The stories we tell at work with Grace Lordan

PodcastSeptember 05, 2022

How I choose to see the world on a particular day, how I choose to talk to myself, and the stories that I tell myself really sum up how I actually experience work.

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In this episode of The Decision Corner, Brooke is joined by Grace Lordan, an associate professor of Behavioral Science at LSE and author of Think Big, Take Small Steps and Build the Future You Want. Together they discuss the importance of narratives in the workplace, and how the stories that we tell can improve opportunities, diversity, and well-being within organizations. 

This podcast covers a variety of topics, including:

  •  How marginalized communities can wield behavioral science to shatter glass ceilings
  •  Why having a growth mindset often falls short - and how talking to three people can fix it 
  •  A numerical strategy to prevent likeability from biasing your hiring decisions
  •  The paradox of cronyism in the workplace
  •  How to defeat the “cascade effect” that causes toxic meeting environments

The conversation continues

TDL is a socially conscious consulting firm. Our mission is to translate insights from behavioral research into practical, scalable solutions—ones that create better outcomes for everyone.

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Sneak Peek

A life hack for nervous networkers: 

“If you're somebody who hates networking, showing up early is a really easy way around it. The second person to show up, assuming that they're not also quite nervous about being there, will walk straight over to start the conversation, so you don't have to.”  

On how diversity helps us grow: 

“If we're always trying to pursue a happiness at work where we're feeling comfortable with people like us around us, we ultimately won't be more productive. There's no mean to rise to if I am the average person and everyone around me is the same.

On how the workplace environment influences our narratives:

If I'm in a meeting where I don't feel good about myself, it's really rational for me to say less. If I'm in a meeting where I'm treated badly, it's really rational for me to just collect that paycheck. Over time, if we end up in that cycle, our environment can ultimately permanently take control of the narratives that we tell ourselves.

On systematically battling imposter syndrome: 

Essentially, if you have a narrative that says, “I don't belong here”, you're basically fighting imposter syndrome. So, log evidence that suggests that actually, yes, you do belong in the room. Compare yourself to your peers, bring out the values that you have, bring out the added value that you've given over the last year, really pay attention to that evidence, and make it salient the next time that you feel that. Then, tell yourself another story.


Brooke Struck:. Hello everyone,  and welcome to the podcast of The Decision Lab, a socially conscious applied research firm that uses behavioral science to improve outcomes for all of society. My name is Brooke Struck, research director at TDL, and I'll be your host for the discussion. My guest today is Grace Lordan, founding director of The Inclusion Initiative, an Associate Professor of behavioral science at the London School of Economics and Political Science, and author of "Think Big: Take Small Steps and Build the Future You Want". In today's episode, we'll be talking about the stories we tell ourselves, narratives, the world of work, and how stories influence outcomes. Grace, thanks for joining us.

Grace Lordan: Thank you so much Brooke for having me on this podcast. I'm very excited.

Brooke Struck: Let's dive right in. How do the narratives that we tell ourselves influence the way that we work and the way that we feel about our work?

Grace Lordan: I think it's very hard to put a quantity on it, but if I was to put a quantity on it, I would say it's almost close to 100%. How I choose to see the world on a particular day and how I choose to talk to myself to the stories that I tell myself, in the words of Brené Brown, really sum up how we actually experience work. One of the things that I try to do in Think Big is to get people to start paying attention to the type of narratives that might actually be holding them back or might be allowing them to have not such a pleasant time at work. Examples of these are things like: “I'm not good enough”, “nobody like me has done this before”, “what if I fail? I'm going to be really, really scared!” and then you're into this fear of failure type cycle. And really identifying those stories and seeking to banish them from your thinking, essentially. And if you get there, then I think no matter what setback that you actually have, if you can change the stories that you tell yourself, you'll always keep moving forward.

Brooke Struck: Let's talk about the dependent variable here. We've talked a little bit... and thank you for bringing up those examples of, “I'm not good enough” or “I need to prove myself” or “people like me haven't done this before”. What are the outcome variables that we're interested in there? Is it something to do with productivity? Is it something to do with the kinds of tasks that I take on? My mental health more generally? What is it that that impacts?

