Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Margo Jefferson joins Kojo to discuss her new memoir and explore how her experiences growing up in Chicago frame her perspectives about race and opportunity in the United States.
Over the course of your career, you’ll be hired, evaluated, promoted or passed over based on numerous factors. Some are concrete accomplishments and milestones, like landing a big contract or publishing a groundbreaking study. Others are fuzzier more subjective factors, like attitude, gravitas and appearance. Kojo talks with Howard Ross about the politics of advancement in the workplace.
- Howard Ross author, "Reinventing Diversity: Transforming Organizational Community to Strengthen People, Purpose, and Performance" (Rowman & Littlefield); also Principal, Cook Ross
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Howard Ross is here. Over the course of your career, you'll be hired and fired, promoted or passed over, even liked or loathed by colleagues and bosses, based on an overwhelming number of factors. Some are concrete accomplishments and milestones, like landing a big contract or publishing a groundbreaking study. Others are fuzzier, more subjective factors like flexibility, appearance, and gravitas. Here to help us sort through tangible and intangible qualities that affect us in and outside of the workplace, is Howard Ross, diversity consultant and principal at Cook Ross, author of the book, "Reinventing Diversity: Transforming Organizational Community to Strengthen People, Purpose, and Performance." Hi, Howard.
MR. HOWARD ROSSHi, Kojo, good to see you. I guess it's December, we can say happy holidays.
NNAMDII guess we can say happy holidays. But the way it's been going this year, we could have been saying happy holidays back in October.
ROSSIt's true, it's true.
NNAMDIA recent study on executive presence found that one of the core components that many leaders share is gravitas. It's a concept we talk about in academia, in literature, politics, the media and in the workplace, but many among us might be hard pressed to define it. How would you?
ROSSWell, I think that, you know, when we talk about gravitas, it means a lot of different things to different people, and it depends on the circumstance, and I think that's one of the reasons why it's a little challenging for people, because you may be in an academic environment, for example, you may find gravitas has to do with what you've published or what your research was. If you're in a business environment, it may have to do with the role that you play and the way you hold yourself. In other environments, it may have to do with very specific behavior experience that you have. But I think what generally it is, is that there's something about the presence of a person that gives stronger weight to their point of view, their attitude, the influence that they have over the environment that they're in.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is our number. How do you define gravitas? Is there any one person, either a famous figure or someone from your personal life, that you think embodies it? Gravitas. 800-433-8850, send email to email@example.com. Send us a tweet @kojoshow, or go to our website, kojoshow.org and offer your opinion about gravitas there, or your example. Do you think of gravitas as a trait that's just some part of people's personality, or something that has to be earned?
ROSSWell I think it depends, I mean, you know, for a lot of people, it comes with experience. I think that that's probably the case. For a lot of people, it taps into self confidence, but I think that it's important that we recognize that self confidence, not in the sense that it's generated. You know, one of the things that we try to do, Kojo, is we try to commoditize qualities, and particularly in this day of the 3500 books a day that get published, and the like. And here's the thing, if you sit this way, if you use this body language, if you dress this way, if you look this way, if you smile this way, if you have your hair this way, then somehow you get gravitas.
ROSSAnd anytime we commoditize something that's really a visceral experience, we're going to miss the mark. We may be able to target certain places where it happens more than others. My experience has been that it usually has something to do with a combination of competence and confidence in people's ability to address a particular issue at hand. So, you know, somebody may feel confident without the competence behind it, you know, people who are sort of legends in their own mind, so to speak. And then you have a lot of people who have a lot of competence, but not a lot of competence, or excuse me, a lot of competence, but not a lot of confidence. And so it's some combination of the two of those, I usually find, that is at play.
NNAMDIHow does gravitas play in your workplace? Who do you think there has it, and who doesn't? 800-433-8850. The study we talked about that was co-sponsored by American Express, Goldman Sachs, and others, says that there are six elements of gravitas critical to leadership, grace under fire, decisiveness, emotional intelligence, and the ability to read a room, integrity, and authenticity, people apparently don't like fakes, a vision that inspires others, and a stellar reputation. I don't know any human being who can put all of those together.
ROSSWell, you know, on one hand, that's true, obviously, but of course, I think that they say very specifically in the study that you don't have to have all of those. But I do think that if we think of the great leaders who have inspired us, they often have, you know, a generous amount of all of those qualities, and the one that really sticks out to me from that is authenticity. I mean, I find when I look at people who are extraordinary, and of course, you know, we saw this a little bit in the presidential election, what a lot of people said about looking at the two candidates, President Obama and Governor Romney was that they just felt like President Obama was more the real deal.
ROSSAnd in the polls -- and this is one of the reasons his likeability numbers were higher, even though, you know, politically, people may have disagreed with him, and one of the reasons that Governor Romney's shifting on positions contributed to that, of course, you know, how authentic are you if you keep changing your positions. Once again, getting out of the political side, whether one is a Democrat or a Republican, there's a different way of presenting in that. And I think that in my experience, that when people feel like the person you're dealing with is really being straightforward with you, that as much as possible, it's a natural experience of another human being, that goes a long way to having people feel comfortable, feeling like they can do the same with themselves.
NNAMDIGravitas as straightforwardness. One field where gravitas has long been considered important is media. In fact, some might say it was personified by one Edward R. Murrow. Is it a trait valued more in some fields than in others? I guess in media, where credibility is important.
