandparents. We spent many years with my grandparents. “You’re Brahmin. You’re a Neogy. You’re Brahmin. You’re a Neogy.”
And so, I’m like, “Okay, great.” I don’t even know what that is as a kid but, “Woo-hoo! Yehey!” And then, as I grew up, I started to understand what Brahmin means, which is in the caste system, it’s the highest caste. Okay. So, there was, I will admit, a moment of time where I kind of puffed out my chest and walked around from the world, you know, kind of holding that energy.
Did it serve me? I don’t know. But I certainly witnessed myself showing up in ways that were less empathic, less kind. I remember being in grad school and every time I wanted to speak up and share a perspective, I would start my sentence with, “Well, I don’t mean to be an asshole but…”
RAJKUMARI: When I’m saying something. It wasn’t ’till, I would say, three semesters into grad school, a friend of mine turned to me and said, “Hey, Rajkumari. Do you know that every single time you share an idea or your thought, you begin with, ‘I don’t mean to be an asshole but…?’”
So, as I reflected on this many moons later after grad school, I had this conditioning of being Brahmin, which turned out to be antithetical to the essence and values of who I was, but I wanted to belong, so I adopted this identity to please my grandparents in the Indian side of my family, and then I kept apologizing for it as an adult.
This is kind of a mind-blowing thought. I had to rewire my own identity. The reason why I left Facebook was I didn’t enjoy who I was becoming, and who I was becoming was in line with how I was conditioned to become, and I really no longer wanted that attachment. I wanted to really experience a life that was aligned with my own values of generosity, my own values of kindness and empathy. There was some abrasion to that.
MELINDA: Yeah, I definitely went on a similar path. In college for me. It was in college realizing that I really wanted to be a more empathetic human than how I grew up and spent some time really exploring that. So, you said social status can be embedded in our DNA. What I’m also hearing is it’s transmittable, we can change it.
RAJKUMARI: Absolutely. You know, one of the things is I talk about how our sense of belonging is preprogrammed right out of the gate because of our epigenetics. So, we have in our systems, in our bodies, a very intricate process that allows us to constantly scan for safety, for danger, and for life threatening situations, and people all the time.
Steven Porges, who wrote a book called Polyvagal Theory, has a 40-year body of research around the nervous system and how our sense of safety shows up in the world and how we move through danger and life-threatening situations and safety while we’re at work. While we’re at work, right. And so, he coined this term neuroception.
What is so interesting for me in the research that I’ve done is that our sense of neuroception, our sense of belonging, is a default setting that we have as we enter the world that gets stabilized and conditioned even more so as we grow up in our family.
The amazing thing about epigenetics is that we can start to rewire our nervous system. We can rewire the parts of our brains, the circuitry of emotion and motivation to shift that neurochemical experience, to shift our sense of safety, to shift our sense of belonging in the world. And then from there be able to start to really create cultures of inclusion in a much more meaningful and authentic way.
MELINDA: Interesting. We’ve touched on empathy a bit. Let’s talk a bit more about empathy. How does empathy impact epigenetics or can it?
RAJKUMARI: Absolutely, 100%. So, when we have empathy, empathy is an experience that we have in our care circuit. So, we’re hardwired for the motivational aspects of who we are. And we’re motivated by the emotional and the relational aspects of who we are. So, it’s a bi-hemispheric experience, left versus right.
Iain McGilchrist has a phenomenal book, has several phenomenal books that really do a beautiful deep dive into understanding the left hemisphere versus the right hemisphere. That is someone that I would highly recommend if you wanted to get into understanding the science of who we are as humans.
When we have this experience of empathy, we step into oxytocin. We step into endogenous opioids. We move into a place of appreciation. We move into a place of connection, vulnerability. We build a community. Right now, you and I are in a community in this conversation, right? So, all of these things secrete oxytocin. We feel safe with each other. We start to begin to allow ourselves to trust each other through that level of safety.
When I’m able to name needs that are not being met for you in the moment of your pain or your hardship, and really kind of start to see you, to value you, to hear you, then that creates even more of a place of safety for you. And then that empathy is then reciprocated back to me. So, there’s this beautiful, cyclical experience that happens through empathy.
The thing that empathy does so beautifully, and Sarah Payton, who is the author of Your Resonant Self speaks so beautifully that empathy is a way to quickly heal a rupture that we can go back in time, whether it’s three hours ago, or three weeks ago, or three months ago, three years ago, three decades ago, that we can heal a rupture, a disconnect, because empathy allows us to really heal through that bond. What is it? The self.
MELINDA: Empathy as the self. Actually, I want to talk about one more thing that we have mentioned in private conversations, but I think it’s important in this context too is representation and how representation also impacts our sense of belonging. Can you say a bit about that?
RAJKUMARI: Yes, absolutely. So, you know, the #RepresentationMatters is so important because there’s science behind it. The science is the following. It’s a little bit of a poignant heartbreaking experience. I mean, much of the science is, when I delve into it.