Grace Lordan: It's all three. If you think about mental health, other wellbeing proxies, there are going to be immediately affected by the stories that I tell myself, essentially. If I tell myself I'm not good enough to do something, that feels pretty rotten, right? I mean, if the person who's putting you down the most is yourself, then there's really no way out. You can't walk away, you can't take a break, you can't actually get away from it. And that will ultimately impact  your productivity in two ways. First directly, because if you're saying that you're not able to do something, then the chances of you choking get higher directly. But there's a really credible literature that links mental health and wellbeing to productivity also, so you also have that indirect link.

You mentioned the tasks and the opportunities, somebody who years down on themselves, who doesn't paint a realistic picture of themselves, is much less likely to take new things on. And of course, every time I take something new on, I have an opportunity to do something great and I also have an opportunity to fail. But whether I fail or whether I succeed, it pushes me forward a little bit from what I've not done before. In some ways, if I'm really drilling myself down with bad stories, I'm affecting my mental health, my productivity, and my opportunities. And of course, the flip side of that is if I'm somebody who tells stories of themselves of ultimate greatness, then you will have an impact on your wellbeing, you might feel good for a while, but you will actually ultimately get found out. What you really want to do is to be telling yourself realistic stories, so that you're feeling decent on a day, but you're also taking steps towards self improvement.

Brooke Struck: The way that you're discussing this really arcs in my mind with the discussions around fixed mindsets and growth mindsets.

Grace Lordan: Yeah.

Brooke Struck: Is there a connection there to be explored?

Grace Lordan: Yeah, absolutely. I think somebody who says “I'm going to give this a try, I'm going to give it my all, and once I do my best, I'm going to be happy about myself” is somebody who has a growth mindset. If you can get yourself telling that particular story to yourself over and over again, regardless of how scary an opportunity might actually be, you will find yourself showing up for yourself more and taking on more opportunities. Ultimately, you will succeed more than you would if you had the fixed mindset that basically was “I'm not good enough for this and I can't change” or “the world is against me, so I'm not going to take on something new.”

I think Carol Dweck did a really great job in her book of describing those. I think the literature that was based on it, however, I'm less impressed by, because it suggests that we have a fixed mindset, essentially, over all of our domains in life or we have a growth mindset over all of our domains in life. And my experience from dealing with people is that we can actually go in and out of fixed or growth mindset, depending on whether we're at home, in the gym, and the workplace. I think for people who are listening, figuring out where you have a fixed or growth mindset is a really interesting exercise in itself. And then, working on the places where you have the fixed mindset, as a resolution for 2022, could be a really, really good one.

Brooke Struck: That's interesting. It reminds me of one of the things that came to mind when I started to dig into the fixed versus growth mindset stuff. I think like you, I found it very compelling at first and started to recognize the power that's latent in there, the potential to use this for good. And I smiled to myself the more that I dug into it, because I realized that so much of the way that we talk about fixed and growth mindsets, itself reflects a fixed mindset. Like, you need to figure out whether you are one or whether you're the other.

Grace Lordan: And of course, as well, cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias. We can tell stories to ourselves that we're growth in everything, when in fact we might ultimately be quite fixed and entrenched in our views. So whether or not we're the best judge of ourselves, it's also up for grabs.

Brooke Struck: Right. For 2022, maybe one of the things we should be doing is having an honest sit down with someone who seems to appraise things well in our lives. And we ask them to tell us where we have a fixed and a growth mindset.

Grace Lordan: I love that. And I would actually go one step further. If you can get three independent people who know you in different ways to do that appraisal, looking at where they overlap and where they differ, is also a fantastic experimental exercise.