ROSSYeah, well I think that's probably true, and of course, you know, you look at somebody like Murrow who had the whole package, the voice, his way of being, there's a seriousness, I mean, sometimes we have a seriousness that's associated with gravitas and even the word itself, if you think about it, reminds us of the word grave or gravely, or things like that. But my experience has been that gravitas can also be something in which, can be a circumstance in which people can bring humor or lightness, can relieve people's pressure or tension, and it takes many, many forms.
ROSSI mean, if you look at somebody like Edward R. Murrow's, at one extreme, for example, versus Steve Jobs, who we would have to say had gravitas. And yet, their entire way of presenting was completely different, completely different, everything from the clothing to the way they used media, to everything else. And a lot of that was time, but also just who they were. So I would say that that's -- any time we're looking for credibility from somebody is one place where gravitas comes into play. And I think another time is when we're in a circumstance where we need reassurance.
ROSSI think that what gravitas often gives people is a sense of reassurance, that there's somebody, somebody on hand who's the grownup in the room, who can handle the circumstance.
NNAMDII think of Walter Cronkite, and the fact that when Cronkite, whose presentation was as neutral as you could possibly get, who was as inoffensive as you could possibly get, but at the point at which his coverage of Vietnam started to become more and more critical, is the point at which everybody seems to agree that America began to turn against the war.
ROSSOh, in fact, there's a famous quote from Lyndon Johnson when he says, when we lost Cronkite, we lost the war.
ROSSAnd I think that's a good example. I think people turn to, you know, Uncle Walter, they called him in those days, and you know, and you kind of look for the final word. And we're losing that, I think, in our culture, we're losing that sense of it, and largely because the thing you and I have talked many times about the segmentation of media, and the fact that, you know, one goes to either this or that place to get our news, versus to some central location, some sense. And even when we have people who try to hold that space in a clearer sense, you know, I'm thinking of somebody, let's say Anderson Cooper, who I think aspires to that kind of gravitas, it feels sometimes almost artificially forced to a lot of people.
ROSSAnd I don't know Anderson Cooper myself, so I'm not saying that's true of him, but I'm saying a lot of people say about him, he's trying a little bit too hard to be that. So that's where the authenticity comes in play as well.
NNAMDIThe only person who has it naturally is Stephen Colbert.
ROSSYes, exactly, exactly.
NNAMDIOur guest is Howard Ross. He's a diversity consultant and principal at Cook Ross. He's author of the book, "Reinventing Diversity: Transforming Organizational Community to Strengthen People, Purpose, and Performance." We're talking about intangibles in the workplace and how they may help or hinder you, gravitas being the first one we discussed, but we'll be talking about it some more. If you'd like to join the conversation, call us at 800-433-8850. What traits do you think help or hurt you the most at work?
NNAMDIWhich do you look to encourage or avoid in others on your job? 800-433-8850, there are other qualities, either difficult to define or extremely subjective qualities that affect our relationships and our opportunities at work. How do you things like -- you mentioned authenticity -- how do things like attitude affect workplace dynamics?
ROSSWell, I think dramatically, and particularly for people in leadership and I think we're going, we have gone through a transition over the course of the last generation. You know, we, most of us in my generation grew up sort of with the notion of the sort of the military model of leadership, so a strong leader, was almost white and almost always male. And defined by that sense of the general in charge, and one could be a benevolent general, but nonetheless very clear who was in charge. And then we of course were exposed over the years to emotional intelligence and other models of leadership which seem to indicate that in our current kind of milieu, for lack of a better way of putting it, that engagement is really valued, and that employee engagement valued.
ROSSAnd if you set yourself up as a leader to be on top of the, you know, pedestal and not available, then you actually could discourage employee engagement. So we're seeing a real shift to various new ways of being, and then in addition to that, of course, we've had the entrance of a lot more women and a lot more people of color in leadership positions, and both gender and culture play a major role in how this is perceived.
NNAMDIWanted to get to the issue of women, but first there was a piece in The Washington Post magazine this weekend, I guess because of Washington politics, we tend to think of Washington as like the epicenter of disgruntlement. But the piece in The Washington Post looked at over 1100 adults, and found out that most of those people, the overwhelming majority, said that they were happy in their jobs, 87 percent said they were completely satisfied or somewhat satisfied with their job. Where did our stereotypes go wrong? Is that what you find in your work around Washington?
ROSSWell, I think that one of the things we're dealing with now is that there's a large component, I really mean this seriously, people who are just happy to have jobs. And I think when, you know, jobs are plentiful, and you can look around and you see that everybody's looking to hire people as they were, say, five years ago, six years ago, it's very easy to like look at the, you know, the grass is always greener over there, and gee, maybe I should do this or maybe I should do that, and in that mindset, we begin to feel like, you know, maybe my job's not perfect for me.
ROSSI think when people are hearing so much over the last four or five years about unemployment, knowing friends who've been laid off jobs, knowing friends who are having a hard time finding work, that which we have becomes more precious to us, and more acceptable to us. And I think that that's a big piece of it. And then the other piece is I think that a lot more organizations are moving, as I said a moment ago, in the direction of getting people more engaged, and I think that's having an impact.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones. Here is Rusty in Washington, D.C. Rusty, you're on the air, go ahead, please.