When we see ourselves out in the world, when we see versions of ourselves out in the world, our nervous system moves into calm. When we don’t see ourselves in the world, our nervous systems move into panic. If we have continually not seen ourselves, then we are living in an undercurrent of panic we’re not even aware of. Over time, we may have coded that as a threat or a discomfort. So, I think again, going back to Resmaa Menakem’s interview with Krista Tippett, On Being, I think he speaks to this very elegantly. Very elegantly.
A couple years ago, I think right before the pandemic, I went to go meet some new clients at a cafe in Berkeley, California. It’s about a 45-minute drive/35-minute drive for me. I walked into the cafe and right away, I see two androgynous looking women sitting, having a conversation, and drinking coffee. I did a double take and went, “Whoa, wait a minute.” It like was an error message that took me a while to register because I am an androgynous woman.
I was finally seeing myself in the world. I was challenged at that moment. I had to take a beat, take a breath. Right? And so, that gave me a lot of data about myself in that moment, and the internalized oppression that I have done in order to survive in the communities and societies in which I find myself, and the healing that was required for me to go back to my therapist and say, “So, this happened, and it sucked. Can we talk about?”
MELINDA: Yeah, that is so important. When you’re a part of the dominant culture in many, many ways, when you have the privilege to be around people who are very much like you, you don’t necessarily understand this piece of being underrepresented in our media, our movies, our books, and even video games. Not representing, not even representing in terms of characters, let alone the authors of those and the stories that are told. Or misrepresenting even worse, right? In some ways, that impact can be so strong, and it can be so impactful on the way we see ourselves and the way we navigate the world.
I mean, I as a bisexual woman didn’t really have that term even when I was younger. I don’t know. I’ve never heard that term and never saw anybody who had identified that way. It’s a very different world now, I think, in a lot of places, where children can grow up seeing some representation now. But still, it’s not perfect, for sure. And in many regions, not at all. That can impact us in so many different ways and how we see ourselves.
So, given all we’ve talked about so far from the impact of exclusion, of discrimination on our epigenetics, and in on how we see ourselves, our identity, and also the importance of representation and of empathy, do you have some suggestions for how we work to create cultures of belonging in our workplaces?
RAJKUMARI: Thank you. Absolutely. You know, the left hemisphere speaks a very different language than the right hemisphere. Sarah Payton talks about how we’re wired to belong, and we’re wired to form relationships. How we rewire our brain is by the relationships that we surround ourselves with and the language that we use.
Language is the most powerful tool that we have at our disposal in which we can leverage rewiring ourselves and others. Every single conversation, we are rewiring someone. And in every single thought that we have, we’re rewiring ourselves.
So, when we start to think of the magnitude of how much we speak and how every sentence coming out of our mouth or shuffling through our thoughts is shifting and rewiring us constantly. This means that now we have an opportunity to take time to shift over to the right hemisphere and really understand, unpack, and master the relational aspects of how we speak.
We have already mastered effective ways of speaking. Nobody needs to master this. Maybe succinctly, and maybe being more direct would be helpful. But everyone understands being productive, being effective, being a high performer, and how to achieve. We don’t need any listicles on that. Learning to speak a new language of kindness, of care, of empathy, will rewire brains, minds, and hearts, and the nervous system.
The science is starting to point too. There isn’t any official research yet. Sarah was very clear to make me say those words exactly. She’s adorable. The science is pointing to how we calm ourselves down through resonance. How we connect back to ourselves is through resonance. And when we are so focused on external validation in any form, whether it’s our bank accounts, our OKRs, or to-do-list, that puts us back in our left hemisphere.
We have to learn to balance that experience of life with our right hemisphere, and how to validate our experiences because if we are ourselves, not taking time to know our feelings, not taking time to unpack the needs that are not being met, then what we are doing is becoming masters at gaslighting our own selves.
The opposite of gaslighting is validating. When we start to become masters at validating who we are, we don’t have to agree with where we are. We don’t have to agree with it, we can change it. But we need to validate it first. And then, we can leave. It’s just like getting your parking ticket validated. You can only leave once you get validated.
MELINDA: Then, you can change direction. Right.
RAJKUMARI: But you can’t get out until you pay your ticket.
MELINDA: So, can you give us some thoughts about how managers in particular might support their teams better by creating a culture of belonging or creating pathways for healing? I think both of those are possibilities as a manager.
RAJKUMARI: Yes, absolutely. I think the first and foremost thing to do is to start with how you’re showing up as a leader to begin to explore inclusive leadership, empathic leadership, resonant leadership, come to understanding humans at work, all of the things, servant leadership. Right? This is all right hemisphere experience. So, any leadership style that is geared toward a resonant style of connection is key, because that’s going to rewire different parts of who you are and give you a balanced leadership style. Right?
When I was doing the Biology of Belonging Bootcamp years and years ago, when I was still going to offices every single day at client sites. We ran a six-week bootcamp, the Belonging Bootcamp. We pull the data off of that bootcamp at the end. I really honestly expected that the biggest unmet need of the participants would be belonging, and safety. I just expected that because we talked about it all the time. It wasn’t. It was being valued and that the contribution they were delivering mattered.