Brooke Struck: Okay, let's shift a little bit. We've been talking up until now about our narratives about ourselves and the way that that influences our productivity and our mindset and our mental wellbeing, the kinds of tasks we take on, etc. What about how others perceive us? We've just been digging into this a little bit in this practical, tactical exercise way. But let's think about it in a work context. If I tell myself this narrative that  “I have to excel at this thing because people like me haven't done this before”, and if I misstep here, then I'll be really setting my whole group back, because then everyone's going to measure everyone in my group by the benchmark that I've set. If I tell myself that narrative, how does that influence the way that others view me and my work?

Grace Lordan: I think for somebody who's telling themselves that narrative, it's a lot of pressure, isn't it? That you take the responsibility on yourself to be the first person who breaks a particular ceiling or who goes through glass walls and breaches networks. I think from an individual perspective, the person will actually feel pressurized. I think for the people who are seeing you, I think the question isn't necessarily the stories that you're telling yourself, but it's the stories that they're telling about you. If you are the first of somebody to do something, unfortunately, there are odds stacked against you that have nothing to do with your skills, talent, and abilities. Behavioral science has identified pretty well the impacts of the representativeness heuristic, which essentially tells us, for people who don't yet know about it, that if there's been a particular type of person who has occupied a job for a very, very long period of time, it's very then hard for somebody who doesn't actually visibly look like that historical mold to breakthrough.

And you might argue, this is some of the reason why we have, for example, too many white men who are leading companies and too many women who are nurses. Historically, we have this image that comes into our minds about what they might actually look like. I think next to those, I've become really convinced of the power of familiarity bias, affinity bias, and other unconscious biases that have to do with patronage. And for people who are listening, I think if you are the first person to do something, you ultimately will have moments where you come up against discrimination. But I think the bigger obstacles now are coming up against walls where, if you are not within a network that historically has done something, breaking through is really hard because, for want of a better word, cronyism.

People like to hire their friends. They like to hire people like them. And they don't do this based on skills, talent, and ability, they do this, because they want to feel happy at work. So, what's wrong with that, right? I want to feel happy at work. But if always we're trying to pursue happiness is work where we're feeling comfortable with people like us around us, we ultimately won't be more productive. There's no mean to rise to if I am the average person and everyone around me is the same. And ultimately, it won't be good for the employers. Sometimes I cringe inwardly when people start talking about, that they did a poll in their work and everyone is happy. I do wonder if I was to go walk those halls, if I would see affinity bias and representativeness heuristic.

To come back to the question that you just said, what does that story do for somebody who's going around saying “I'm the first to do it, there's a lot of pressure on me”? In some ways, it's rational for them to expect affinity bias, familiarity bias, and representativeness heuristic to the point where you will experience incidental affect heuristic when you're going for any job, because you would think that the people at the other table are looking at you as somebody new who's trying to break through things. That will also affect your performance. There's a lot of circles going on, but I'm curious about your opinion about the tug between happiness at work and the needs really to bring diverse people on board.

Brooke Struck: Yeah. I think I agree with a number of the things that you said around “I want to find people who are like me, who are of a like mind, who share a certain background, we have common friends, we went to the same schools”, these kinds of things. I don't know how much of it is conscious and explicit as opposed to just that kind of unnamed feeling that we have inside when we interact with other people who are like us. And this is what helps me to understand a lot of the literature around de-biasing in interviews, for instance. One of the sets of approaches that helps interviewing job candidates to be effective is to make sure, ahead of time, that you've clarified, what are the things that I'm hoping to learn here? How am I giving the person that I'm speaking to opportunities to demonstrate those things? And how will I recognize certain things when I see them?

Going in with this pre-commitment package helps the interviews to be more effective and less biased. The reason for that is that, in the absence of that structured guidance, what we have end up falling back on is just: “how did I feel in the pit of my stomach as I spoke with this person?” And the way that I feel in the pit of my stomach when I speak with a person is going to be strongly influenced, as you said, by whether they look like me, talk like me, know the same people as me, these kinds of things. It's not so much that people go in with that explicit expectation that they're going to just reproduce the narratives that have been the case up until now. It's that, unless you intentionally decide you're going to do something else, you'll always default down to that.