RUSTYHi, Kojo. Thanks for taking my call. It was funny, as soon as I picked up the phone and decided to call, you guys mentioned attitude, and it was a hard lesson to learn, but I actually, I was fired from a position because I had a poor attitude. And it was a hard lesson to learn, but ever since then, I just had to – even when you had a bad day, or a bad time with a coworker, you just have to adjust your attitude, to maintain your composure and to keep the job, especially if it's a job you like, regardless of how you look or wear your hair. If you have a good attitude, you're gonna be a good team player, and you're gonna, you want to be around on staff. And that's (unintelligible). I'm sorry?
NNAMDII want to talk a little bit, because when you say you had a poor attitude, a poor attitude in whose opinion? And I'd like Howard to comment, to talk a little bit because we will talk about communication and whether or not you communicate what our caller identifies as a poor attitude and who gets to make that decision.
ROSSWell, you know, for better or for worse obviously, you know, the ultimate decider gets to make the decision...
ROSS...the boss does get to make that decision. I think this thing about attitude is a really tricky one because on one hand one would say that we do have to have -- you know, that the people's way of being has a huge impact on their work. And we've all worked with people who are really terrific at what they do but they're just sort of a pain in the ass to be around. And they're unpleasant or they're -- you know, they're gloomy or whatever it is. Or on the other -- you know, they're too silly or, you know, the extremes can be there.
ROSSAnd I know for myself, you know, I have no interest in having employees in my company feel like they can't express something for fear that, you know, somebody's going to be upset with them. On the other hand, you know, there are limits to the bandwidth of which you can have -- you know, if you've got somebody who's a constant downer around everything and always bringing negative energy, it does effect the team.
ROSSAnd so it's an interesting dance. I think from the standpoint of a leader one has to sit back and say, is this attitude, this way of being that the person's bringing, is it really problematic or does it just trigger you personally. And that's the question I'm always asking myself. You know, I may have somebody who, you know, something about their way of being, their personality kind of may rub me a little bit the wrong way, but it doesn't mean they're really a problem. It just be maybe my own personal trigger with it. And if we're making good decisions as leaders hopefully we look that.
NNAMDINumber one on a recent Wall Street Journal list of must have job skills in 2013 was clear communications. What exactly do you take that to mean and would you agree with that assessment?
ROSSWell, clear communication is always important. I mean, we have to be able to get our ideas across but the way -- but what one defines as clear communication may be different depending upon where they come from. Somebody who's extraverted, for example, defines clear communication as a lot more information than somebody who's introverted. People who come from different cultural backgrounds may communicate very differently. Clearly men and women communicate very differently.
ROSSI'm talking now obviously archetypically...
NNAMDI...in general terms, yeah.
ROSS...archetypically not every man and every woman. And so -- and we could go on. And so the question in communication for my mind if really two-fold. One is am I putting out the message that I want to put out in a clear way relative to the listener whom I'm speaking to. So one of the things that an effective communicator does is not just say what's on their mind but also have some mind to the way people might be listening to what they're saying.
ROSSSome of that comes from background experience, that is do I know people who come from this sort of orientation. That might be for example if I'm working at the applied physics lab at Johns Hopkins University is one of my clients, working with people who are triple PhDs in physics, I may communicate about concepts in a slightly different way than if I'm working for a group of social -- with a group of social workers.
ROSSBecause the kinds of things that are necessarily on their radar screen and interest might influence the kind of communication. So that's one piece of it. But then another piece of it is always being tuned into checking into did they get --did it seem like they get the communication. And sometimes that means, you know, asking people to reflect back or listening to how they reflect back on what you say as well.
ROSSI think the real danger in communication is when we're so stuck in our own head about what we want to communicate that we don't pay any attention to the listener, and that's where we really get in trouble.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. If you have called, stay on the line. The number is 800-433-8850. We're talking with Howard Ross. Has a box or a colleague's perception of you, fair or not, caused you to change your behavior in the workplace? Let us know how that worked out for you, 800-433-8850. Or send us email to firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation with Howard Ross on other intangibles besides gravitas in the workforce, how you communicate on the job, what your attitude is on the job, how authenticity is perceived. And we're inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. Here is Immanuel in Waldorf, Md. Immanuel, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
IMMANUELHello, Kojo. How are you today?
IMMANUELGreat. Yes, I'd just like to say that having an open mind as it relates to not only employees but management, I think will, you know, allow for the management side to maximize, you know, the work that they might get out of a potential person or not vice versa, as well as an employee being able to be open minded. And the reason I say that it's just because in this day and time we're more subject to be working along somebody that's been raised in another country, have a different ethnicity with the advent of the internet and all. And I just think having an open mind to different ways and different thoughts is very important. That's my comment. I'll talk to you later. Have a great day.
NNAMDIThank you very much, Immanuel. Open-mindedness.
ROSSYeah, there's no question what Immanuel was talking about. You know, I remember the old training videos. You used to see IBM training videos back in the '50s and '60s, you know, that would show everybody was wearing the same colored suit, white shirt, a red tie. And the women were wearing, you know the same thing with skirts suits and a red bowtie, you know. And that sort of the way everybody dressed. It was a uniform.
ROSSAnd clearly there's been an expansion that some of it was influenced by the '60s and the sort of changing moirés of appearance in the '60s. And a lot of it, as Immanuel's saying, is changed by the introduction of women and people of color and various ethnicities in the workforce.
