Many of us are talking about diversity, equity and inclusion in our workplaces, but how do we make it happen? The problems and conflicts in our world seem insurmountable, and yet, as leaders, we can’t give up on creating change that matters.
That’s why it’s the perfect time to talk to my friend Gena Cox, author of the book Leading Inclusion: Drive Change Your Employees Can See and Feel. It’s a powerful read, and in this interview, we talk more about what inclusion really is today, what’s getting in the way, and how we as leaders and professionals can break through and lead with more inclusive perspectives and better conversations.
Leading Inclusion with Gena Cox
(24 min, 36 sec)
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Hello Red Cape Revolution! I am so happy today to be here with my friend Gena Cox. She is the author of a great new book, you see, I’ve already flagged pages in it that we’re gonna get a chance to talk with her. It’s called Leading Inclusion, the subtitle is Drive Change Your Employees Can See and Feel. And we’ve talked so much in our world right about inclusion, and different issues tied to diversity, equity, and everything. Gena is the expert here. She’s here to tell us more about the book and more importantly about things that we can do in our workplaces, as leaders, and just as part of creating great organizations. So Gena, welcome to Red Cape Revolution.
I am so excited to be here with you Darcy, what I’m actually hoping for is that I can like get some of your energy, the thing that you’re so famous for, and it will carry me through the day, I’m pretty sure that will happen.
Well, I’m sending your my whatever energy I might have left, but it’s always lovely to be able to talk to a friend who also has done such an incredible accomplishment. I know how long and hard you have worked on this book. So I wonder if you could just tell those of us who are watching and listening: where did this start for you? You talk a little bit about kind of some of the genesis of your story in deciding it was time to write Leading Inclusion? Tell us a little bit about that.
There actually so many facets to that, so I hope you’ll bear with me because the answer is not the simplest. I think the precipitating factors clearly are that in the spring of 2020, I almost had a nervous breakdown.
It started sort of like at the beginning of the year when Ahmaud Arbery was killed in Georgia. And I saw some things on the news that were surreal, I could not believe them. And then in March, Breanna Taylor was killed. And truly, I thought this could have been my daughter, I do have a daughter. I mean, they don’t look alike. But there was different about their circumstances that would differentiate her from Breanna. And then George Floyd was killed.
And so here’s the truth of the matter. Those three events were like spotlighted in my life, they felt very personal.
And at the same time, I was working and doing a lot of things that one does. And I started to get this feeling of like, I can’t I sort of say fake, fraud and phony because I was going through life pretending like everything was okay. I had learned how to do that for a very long time. That was my MO. But now I realize you know what, you know, you can’t keep doing that use, you’re seeing this problem, you want to be a part of the solution. Maybe you’re not going to be an activist and march in the streets. But maybe there has to be something you can do. So I say what if I could take my lived experience in corporate America, along with my organizational psychology and executive coach experience working directly with leaders? And you know, measuring employee opinions and all the things that I know so much about? What if I could take all of that and package up some guidance for leaders to help them understand what employees who looked like me or don’t look like me are experiencing incorporations and but go beyond that, to help them see what they could do to help make their overall organizations healthier.
And so I just said in the moment, somewhere in that timeframe, you know, what this is, I think, how I can, how I can help. One of the things I think that helped me to do this and made it a little easier, in some ways, frankly, is that I wasn’t born in the United States, I came to the United States when I was 20 years old, and what does that have to do with anything? I don’t know that I wouldn’t react the way to things the way I do have I had I’ve been dealing with some of these issues since I was born. Right? Because I do recognize that there are people who say, Well, my approach to thinking about these issues is inclusive, and you know, you want everybody to get along. And you want to bring people with you and support you, which I do. And some people say, Well, enough of that, you know, you know, you need to be pushy, you need to do it a different way. And I and I don’t do it this other way. And I think part of it is because like I said, of my life experience, but also fundamentally because I don’t think humans are that different. And I think the focus really needs to be on finding common ground, looking people in the eye, and doing the basic human connections. So while I talk about a lot of complicated concepts in the book, the one thing that is the core message in my book is that I’m optimistic that if each of us could look each other in the eye, we could figure out the solutions to almost everything including this.
It’s a really interesting point that you make because I think a lot of people have wrestled with the different tensions that are in the public eye in race and gender and you know, all sorts of different points of difference. And yet, you know, when we’re friends with somebody when there’s someone who’s our neighbor who we’re working with somebody that, you know, we don’t have the same conflicts as much, although, again, you know, certainly there are conflicts, but the coming using your organizational psychology background and your leadership training background of, of how do we get to the human issues behind that creating inclusive workplaces? And not necessarily feel like, well, we have to have, you know, like, break everybody into each category. But you also talk about really understanding someone’s lived experience. And I think that’s for me personally. So obviously, anyone watching this, I’m a white woman, you’re a black woman, that that there are different experiences that we grow up with, or perceptions or things. And so I know that you’ve been working with teams, you talk a little bit about book two of having difficult conversations to understand where people came from, and what their perceptions are in order to get to new agreements, new understandings, new types of change. So maybe tell us a little bit about that.