Grace Lordan: What I find interesting that there's a few papers now that talk about likability and the role of likability as you're saying: if somebody likes me, I'm much more likely to get hired, even though it has nothing to do with my ability to do the job. And actually making likeability an explicit criteria that you grade from 1-10, makes it much more likely that you'll choose a candidate with higher social distance to yourself. Just bringing it into the conscious that okay, I've met Brooke today and he's a 10, but I'm hiring you for something actually where you have no qualifications for. If I see that then, and I see my likability score, it's almost a way of bringing salience to your behavior. I don't know if it operates through shame, because none of us want to be seen to be hiring because we like people, or if it operates through a real conscious attempt to change those unconscious bias. But either way, it's definitely getting us closer to where we want to be.

Brooke Struck: Yeah. I've seen some of the literature that runs along similar lines. What I've understood there, and  something that I find compelling as an explanation for the findings, is that, when there's a bucket to put it in, it gives us a way to cash out that latent energy of “I like this person” that needs to find a home to live in. Until I find a natural home for it, it's just going to permeate everywhere. But once I create that box and say, okay, well, how will likable is this person, then that latent energy in the pit of my stomach that says, this person's great to be around. I find a place to write that down, and then I say, good, now I can move on. I've cleared that from the cash of my mind and I can start focusing on other dimensions.

If there's something that's going to have a strong influence on somebody, creating that box for them to express that can be really valuable to allow them to move on. It connects with a lot of the things that I like to think about a lot of the time around mindfulness. If you find yourself constantly distracted by a thing, like right now, as we're speaking, there's a little red circle on one of the apps on the dashboard of my computer, and I've been practicing a lot to not be distracted by those kinds of things, but I'm intimately aware that it's there. If I just went and clicked on it and made that red circle go away, I would be less distract after that. Now, maybe the process of going reading that message or whatever would distract me even more. But the point is if that red circle weren't there, it would decrease my distraction. Maybe that's a good analogy for that nice, happy likability feeling we have with somebody in the interview. It's a little red circle and you need to make it go away before you can focus.

Grace Lordan: It is. I like that. And what I've started doing for myself with my days is counting the really new things that I've learned during the day from the people who I engage with. And actually I'm going to break this one down as well and just see your audience members know, because I hadn't thought of it, but it's a really good analogy. And then I think about, did I spend enough time with people who weren't like me today so that they could actually teach me things? So I'm not just learning from people who resemble me and I'm getting exposed to these new ideas. And that's been incredibly powerful as well. And I notice myself, that when I have days that I've spent around people where they've given me many more new ways to think about things, I am more tired, but I'm definitely more satisfied in the evening. It does something to me, either physiologically or neuro, that really satisfies me as a human being.

Brooke Struck: Yeah. And that's something that I think we need to unpack a little bit more. We talk about the value of high employee engagement, and this kind of thing and something that seems to come out a lot is that when we're learning and when we feel that we're doing new things, as opposed to just rote execution of the same behavior over and over again, that variation and that novelty keeps us engaged. And so much of that has to do with learning and with problem solving. But when we are learning and problem solving along with people who are quite different from us, as opposed to just a little bit different from us, it can be more challenging. As you say, it can make you more tired. But also that external pressure on your mental schema of the world forces you to rethink more things. That can be challenging and it can be difficult.

Now, I'm of the mind that education, learning, and growing should be challenging. It should be difficult. If you went through all of your years of schooling and you never found something challenging or difficult, you've done it wrong. That's very much my mindset on education, and I think I carry the same thing over to the workplace. Like, it should be hard. If you don't encounter some things that are hard, there's something missing there. But it's also something that needs to be done in a place of psychological safety. We need to know that when we try on these new mental schema of the world, that if the whole thing comes crashing down, because ultimately that schema didn't work out very well, that that's going to be okay.