NNAMDIAnd a lot more women in the workforce now and a lot of them are between the ages of 21 and 34, the so called millennials born roughly between 1978 and 1991. And according to a recent piece -- I guess it was in the Washington Post -- these women appear to be buoyed by a stronger belief in their capabilities than many of their mothers enjoyed at their age. Some people are calling it a sense of entitlement, seeing it even maybe as a layer of arrogance when it is clearly a sense of confidence that apparently some women of a previous generation did not have.
ROSSWell, I think, yeah, this is -- I think this -- it's very important that when we, especially where women are concerned, when we look at questions about appearance in the workplace or in the public square for that matter, with broadcasters, people on TV, the like that we understand that the nature of how women have had to deal with appearance is very tied into misogyny. It's very tied into sexist attitudes about women.
ROSSAnd so, for example, in the early days if you were coming into -- one of the only women coming into the environment like I was just describing, IBM, the more masculine you looked, the less different you looked because of your gender the better. And so into this whole notion of, you know, covering up the chest, you know, buttoned up to the collar, wearing a jacket or a suit over top of it. All of that was about de-feminizing women to make them look more masculine so that it's more comfortable.
ROSSAnd then, you know, overtime what begins to happen is people begin to realize that you can be as different as you are good. And so the more talented people are the greater sense of self confidence that they have about their abilities the more they allow, you know, themselves to come forward the way they would normally dress. And so they come into the workplace. Then we switch back, you know, as we got into this -- especially into the '80s and '90s into this thing where over feminization becomes better.
ROSSParticularly you see this on TV. You know, more cleavage, higher heels, all of this thing make the person look almost like a model who's doing the news or the weather, etcetera. And I think now we're in this place where we're sort of in this netherworld in between where people are trying to find the place that they fit in. And it can be very challenging.
NNAMDIAnd the fact is that there was a piece recently -- was it in the news? I guess it was in The Washington Post, on women newscast anchors and the way they, too, are dressing differently that, I guess, is a part of the phenomenon you were describing and that is that we are, in fact, evolving on this issue.
ROSSYes. Well, definitely -- we're definitely evolving. And I think one of the challenges we always need to ask ourselves is -- and this is true. I see it even in the space, you know, in the diversity space where women are being coached how to be successful in organizations. There's still some of that old thinking which is stay away from dangled earrings, keep your -- you know, more conservative. Don't worry. And I'm not suggestions that if people are comfortable dressing that way that they should dress the way they feel comfortable but, you know, it also -- we also pay a price when we have to hide who we are in order to come to work.
ROSSAnd I think often women have been asked to hide who they were to come to work so that men are more comfortable with their appearance, rather than organizations taking on the bigger more important issue which is let's talk about that discomfort. Let's talk about what we need to do to create an environment in which men and women can work comfortably together where appearance is not the main thing that we're using to judge each other. It's much more of a secondary or tertiary thing in the conversation.
NNAMDIWell, the thing that we as men tend to do if we disapprove of the way women dress in the workplace is that we use the broad term unprofessional.
NNAMDIAnd apparently that definition of what is professional and what is not is also evolving.
ROSSYeah, and it can go in lots of different ways. I mean, I have had -- just recently I was working with a New York law firm and there was a woman there who is, you know, somebody who one would consider classical beautiful. She looked like she could be a model. And she was saying to me that she's had to spend most of her career dampening down her appearance because her fear is that she -- what she called, and these were her words, the bimbo effect. That she would be seen as somebody who's there because of her appearance rather than the fact that she came out of, I think it was Stanford Law School or something like that. You know, clearly a brilliant woman.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Immanuel. Here is Maureen in Arlington, Va. Maureen, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MAUREENHi, Kojo. I just read something in Harvard Business Review, a little piece, in December. It said young men who are agreeable, who are cooperative and place great value on relationships, earn 20 percent less than their peers on average. And this is from a Notre Dame professor study. And I'm particularly interested because I have a son who's graduating in May with a degree in Mechanical Engineering. And so I was just wondering about this. What do you think?
NNAMDIThey say young men who are agreeable?
MAUREENYes, who are agreeable, they're cooperative and place great value on relationships, earn 20 percent less than their peers on average. The professor's name is Timothy Judge.
ROSSYeah, you know, I don't know that particular study. I do know some of Tim Judge's work on some other areas. And, you know, there is that sort of quality that we have that nice people finish last was, you know -- or nice guys finish last, the old Leo Durocher quote. I do think that there are times in certain industries in which we think that somebody who is considerate of others is somehow weaker than.
ROSSThere are a number of things I would say about that. One is there's a lot of measures of success beyond financial measures first of all. Secondly, I'm not sure how much that's holding up generationally so I'd want to look at that. But it is something that people deal with, which is that we've still got this image, once again, as I said before, coming from the old General Patton, you know, the kind of boss that we want is the kind of boss who will, you know, kick ass and take names and make things happen around here.
ROSSBut I think it's important for us to recognize that when that same behavior shows up in women there's often a certain B word that gets associated with it. And it's not that people look at that woman and say, she shouldn't act that way. Only guys should act that way. On the contrary, the person who says that may very well be arguing for more women in business -- in leadership. It's just that she shouldn't act that way.