The neurochemistry of being mattered, being valued, is endogenous opioids. We have gone through an opioid epidemic; we are going through another one. What does that tell you? Right? So, how are we showing up? How are we creating resonance for ourselves? How are we modeling that resonance to our team? So, that creates the through line of authenticity, because how we behave gives permission for others to behave. How we communicate gives permission for others to communicate. There’s a great book called The Advantage by Patrick Lencioni, who also did—Oh, no. What was the other book? Dysfunctional teams? Something like that.
MELINDA: Yeah, so you’ve mentioned several resources here. We’ll definitely put those in the show notes for everybody to be able to access when we put this up.
RAJKUMARI: Thank you. Thank you so much. I think it’s The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. That’s his book.
MELINDA: Okay. Awesome. And so, one of the things I think you’ve kind of hinted at along the way here that I think would be helpful for managers too is that epigenetics around, you know, when people don’t get along. For example, on teams. Can you share a bit about as a manager, how you might navigate that thinking about with the lens of epigenetics in mind?
RAJKUMARI: Oh, that’s a big question. Yes. It’s a very big question. I’ll just share a story. I was asked to coach an executive team in Los Angeles. I flew down every week. The biggest complaint that started or kicked off our engagement was that the CEO and the head of sales were not getting along. The head of engineering who was just recently hired was ready to quit six weeks later. So, I came in. I sat down. I began my session by drawing an epigenetic map for every single person, one on one, I do this with every client. The CEO–.
MELINDA: Sorry. Sorry to interrupt for a second. Can you share what an epigenetic map is? What does that mean?
RAJKUMARI: Of course. Thank you so much for catching that. Absolutely. I’m just so used to having my PowerPoints in my head, and that I’m looking at them. When I draw an epigenetic map, I simply draw the name of the person, the names of their parents, and the names of their grandparents, and then I start to source stories of hardship and exclusion. Because what I’m looking for are the stress factors. What I’m looking for are the places of exclusion because that’s where I know is going to be the biggest juice and what is actually the through line of why there’s an impediment around communication or collaboration.
MELINDA: Got it.
RAJKUMARI: So, I draw the maps. I quickly see the immediate pattern of the fact that the CEO comes from grandparents who survived the Holocaust. And the head of sales comes from grandparents who were not seized in the Third Reich. It would make complete sense to me that they were at odds with each other. The term that was given to the head of sales was unrelenting, and just a bully.
What we quickly started to do is unpack that. The head of sales was actually quite resistant to the coaching. It was very fascinating to witness that level of resistance. He would go along with it because it was paid for and it was a mandate, and he would cry in the sessions.
I would ask him what the tears were about. He couldn’t connect to that. He ended up becoming my biggest referral, which is hilarious. And really kind of understanding the depth of his work. I will also say that the head of engineering went to dinner, Christmas Eve, at the head of sales’ home.
So, this is the power of creating cultures of belonging. This is the power of understanding the value of how our behaviors impact the stressors in our team dynamics. If we can go from someone who wants to quit after six weeks because of a person to dinner at their house for the holidays, that’s huge.
MELINDA: Yeah, absolutely. That means we’re really deeply getting to know someone, right? And getting to know people on your team, building that understanding, and empathy.
RAJKUMARI: And vulnerability.
MELINDA: Yeah. We’re about out of time. I know we could talk for hours about this topic. Given all that we’ve talked about today, what action would you like people to take away? I mean, what action would you like people to take coming away from our discussion together today?
RAJKUMARI: To become more curious about the patterns in your leadership style and where those trigger points are for you, and the root cause of those triggers. Because most likely, they’re epigenetically rooted. Then, if you shift that rooted cause, then your external environment automatically updates itself.
MELINDA: Fantastic. I love it. I am going to do that myself. That’s great. Where can people learn more about your work, Rajkumari?
RAJKUMARI: If you would like to come to Biology of Belonging Bootcamp, we will be offering that on August 29th. I’ll be advertising that on LinkedIn. So, please follow me on LinkedIn. There is no cost for this 12-week Belonging Bootcamp. It is what I give back to the world so that people can start to reconnect to themselves and show up differently for themselves, for others, and for the world at large.
And if you’d like to learn more about understanding humans at work, I would be happy to share more. You can go to ibelong.com. Sign up for our newsletter and look for announcements.
MELINDA: Fantastic. Thank you. Thank you for this conversation and for all you do.
RAJKUMARI: Thanks so much for having me.
MELINDA: Yeah. And everyone, we will share the episodes again. We will share the episodes mentioned today in our show notes at ally.cc. And until next week, please continue to learn, show empathy, and take concrete action as an ally. Thank you all.
Alright everyone, this is the end of Season 7. So we’re going to take a break and we will be back in a few weeks. In the meantime, please check out any past episodes you might have missed, and we’ll see you soon.
MELINDA: To learn more about this episode’s topic, visit ally.cc.
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Leading With Empathy & Allyship is an original show by Change Catalyst, where we build inclusive innovation through training, consulting, and events. I appreciate you listening to our show and taking action as an ally. See you next week.
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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