Grace Lordan: For the first time I'm running quite a large team. If I was to sum up where I want people to be, it is where they feel very safe discussing ideas that are outliers, they feel very safe critically evaluating each other's ideas, and, ultimately, if they are subjected to criticism during the day, they go home happy, because they say “actually, people are listening to my idea and they want to make it better.” I think as human beings, that doesn't come naturally to us, actually. And from my studies, I've become convinced that, if what we really want to create is good culture, it's not told from the top, it's not rules from human resources, it really comes down to the person who's leading the smaller teams to create that psychological safety. And then the people within the team can bring their ideas out.

Then, the inclusive leader has two roles. Firstly, putting them together, which can be challenging if you have diverse perspectives around the table and you yourself have your own perspective, because you are a human being. But you are always actively listening, which most leaders don't do enough of to be honest. And the second then is, and you've nailed it, is creating that psychologically safe environment so that people feel they can come and they can challenge themselves, as well as others, and really put themselves outside the comfort zone, knowing that if mistakes happen, should they fail, then nothing is going to happen, only a learning experience. That's the only thing that they actually have to look forward to.

Brooke Struck: Yeah. There's a saying that my wife always brings up to me, which is, you never lose, you either win or you learn.

Grace Lordan: I love it! Yeah. Fantastic!

Brooke Struck: Yeah. Something that I always find myself needing to remind myself about and the perfectionist tendencies being what they are. Let's pivot the conversation a little bit once again. We've been talking about this importance of creating psychological safety to create opportunities for those diverse ideas to come out, as well as creating an opportunity or,rather, creating favorable conditions for those ideas to find a way to fit together into a new coherent role or a new schema of the world. Let's think about who the different actors are in that situation, and especially around narratives that we tell ourselves. How do we need to set up that ecosystem to take account of the kinds of people that we have at the table? For instance, and here I want to get back to narratives, you talked about the fact that there are far more women going into nursing than men and far more men leading companies than women. How do these, in this instance, gendered narratives influence how it is that we create situations of psychological safety that will be inclusive for both men and women, for example?

Grace Lordan: I think the first thing is to really embrace the idea of a diversity mindset. I think sometimes where inclusion of women within organizations falls down is where people don't fully believe, whether consciously or unconsciously, that women deserve a seat at the table, as compared to other individuals. And you'll be able to recognize these workplaces because there'll be narratives of, well, “she has children”, “she goes home early”, “or actually, maybe we don't invite her this time because she doesn't like necessarily to stay late”, or maybe “ask this person because he's a good guy”. You can really pick it up in the language very, very quickly. And I think once that's there, the women around the table will never have voice. And there's a new meta-analysis that just came out very, very recently that shows that, actually, within organizations, men grade themselves higher on competence, but actual competence is higher in women.

And because there's no difference in ability across men and women, there's now a belief in, how this is being interpreted is, that women just have to try much harder to get to the same position, if we condition on positions. And then, if you take the idea of inclusive leadership, where for the inclusive leader, for them having difference around the table as a gift, they're going to make sure that all voices are heard around the table, they're going to make sure that people are actively listening to each other, which is something we forget about in discussions. When I was younger and I was at meetings and I was nervous, I would be thinking about what I'm going to say while other people are speaking. You might have said the best point, Brooke, and I absolutely would've missed it: I think we're not really thought how to actively listen within organizations, which is a real shame. And the leader should absolutely be paying attention to that: Are people speaking up in equal measure and are people actively listening in equal measure?

And I'm really sensitive to the idea that introverts might need a different mode of communication. At the moment, through some research that I'm doing, I'm trying to figure out whether or not, if you are an introvert, you might also more rationally stop talking if you're not treated well around the table. The sheer act of being in an inclusive team, you might not use as many words, but nonetheless, you will speak up as and when you need to speak up. And I read, only very recently actually, but it's an older book, a book by James Altucher, the podcaster, which is really excellent actually. And he gives this challenge and says: rather than speak 2,500 words a day, why don't you speak 1000 words a day and see what happens. I do think if we could all embrace that, the gap between extraversion and introversion within meetings would come down and we'd all have more space for actively listening.