ROSSAnd so -- and the same thing is true of course for race, that African American men, for example -- there's been a lot talked about President Obama and the concern about being the angry black man, that an African American man who comes across as too strong can be viewed very differently than a white man who comes across as very strong. So these are all, you know, sort of femoral qualities we're trying to grab a hold of.
NNAMDIEarlier this year a British columnist got a whole lot of backlash after writing a piece about being too pretty. Her name was Samantha Brick. It ran in the Daily Mirror and it was entitled "There are Downsides to Looking This Pretty: Why Women Hate Me for Being Beautiful." So it can go either way I guess.
ROSSWell, and the sad thing is that that's another function of the very -- you know, the misogynist kinds of tendencies that I was talking about, which is that, you know, if this person becomes a paragon that I'm now compared to it's understandable that I would resent the paragon. And even the things we look at -- I mean, think about it. How many times did you hear people commenting on Henry Kissinger's hairstyle when he was Secretary of State versus...
NNAMDIThat would be like never.
ROSS...never, as opposed to Secretary Clinton who of course every other comment -- and, you know, you even find yourself noticing it more because we do have a tendency to look at women's appearance more because of the cultural norms that we've created around that. And this influence is how people are seen in the workplace. So a guy who comes in dressed "inappropriately", very rarely happens, where a woman who comes in dressed "inappropriately" is much more in our radar screen. And I say that inappropriately in quotes in both cases.
NNAMDIMaureen, thank you for your call. The guy may be dressed inappropriately but apparently if he is bald -- well, the other huge factor that can affect the way people perceive you may be without you being fully aware of it is appearance. One component of the image you project is your hair or the lack thereof. A recent study finding that men who shave their heads are perceived to, among other things, have greater leadership potential. What do you make of that finding?
ROSSI think it's one of the finest studies that's ever been produced, Kojo.
ROSSThey're finally realizing the value of baldness as an enormous asset.
NNAMDIYeah, I'll send you a picture of Howard. We'll post it on our Twitter page.
ROSSYes, exactly, exactly. They can figure it out, I'm sure. No, I think because it's the new thing, you know. I mean, I think -- we were talking about that before -- I think Michael Jordan was the one who brought this into the mainstream. And all of a sudden it became kind of the cool thing to do, so now baldness is the in thing.
ROSSBut I do think that there's something underneath the surface in some of the research around this. And what it shows is that people, particularly feel more comfortable with somebody who's willing to admit that they're bald rather than people who are going around trying to hide it, you know, with comb-overs and the like, which was all the rage back years ago. And I think nowadays you're seeing far less of that. And, you know, somebody who's just by the statement of who they're being are basically saying, look this is the body I got. You know, take me or leave me.
ROSSAnd that gets back to the authenticity question. And I think that that's -- I say to people a lot of times, you know, it's like, you know, would I prefer to have a full head of hair? Sure. You know, I -- given my choice that's the head I got. This is the one I got. Now do I want to spend the rest of my life pretending like I don't by keeping a cap over it or doing a comb over? It just -- you know, for me that's a distraction, a waste of energy.
NNAMDIIt would not be you.
NNAMDIHere is Linda in Silver Spring. Linda, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
LINDAHi. In my consultant practice and in some of the research I did what I've noticed is a prevalence of undiscussables in the workplace. Like some researcher -- well, what some researchers called organizational silence or the elephants in the room. And I've learned how harmful they are to organizations and how few leaders actually deal with them and make them a transparent practice that creates a climate of openness and transparency. So I'm kind of curious Howard's reaction to it.
ROSSYeah, this question of the discussables, and of course with the -- what Chris Argyris, the brilliant organizational theorist from MITNN Harvard called the undiscussable undiscussables, the things that we don't talk about and we don't even talk about that we don't talk about. And I think that these are danger spots. They can sometimes be things that influence us without us realizing it. And the special challenge in this is the more we know about the unconscious mind the more we know about these unconscious decisions that we're making about people, the more we realize that one of the factors in that is to bring to the surface the things that we're not talking about.
ROSSBecause if in fact there's a personality factor or an appearance factor that nobody's mentioning but it's uncomfortable, then it looms large in our filter, the way we see things. If -- once we've brought it up to the surface and named it, it seems to have less power. And there's some classic examples of how the -- what my old business partner Dottie Cook used to call, if you can't fix it feature it. I remember -- if you remember the film Don Juan DeMarco. It was one of Marlon Brando's last films. It might have even been his last film.
ROSSBut in any case, he plays this therapist in the film and he's -- and at this point in his life Brando was huge. He was very big, 330 pounds or something. And the first scene is him driving a car and you see just his face. And he gets out of the car in the parking lot -- this is the very beginning of the movie -- and you're first struck with how big he is because, you know, it's like Marlon Brando and here he is enormous, you know. And within moments he runs into one of his friends in the parking lot, one of the characters is a friend in the parking lot. And he comes and pats him on the stomach and says, ah Jack, I see you're working on your diet. You know, ha-ha.
ROSSAnd that moment his weight stopped being an issue because it was named. But when it's not named, it's not spoken and so I think that what Linda's talking about is so important. We get these undiscussables up into the surface to look at. We can get a better sense of our reaction and realize that in a lot of cases they're superficialities and they're not tied into things that are that important.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Linda. Does that deal with the issue for you?