Yeah, absolutely. So when I said earlier than that I started to think of myself as a fake, a fraud, and a phony, it relates to this question that you just asked. Here’s what I mean by that.
For most of the years, all of the years, up until 12, until I wrote this book I have advised leaders and corporations and worked directly with a wide cross-section of people. I haven’t in Gena has not been part of that conversation, right? So you’re trained as professionals, and you keep yourself out of the conversation. So I’m very adept. I’m a very, I have a very good poker face, I can talk about whatever I need to talk about. And one of the things that I learned, however, in those years is that often executives did not understand the experiences of their employees on a day-to-day basis, I mean, any of their employees. So for example, we would do all these employee surveys that say, once a year, at the very least, we would, you know, collect tons of data from all the employees. But there will usually be some comments and questions in those surveys. And executives never got to see those comments. In fact, executives mostly didn’t, we’re never encouraged to look at those comments because they were kind of treated as if they were secondary or less important. And yet, I knew all the good stuff was in the comments. Because you can average some scores for a group all day long. And you can say that something got one point or two points. But if you don’t understand why the thing went up a point or went down to a point, you’re not really doing anything with it. So the comment data was is the juicy part. And the comment data, in my opinion, is equivalent to conversations, human conversations. So leaders weren’t, aren’t necessarily getting that kind of insight.
And the other thing that I also knew, and then that was reinforced in the research that I did, the challenges that we have in organizations as a function of the ways that we vary our emotional barriers, their emotional distances, we can wrap it up in whatever we want to wrap it up in. But the bottom line is, it’s we’re just not connected enough to understand what the heck is going on here. So that then we can be effective partners with one another as individuals, or in leading teams. So the difficult conversations come in, where, you know, I myself was always saying everything that I probably could say that might have been helpful for fear of alienating someone or offending someone. And if you replicate that 30 million times you rail, you realize that that’s how most of us go through life with most things, even with our children, our spouses, and our partners and stuff. We don’t always say everything we need to say. And we have usually good reasons. Mostly, it’s a self-protective thing.
But the one thing I’ve learned with this kind of stuff is that it’s really important somehow to get to the point where you can have a conversation, whether it’s in a survey or preferably one on one. So I wrote a quick response to a LinkedIn post recently, and I said here, you know what, I kind of have a script for this for difficult conversations, including ones about race, ethnicity, LGBTQ plus status, whatever, how people vary. What if, when somebody’s feelings are hurt, they’re offended, something bad happens? They go to the person and say, you know, I wanted to share something with you. Of course, I’m assuming these are one on one conversations. I want to share something with you.
And then you sort of say, you know, you probably didn’t realize it, but when you did this or said this or asked for this or didn’t ask for this. This is how it made me feel, or this is how it made my colleagues feel. And I know that because here’s what my colleagues did, oh, you probably didn’t realize that when you said that this would happen. So you kind of lay out sort of what it is what’s going on here. And then once you start a conversation that way, in a manner that lets the other person understand that you’re trying, you’re trying to solve a problem with them, they’ll usually listen to what you have to say. And after they listen, they’ll say whatever they have to say. And the only job you have at that point is to then listen, without judgment, to hear what they have to say. And what they say will be the solution. Because especially if it’s a leader, you want to find some way to get to the solution. The reason I’m leaving I’m staying this way is because I’m convinced that if we could just have more conversations where people sort of air their dirty laundry early on, before it gets completely destroyed in life at work might be a whole lot easier, difficult conversations are important.
Yes, I agree if there’s, and there’s a really interesting connection there with some of the work that I’ve done. You know, one of the chapters in my book is called assume positive intent. And what I’ll hear sometimes from people who might have felt that they were offended, or that someone did something that they perceive was to hurt them or demean them or whatever. It’s if we apply assume positive intent, and then take the initiative to speak up assuming that perhaps they did not, we’re not aware that that person didn’t see how that was read.