Brooke Struck: Yeah. That's interesting. The work in active listening doesn't seem to be often done when people arrive on the scene in an employment context. It can feel somewhat patronizing and annoying to institute these kinds of rules that the first thing that you do when you speak is you have to summarize, in 25 words or less, what the person before you just said. It's a shame that we don't do that naturally more often, because it really does change the way that conversations take place. And in trying to briefly summarize and contribute to what you just said, I've lost my own train of thought.

Grace Lordan: That's a sign we're engrossed in the conversation, which is fantastic.

Brooke Struck: Indeed. Okay, I've just picked the thread back up. One of the things that, as a very extroverted person, I've tried to apply to myself, and I think it's had some positive effects and the more disciplined I am in applying it the more positive the effects are, is that I give myself a budget: basically that, in the course of a conversation of 30 or 60 minutes, I only get to say one really, really provocative, transformative thing. Which is good, because it means that I bide my time. When I come up with some idea that I'm all excited about, I'm like, “is this the one that I'm going to plant in the conversation?” Because I've only got a budget of one, so I better take my one shot very, very well.

For the introverts, we can perhaps take the same approach, but from the other direction. It's like, I know that I need to make one meaningful contribution to this conversation over the course of the 30 or the 60 minutes that we're all sitting around this table. Right now I don't particularly feel like stepping forward and doing that, but do I anticipate that the conditions for that will be better later on in the conversation or is now the best it's going to get?

Grace Lordan: Kind of like a rip-the-bandaid-off type methodology for introverts.

Brooke Struck: Yeah.

Grace Lordan: Just get it out there, get it over with it, speak first. I say that about networking events, actually. If you're somebody who hates networking, showing up early is a really easy way around it because the second person then has to speak to you, right? I mean, most people are polite. The second person, in assuming that they're not also quite nervous about being there, they'll walk straight over to start the conversation, so you don't have to. I like that. It's like a life hack for people who don't want to put themselves out there.

Brooke Struck: Yeah. Ultimately, what we're hoping to converge towards is a conversation where everybody feels relatively comfortable in the contributions that they're making. That everyone comes out of that meeting feeling that they were heard and that they had the opportunities that they wanted. Or now that I say that aloud, is that really what we want? I mean, for an introvert who wants to go in and not necessarily feel that they're rocking the boat too much, or is very concerned about rocking the boat and very acutely aware of it, is that a good subjective feeling to have? Similarly, for the extrovert who wants to go in and just loves the sound of their own voice, is it a good thing when they come out of a meeting saying “I loved all that talking of my own that I just listened to?”

Grace Lordan: I think we need to reframe what we want from meetings. The first is that we want to learn a lot about other ideas. I like the fact that you were given one great idea in the meeting. Great ideas are hard, by the way, so if everyone was able to give one great idea, we will be on a much more equal place. I think the second thing is that we don’t want to quieten down the extroverts and bring the introverts out more in the meeting. Again, reframing, what are we actually looking for here? It's always okay to rock the boat. What I don't like is people saying the same thing over and over and over and over again, whether it's rocking the boat or not. And I think having a leader really set the parameters of the meeting and say, actually here, we're trying to be creative, we want new ideas, let's not reiterate each other's opinions.

So, this isn't the time for us to be putting up hands or re-emphasizing somebody's idea so it gets more air time. It's just on quantity of ideas and just getting them out there. And I think knowing the rules is really, really helpful. And so for me, the introvert in the way we're describing it here, I don't have a problem speaking in meetings. But I am an introvert in the way Susan Cain describes it: I can only have so many meetings with people a day and I really feel drained. It takes my energy. You're an extrovert so you get energy from meetings. For me, it goes away.

For me, decreasing the time that we spend in meetings, but making those meetings much more productive and more exciting is ultimately where we want to go. I think the problem for most of us is that we grew up where we learned that you look to the top for guidance. You obey authority and you don't rock the boat. And I think for the next, for the fourth industrial revolution, that needs to be changed. We need flat management structures. We need people who are from younger generations, querying people from older generations who happen to be in management positions. And ultimately, we need to move away from this command and control type leadership model.