LINDATo some extent because I think some of the issues can be actually very dangerous and very impactful so that it could be a supervisor who's incompetent or someone who's social loafing or someone who is really impacting the workplace and the leader is avoiding the conflict of dealing with it. And so the notion of how do we teach or develop leaders who have the courage and the wisdom to be able to deal with it to make the workplace a much more, um, effective, efficient and healthy place to be in.
ROSSYeah, I couldn't agree more.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Linda. But I'm glad you mentioned the way in which the character in that movie dealt with Marlon Brando because another -- because he used humor, another fuzzy gray area that can get you in hot water or on the other hand endear you to your coworkers and bosses are your sense of humor and your decorum. How do those attributes work for and how can they work against you?
ROSSYou know, the sad irony is that sometimes the environments in which the gray area is the largest are the healthiest general environments. Environments where people enjoy each other's company, they're willing to share themselves and not just put on a work face, you know. They're willing to kind of, you know, around the lunch table, you're kind of enjoying being with each other because you kind of know who each other are.
ROSSAnd so the line between what's acceptable in the work place and what's not acceptable in the workplace can get easily blurred at those times, whereas if you go into more old line very conservative environments where everybody is very button down, and, you know, Mr. This and Ms. That, and all that kind of stuff, there often are much clearer lines. And I think that one needs to be sensitive to how they show up, and part of that is building feedback processes in.
ROSSYou know, one of the things that we try to do in our work with our clients, as well as in our own office, is to say, look, if somebody says something that's offensive, let's start by assuming that they didn't intend offense, give them feedback and then, depending upon how they respond, you know where to go. So if somebody comes to you and says, you know, when you made that comment the other day, I was really offended by it, and the reaction is, you know, don't be so thin skinned, then you know you got a challenge you gotta deal with.
ROSSBut on the other hand, if they say wow, I really apologize, that wasn't my intention. Please let me know what it was that was offensive so that I can modify my behavior...
NNAMDIHow about if the offense was taken because the person didn't understand? There was a famous case of that in DC government many years ago with the use of the word niggardly.
ROSSThat's right, yeah. The very famous case where, you know, and he was fired and then rehired...
ROSS...and, you know, and all of that. And when something is misinterpreted, there's also a responsibility to understand the offense -- that the offended has to also be responsible for what was it about that that triggered me. I mean, sometimes people say very innocent things, or very helpful things, or very appropriate things, and a person gets triggered because it reminds them of some time in their past.
ROSSYou know, I had an employee years ago who worked for me who was totally incapable of getting any kind of feedback. And, you know, as it turned out it was because there was some, you know, some serious issues with authority, but, you know, you come over and say, boy that's a fantastic proposal, you did an incredible job, and I love the way you use color. The one slight change I'd like to have is if you, you know, if you could change the sort of more pastel colors to primary colors for this particular client, I think it'd be a better match.
ROSSAnd she looked up and said, you're always beating up on me, you know. So, I mean, clearly there was something else going on there, so we have to be sensitive to both sides of the conversation.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. If you've called, stay on the line. We will get to your call. We're talking with Howard Ross about intangibles in the workforce conduct that can affect your workplace life and career one way or the other. 800-433-8850 is our number. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. Our guest is Howard Ross, diversity consultant and principal at Cook Ross. Author of the book "Reinventing Diversity: Transforming Organizational Community to Strengthen People, Purpose, and Performance." Back to the telephones. Here in Andrea, or Andrea in St. Leonard, Md. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ANDREAYes. I have a question, and then I'll listen on the radio. You talk about all these areas of, you know, the qualities that you need to be successful, and I would like to look at the solutions. For example, when it comes to speaking with others, that's an area that I'm weak in. Weak in the aspect of I'm doing activism work right now, and I have trouble getting the words out of my mouth or I may forget a person's name while I'm talking, or I might not be able to remember the source for one of the points that I'm talking.
ANDREAAnd so I want to look at some of these issues, even if it's dress for example, that somebody has. Where do we go to get solutions, or are we just stuck with what we are?
NNAMDIHere's -- stuck you are not. Here's Howard.
ROSSWell, Andrea, I think that first of all, there are two different levels in which the kinds of things we're talking about exist. There's one which is inherent lack of competence in a certain area. So, you know, one could say, when you ask me a question, I don't know the answer. That's a problem if I'm supposed to know the answer. But there's another domain which it sounds like you're talking about where you know the answer, but you just can't frame it, you know.
ROSSYou're -- maybe the way you articulate is just not quick enough or whatever. It doesn't have anything to do with how competent you are, it just may be a matter of a form of expression. This is where what I talked about before about if you can't fix it, feature it, comes into play. There's a guy I remember -- about 20 years ago, there was a guy who ran for State Senate, I think it was, in Colorado, who had been in a horrible accident and had been burned over two-thirds of his body, and so he was seriously disfigured.
ROSSAnd he ran for Congress -- for whatever it was that the position was, and ended up winning, and his campaigns were, vote for such and such, not just another pretty face. It's a classic example. I mean, I think that -- you talk about forgetting names for example. A lot of us forget names, but people, instead of just saying, you know what, I apologize, I'm not good at names, and just asking the person's name again, what we try to do is we try to fake it, and in faking it, we actually pull ourselves farther away from being with that person.