I know I’ve had that happen in my own leadership career where thankfully someone would point out something to me, that was totally unintended. But that’s out there was another team member that was because of their lived experience, taking it in a different direction, and, you know, not my intent, and it gave me the chance to correct as well as to apologize and change my behavior going forward. So these are really honest conversations that yes, we have, but we have to be brave enough to have them. And
Mind you now, in some ways, I will have to admit that what we’re describing right here is like a Nirvana, right? The reason that does not happen is that organizations and leaders may not have created the culture, the foundation that lets people feel comfortable speaking up in general, not just speaking up about this, you can come up with anything. So if you had dynamics with her in a manager-employee relationship, let’s say we’re, I’m the boss, and you’re the supplicant. I don’t care what the issue is, I’m never going to raise it. I once worked for a company that was going through an acquisition was acquiring another company in the state of Michigan, and I walked by the mailroom one day, and everybody was in the mail and was laughing, and I knew everybody’s so funny. They say, Oh, every day, those folks in Michigan, they send like 40, FedEx packages down here, and we send like 40 FedEx packages up there. And we know that all they need to do is like consolidate them. In Michigan, maybe a morning shipment in the afternoon shipment, consolidate them in Florida, a morning shipment in an afternoon shipment will send for shipments, we wouldn’t have to work as hard, the company would save money. But guess why we don’t really laughing because our boss, we’re not going to tell him anything because he never wants to hear anything we have to say. So he can we’ll keep doing this, we’ll keep laughing, the company will keep losing money. Because you know what that was, that’s an example of people not feeling like their voices matter on anything. So that’s why I say for all of this, I go back to well, what is the environment that one has created. And this, of course, also applies in personal relationships.
So Gena, let’s talk about culture a little bit. Because, you know, I often when I’m talking to clients, or talking to groups, that they’ll place a lot of the blame of why we can’t do this, or why that won’t work here on the culture. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about so, you know, what are the things that we can do to shift the culture I know you’ve had an experience in an organization of trying to build a culture that allows for the space and the grace for some of these kinds of conversations, but more about where culture comes in and how we can impact it.
So my definition of culture is what it feels like to work here and what it feels like to do business with you. And culture and from my perspective is something that just seeps into your pores as Maya Angelou would say, you recognize it immediately. So when I walk into the drugstore, the minute they walk across the threshold, or maybe even before I can tell just by looking at the faces of the people who work there, I can even look at the physical layout of the store. When I go and ask a question and somebody you know, pretends like they don’t see me because they don’t want to work or whatever. I can pick up on all that in two seconds. As a cost To work similarly, as an employee, the feeling of working in an organization, what it feels like to work here. What are the rules and the norms, as we like to say in psychology, are there evident to everybody, but they’re usually unspoken. But they were created, there’s something that creates that I want, for example, so here’s an example.
I once worked in an organization where the CEO of the company had come from New York and was very fashionable and fancy, and literally would judge people on their physical appearance in all aspects of their physical appearance. So when you were going to have a meeting with that person, you know that you had to show up a certain way? Well, the other thing about that was that people would say, let’s say that person’s name was Darcy, you were either a friend of Darcy, or you were not that you were an foD. So from the very beginning, I kept hearing this acronym foD, what does that mean? People say, Oh, you’ll see. And that eventually, it didn’t take long for me to figure out that one of the big characteristics of the culture was that you had to conform to this physical presentation, you had to behave a certain way, look a certain way, talk a certain way. And if you didn’t, you’re out. So the inner circle is very small.
And that inner circle, got all the goodies, all the attention, all the reinforcement, all of the, you know, accolades and so on. And everybody else was kind of cast aside, that was bad leadership. However, the thing, the point I’m making here is, it’s usually defined at the top of the organization with, which is one of the reasons I target my book at the top of the organization, which is not to say that any individual can’t make things better in their work group in their 30 person, five-person 10 person group, of course you can, because fundamentally, what I’m saying is, every individual and whatever group it is, has got to feel that he or she is totally respected. They call it being fit, and that, you know, they’re felt they’re seen, and they’re valued, right. So those if those three things aren’t consistently felt by everybody in the organization, and only some people feel that way, that’s something you’ve got to change. Okay, so let’s say you can’t change the top of the organization, we can’t all the station, top of the organization, I think lead into any manager has got to figure out so search their hearts to say, Why am I here, when it’s my job? What is my job about the job of a manager and a leader is really to help other people get something accomplished. It’s not about you. It’s about service to the team and the of the other individuals. So if you’re thinking about what you can do, I say, ask yourself this, what are the things that I’m doing right now? That support a positive culture, a culture of respect? What are the things that I am not doing, that I could start doing that could support that? And are there things that I am doing that I need to stop doing? It’s almost a keep-stop-start model that I’m sure use in your work. Because in the end, it comes down to individual behaviors every day.