Brooke Struck: This brings us back nicely to the idea of narratives, which we started out with, right? What we're talking about now is changing the narrative about how organizations function at the very local level. We've just been talking about changing the narrative around meetings, to what it is that a meeting serves to accomplish? How does that download to narratives about individuals, narratives that we tell ourselves about ourselves, for example?

Grace Lordan: I think the first thing is that the narratives that we tell ourselves about the people that we work with can emerge quite rationally from the dynamics that we see around us. You're a behavioral scientist so you'll probably say context matters. We're all really aware of the role of the environment. If I'm in a meeting where I don't feel good about myself, it's really rational for me to say less. If I'm in a meeting where I'm treated badly, it's really rational for me to just collect that paycheck. And I think over time, if we end up in that cycle, that environment can ultimately permanently take control of the narratives that we tell ourselves. Even though when I joined an organization, I was highly motivated and I really wanted to contribute, I really wanted to add value. Five years down the road of being treated badly in meetings, where I don't have options to move or I'm not unwilling to move, I can find myself telling a story like: I'm quite useless, I don't contribute, I'm not adding value, I don't really belong in this team.

That can really infiltrate self-esteem. And we're right back to where we started: impacts on mental health, impacts on productivity, and impacts on how I put myself in the ring. I think it's really important to be mindful of the type of environment that you have around you. And this is where my life gets tricky, Brooke. If you were in an environment today and you said to me "It's really awful, Grace. I've been there now for three years, it's killing self-esteem." As a friend to you, I should say, "Get out, you have options. You're a talented guy. You'll definitely get employed somewhere else. You should go somewhere else." But of course, if Brooke always leaves, we'll never change the culture.

This is really fundamentally, I think, where what's often good for the individual is not necessarily good for the group. If you're within an organization and you try to speak up against bad culture, if you whistle blow against bad behavior, if you push back against a manager who is discriminating or treating people badly, if you call out sexism, it's going to be really, really hard on you, but we need those people. You ultimately might leave and it's better for your happiness, but not for the group's happiness who remain.

Brooke Struck: Right. Let's look at those systemic effects. While it may be useful for us as individuals, or it may be better for our well being individually to bail rather than fight the good fight, if no one fights those good fights, then things will never change on a systemic level. How do we navigate that tension between what's good for the individual? Maybe let's personalize this: how do I navigate the tension between what's good for me and what's good for the group that I am in right now, when there's a tension between what I think is healthy for the group overall and what's working, or not working, for me right now?

Grace Lordan: Well, somebody asked me recently, if you're the first black man within a team or if you're the first woman who goes onto a board, can that actually change the dynamic? And I think the answer is yes, if the person is tenacious and they're able to keep hitting their head against a wall and not give up, which is a really hard thing to ask for one human being, to be very honest. It's always very, very hard to ask one to a small number of people to fight fights. But nonetheless, massive political change that we've had in the future has been started by these key role models in society who just never gave up, even though it really, really was raining down on top of them.

I think, from the perspective of staying and pushing for change, ultimately, you consciously need to make a decision and there will be, for some people, a line that's crossed where they have to go. Otherwise, they would basically lose all self-esteem and wellbeing that they have, which obviously isn't a life to live either. I think more on the individual basis, my recent research has shown that if you're somebody in an organization who doesn't fit the mold and is getting push back because you don't fit the mold, what are the options for you? The options really are retreat, where you disengage, you take the paycheck and your career is probably going to stagnate. We see these plateaus across underrepresented groups, which are quite common in major organizations.

You see maneuver, where people end up taking much higher risks in their career. I have evidence of this with both women in general and black professional women, where they go down non-traditional career paths within organizations and they innovate in a way that's so new that nobody can stop their progression, or they leave and they go somewhere else. What we really see from finance and technology, which is very interesting, is people who are being held back are going into entrepreneurship. They are trying to set it up by themselves and really, more often than not, going into social entrepreneurship. I guess, to go back to the question that you asked me, maybe if I haven't succeeded in changing the culture of my own organization, one way to get around that, wrestling with my moral conscience, is to go and set up a company where we then have the culture that you know that you can create from scratch by yourself, without interruption from people who want to keep the toxic culture.