ROSSI think the same is true in each of these areas. We have to tell the truth for ourselves about what we can study to do better. You know, there are communication courses you might be able to take, or communication skills trainings that you can get, and a lot of that is online now. But you're only going to get -- you can't be good at everything, and so if you're still at the place where you feel like, for example, just again, to use your example that you don't remember names well, then to say to people, you know, I apologize, I'm not good at names, you take the responsibility for yourself, and most people feel more comfortable with that than trying to fake it.
NNAMDIGot an email from M.K. in Silver Spring. "As one of the millennial women currently being discussed on your program, I have a question. I often feel that my opinions and thoughts are not taken seriously in the workplace, and occasionally wonder if this has to do with things I cannot do much about. These things include looking very young for my age. I'm often mistaken for a teenager regardless of how I dress or what I wear.
NNAMDI"Having a soft and quiet voice by nature, being relatively introverted, although not shy. I'm certain there are others out there who have much more serious concerns regarding qualities like race, sexual orientation, et cetera, that cannot be changed but affect the way they're viewed and considered. But I don't think that I'm alone in wondering how to deal with being judged in the workplace based on personal qualities and characteristics that we have little choice over. What can be done?
ROSSWell, you know, it's -- first of all, a lot of it depends who you're working with and who you're dealing with. I mean, in most cases, as I said before, just putting it up to the surface helps, you know, like you can say things like, I know -- people tell me I look a lot younger than I am. People tell me I have, you know, that kind of experience. There are some people who do diminish people for the very qualities that M.K. is talking about, you know, soft speaking.
ROSSWe know -- we talked, I think, the last time we were together, Kojo, about introversion and how, you know, introverts tend to be left behind. And a lot of this has to do with gender as well, or where race is concerned. You know, I've coached and mentored an awful lot of young, African-American men over my career, and one of the challenges that they asked me about is, you know, should I keep my -- for example, if they have their hair in dreadlocks, you know.
ROSSShould I cut off my hair to get this job? And this was, of course, before Robert Griffin, III changed the conversation in this city about dreadlocks. But what I always said was look, you know, your hair looks fine to me. You should know that some people will react to it, and so if you're going to keep it, go into that conversation with eyes wide open. Don't go into that like you're going to touch the stove and then get angry at it for being hot, whether for right or wrong, this is the reality you're dealing with.
ROSSSo I think that the more we can put things on the surface and show people that we're comfortable with them, the more likely people are going to be comfortable with it themselves.
NNAMDIOnto Sam in New York, NY. Sam, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SAMHi. Thanks so much. I'm really excited about this conversation because I also -- I train leaders and organizations in diverse -- diverse organizations create a model of communication, an internal model of communication that would support the diversity and supports the results they're trying to achieve. And one of the things I've -- quick comment and then a question. One of the things I've noticed, as leaders, when I'm working with people leaders are -- they don't -- when they're communicating, they don't completely have people's attention.
SAMThey're not aware that they don't have people's attention and they're already starting to communicate. And then the other part is that they are not speaking for the benefit of the people they are communicating with. And those are things that I noticed were the cause of a lot of breakdowns. And my specific question is that in my working with some small companies, and wanting to work with larger companies to impact this change and -- because I think it's really important, this whole message and how -- because it's gonna be about personal happiness when we come into the workplace of whatever we're doing in the professional lives is that it seems like oftentimes companies are trying to do this work of diversity and communication, but they're trying to do it from an HR -- from the HR perspective, the bottom up as opposed from the executive top down.
SAMAnd I see often oftentimes the growth stops, or it goes up to a certain -- it goes to a certain place because the executives on the top are not taking it on as a practice, and I'd love to hear your thoughts.
ROSSYeah. Well, that of course is true, Sam, and I, you know, we certainly love to see organizations when leaders jump out in front of initiatives like that. I do think that there are times when I've seen things that started a ground swell within an organization in which leaders have been enrolled, but ultimately you've got to get them enrolled if you're going to be moving forward. I think that, you know, the question of how we kind of go with this changing morays because of the diversity of our culture is something that's constantly evolving.
ROSSYou know, if you look at something, for example, like Melissa Harris-Perry, the MSNBC commentator who now has her own show, and who wears her hair in a way that one would have considered to be inappropriate or quote "unprofessional." As a matter of fact, not too many years ago, a Marriott employee sued because she had...
NNAMDII remember that.
ROSS...been fired for having her hair in virtually the exact same way the Melissa Harris-Perry now wears her hair on TV. So we are seeing those changes. But there's something really valuable when we begin to allow the workplace to be colorized for lack of a better word. And I don't mean that in racial terms as much I mean bringing in the depth and the breadth of people's responses and ways of looking at life.
ROSSWe've got people now who wear piercings, or who have tattoos, or who have their hair in various different ways. We have much more -- a lot more casual work environments, and a lot of organizations have casual Fridays now, and I always find that to be fascinating why, if it works on Friday, we can't do it the rest of the week, and if it doesn't work the rest of the week, then why are we doing it on Friday, but that's a whole other conversation. But this softening of the workplace environment, the allowing of people to not have to put a costume to come to work, which is evolving all the time.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Sam. Some of it can come down to simple manners, I guess. Do you think a lot of conflicts could be avoided in the workplace if everyone kept in mind some of the lessons our parents taught us about -- well, being nice and cleaning up after ourselves?