And you know, I think, right now, I know a lot of the people who follow our work at Red Cape Revolution, they are not just looking for good work, but they’re looking to make an impact, right, they’re looking to do good work in a way that matters that makes a difference. And I think by thinking about some of these kinds of concepts of, of, you know, how am I influencing the culture? Where might I be repeating habits that maybe I should take a look at, you know, this is obviously where, you know, having an outside coach, having a peer group, a mastermind, somebody to be able to challenge the way you’re doing things but even to be able to help try to start some of these conversations. That is it’s a great point, that even in your you know, your group, like how are you making sure that you are not creating a culture that unintentionally isn’t isn’t connecting more with people? And I do think that right now, you know, people, I think this has always been human, right? Everybody wants to be seen and heard, and the question of how and finding time to do that. But I always think there are lots of things we’re spending time on, that probably aren’t making as much of an impact as having one better deeper conversation with an individual. So absolutely.
You know, the research that comes out from I’ll use one organization called Work Human. I love this organization. And I study there, I follow their work. And they did some research that clearly showed in the summer of 2021. When people had remote work. Many people were working from home who had not before. And when employees were barely basically asked to say what is it that was really determining whether they were having a positive experience, you know, what they said, whether or not my manager was checking in with me, and by checking in with you Now that what they’re basically saying is that now that I’m working remotely, I need more of that I need more of the check-ins. So if you weren’t doing check-ins do you need to start? And if you weren’t doing check-ins once, or whatever you might need to know do it more often. And because they said, when the person checked in with me just to say, how are you doing? And what do you need from me, that was sufficient to let that employee feel like they were seen, heard, and valued? But also the manager was now getting the benefit of constant information and feedback. So they knew what was going on with their employees. That’s so to your point, in the end, everything that I talked about goes back to the fundamentals, not to creating new systems and processes, or a new kind of leadership. And all this goes back to the fundamental idea of keeping employees at the center.
And then, in when we’re talking about employees, we’re talking about humans as a people. And I think you had a quote in here, I thought I had it flagged, but it was just that, you know, we’re all we’re, we’re, we’re just in different packaging, right? We’re all we all have basic needs, but we’re just all in different packaging.
That’s basically it. Yeah, we’re all the same in different packaging. And again, I’m not naive, they are some larger social and systemic factors that are real, they’re very real. But in my experience, you know, as I make it a point to get to know people of all kinds that is, but that is my personal value that matters to me. And it is something I encourage other people to do. In fact, I said to some students last night, you know how sometimes you walk into a situation, you see somebody who doesn’t look like you, or for whatever reason, you know, they’re different than you. And your brain tells you go away, avoid, step back, stay away. That’s what your brain tells you every time. So when you feel that awkwardness, you should now say to your brain, Oh, shut up. I’m gonna move forward by two steps. And, of course, I was being a little, I was making a joke out of it, but I was really making a point. That’s what we have to do. Because it’s an emotional thing that happens, right? So you have to choose, yeah, yeah, you have to choose
wants to keep you safe. And that is an old ingrained, you know, biology in many ways. And so that’s another thing I know, we have in common. You know, I talked about conquering the battle of the brain and back to the brain and say, Thank you for that outdated information. I’m actually gonna go introduce myself to that person. Yes, it feels different than me.
And you have to work on it. You have to work on it. It is and don’t beat yourself up. You. I said to the students last night, and I say to all my clients, the brain, the brain does play tricks on us. And we have got to get accustomed to challenging our brains and not assuming that they’re right.
Gena Cox, we could talk about this forever. But there’s so much in this book so much in this topic, but the book is called leading inclusion, I hope that people pick it up for themselves for their leaders, and their teams. One of the things that I really like about it, too, is it has very clear both executive summaries and action plans at the end of it, and even a chapter. So questions you can ask yourself, ask your team. So it not only has all of the research and theory that went into it, but is also very practical and tangible for those of us who want to live in workplaces that work better for the people in it. So which is all of us, is all of us. Yeah. Hopefully, that is all of us. You know, where can people find out more about you?
Yeah, absolutely. Go to my website, GenaCox.com. And it’s Gena with an e. And you’ll learn more about me, you can connect to me there you can also, you know, register to get some of my free goodies that I will be happy to share with you. And you can find me on LinkedIn as well.
Great. We’ll put those in the notes wherever you are watching this video or listening to it. So Gina, thank you so much. Congratulations on the book. Guess congratulations on just being a fresh voice in this world. You know, keep us moving forward and making sure we’re connecting with each other in ways that work. So I appreciate it. And I appreciate you,
Darcy, thank you so much for having me today. It’s really been a pleasure. And we’re both authors. And so I look forward to finding ways for us to work together and to get help you know one another get ideas out into the world.