ROSSWell, that's -- I think that's true. I mean, there's a certain -- I use the term civility a lot. I mean, it's not -- because manners, of course, shift from home to home, family to family, culture to culture. But there is a certain sense of civility, and civility comes from being considerate about the way your behavior impacts other people, and this gets back to what I said before about the listening that's out there. Knowing what's listening.
ROSSWhen Sam was talking about leaders speaking into a vacuum, people aren't paying attention, I noticed for myself a number of years ago, I began to realize sometimes I'd be giving instruction to the training group, people were busy doing stuff, and I would just start talking without saying, okay, can I have your attention please. I mean, it seems like a simple thing, but you'd be surprised. If you watch people who are speaking, how often they do that, they try to speak over a crowd of people rather than wait to have people's attention, and then they actually hear what you're saying.
NNAMDII've had -- the last two days watching basketball, coaches do that all the time.
ROSSExactly. So the key here is, am I paying attention to the way people are listening to what I'm saying, and that includes sometimes recognizing when I have something to say, but there's something much more important on other people's minds. I was attending a seminar the night after 9/11, and a person got up, and it was a three-hour seminar. It had nothing to do with what had happened.
ROSSThe person got up and said, okay, obviously we've got a big tragedy here that's happened. We're gonna take the first 20 minutes and let people share about what's going on for them before we get to our topic. Well, there were 85 or 90 people in the room. After 20 minutes, he said, all right, we ready to start. The place went crazy.
ROSSComplete rebellion. So we have to be sensitive to the fact that there's a world out there that's not always aligned with our agenda, and figure out some way to put that out there if we're going to get across, either with our appearance, or our message, or anything else.
NNAMDIA couple of callers I'd like to get in.
NNAMDILet's see if we can get them both in. I'll start with Steve in Potomac, Md. Steve, your turn.
STEVEHi Kojo. Thanks for the great show. Quick question to your guest, speaking of being in worlds that aren't exactly where everybody else is at, how are you dealing with and advising clients of helping to transition what we loosely call the Facebook generation to a world that has to look each other in the eye, talk to each other, and interact? Because for all of your discussion, which I find very helpful, it assumes people are interacting, but for those of us working in training consulting in the workplace, there's an awful of business out there right now because this generation doesn't know how to do that, and they don't necessarily have ADHD by the way, they just act like it.
ROSSThat's true. Well, I think the whole social media domain is, you know, a huge issue, because the kinds of things that were our private thoughts in days gone by immediately get posted onto Facebook, you know, sometimes minute by minute during the day. And people then get interaction with other people. People who are at work are friends on Facebook with other people who are at work. And so, they're engaging in that way.
ROSSIf you go onto somebody's Facebook page, you often see a lot more of their private life than you would normally see in days of the past when we would be working together. And so on one level it increases the level of intimacy and knowledge that we have with each other, and on the level it can be a distraction, and I think it's an important -- the bottom line about all we're talking about is that the more we move it up into consciousness, the more we're talking about what's going on as a dynamic rather than stepping over it the better off we are.
NNAMDIThank you for your call, Steve. We move onto Brian in Alexandria, Va. Brian, we're running out of time very quickly. Go ahead, please.
BRIANWell, thanks for taking my call. I just had a quick -- it was a comment, more of a story. My mother worked in retail a number of years ago. When we went back to work she was older than most of the other employees, and had taken sort of a motherly role in her position where she worked a job remembering birthdays, bringing in cookies. She really enjoyed that. And there was one young employee, a man, who was black, but she always referred to him like her son.
BRIANI used to joke with her that she adopted him after I moved out of the house, and it was a very positive relationship. But one time she referred to him as her boy. This is Thomas, he's my boy. And somebody overheard that. She was reported. I can remember coming home and she was in tears. She didn't go to work for days, because somebody interpreted that as an insult. The young man she was talking to wasn't insulted. She didn't say it as an insult, but someone overheard it and turned it into something that it wasn't.
NNAMDIProbably was. Context is everything I guess, Howard Ross.
ROSSExactly. Yeah. Unfortunately, Brian, we've got to move on, but your point is well taken. We have to understand a couple things about this. First of all, words are important, and words trigger different, I mean, ask Joe Biden about his comment about the president being articulate is another great example of that. And so words do matter, and they're reacted to. But once again, I think what we then do is we respond by assuming intent, and in the case of somebody like your mom, she clearly didn't have a negative intent by that.
ROSSAnd so the very kind of feedback process that I was talking about earlier when we assume good intent can be helpful.
NNAMDIHoward Ross. In addition to being a diversity consultant and principal at Cook Ross, he's author of "Reinventing Diversity: Transforming Organizational Community to Strengthen People, Purpose, and Performance," and in addition to all of that, he's, well, my boy. Howard Ross, thank you so much for joining us.
ROSSThanks, Kojo. Have a wonderful holiday season everybody.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
Most Recent Shows
Since the terrorist attacks in Paris, there's been a rise in anti-Muslim rhetoric and sentiment here in the U.S., from posturing presidential candidates to everyday interactions between citizens.We discuss the current atmosphere for Muslim-Americans, and what it means for the future.
When Jesse Thorn's college radio show got picked up for national distribution by Public Radio International in 2007, he became the youngest national host in public radio history.
Gunmen launched an attack in Mali's capital on Friday. We explore the conditions that continue to fuel extremism in West Africa and the challenges of combating them.