Brooke Struck:I really like that taxonomy of stagnate maneuver, or as I would call it, bail.

Grace Lordan: Yes. But bail for higher cadence.

Brooke Struck: Yeah. That's right. I want to bring that back to narratives once more. You talked about how it is that certain people position themselves in these change agent roles, what are the healthy and unhealthy self narratives that exist in that space of being a change agent where lots of people get, let's say, the benefit of only needing to contribute to an organization, whereas the change agent needs to both continue to contribute but also dramatically transform? How do we tell a healthy narrative on what are the pitfalls of potentially unhealthy narratives in that space of being both the contributor and the transformer at the same time?

Grace Lordan: I mean, I think it's a huge task. If you have a day job, that's entirely different to transforming culture, and if you're tasked with transforming the culture, I think it's a huge task. I think that that organizations need to realize that it needs to be a fully funded type of initiative. The person needs to be, ultimately, compensated for their time. I think the second thing is that the people who are championing this are definitely the people who you want to have in your company. So eliciting them as role models is a very, very powerful thing to do, because if you think about somebody who's underrepresented within organizations, very often, the reason that they're underrepresented in organizations is because they don't have any role models themselves. And because they're out of networks, they don't have the same visibility.

Really, the storytelling around the importance of role models, which is true by the way. If I give it the label of storytelling, it doesn't sound true, but it's absolutely a true fairy tale, is that if I show images of people doing a job incredibly well who look like underrepresented talent, underrepresented talent are much more likely to choose those jobs. And I think the power of narrative there really trumps data. Anytime I've seen a head-to-head in organizations of things that we might actually do that can be quantified at the promotions round versus storytelling about people who can actually get ahead and what they look like, either within my own organization or if I don't have the talent with representation going outside, that tends to work incredibly well. And the one difference in narrative, I think, between underrepresented talent and the people who are managing them that really needs to change is what they ultimately need to get ahead.

I think for a long time in corporate companies we've had this narrative that people need mentors. I need somebody to tell me what to do, and then I do it and maybe it will work out for me. But ultimately, the responsibility is on me to do something. And within organizations, this can be very frustrating if you are from an underrepresented talent who is sitting outside of networks because what you need isn't someone telling you what to do, what you need is an advocate who's saying, you know what, Brooke is fantastic at his job or Grace is fantastic at her job, and we really want to make sure that they get noticed and they get to go ahead in the same way as they would if they were within the same networks. Again, changing the narrative on what somebody actually needs to go ahead, recognizing they have skills, talent, and ability, and often what's missing is the opportunity to move forward.

Brooke Struck: That's interesting. It raises the profile of this idea that a narrative is not something that's wholly owned by one person. Narratives are social objects. The narratives that we tell about our organization actually belong to all of the people at the organization, and probably the external people who interact with them. And in the same way, my narrative doesn't exclusively belong to me, and therefore, I don't have the power to unilaterally change my narrative. So, if there's going to be a change in the narrative around Brooke and who he is within the organization, and potentially, even Brooke and the groups that he belongs to and the fit of those groups within the organization, then we need a social collective change to our narrative. And as you point out, for people from underrepresented groups, they are also likely to be the ones who have the least amount of political power to affect those narratives within the organization.

All the more reason then for having that champion instead of a mentor. Someone who's there not only to help you navigate the waters, but to actually build the canals and dikes that are necessary to change the way that the water flows, specifically by supporting you, changing your narrative, and changing the narrative of your underrepresented group and the way that it’s told within the organization. That's an incredibly powerful political role that needs to be played. And I think that helps me to understand some of the challenges that I'm learning about around the difficulty of leading change initiatives as an underrepresented person, usually in a very junior role within an organization.

Grace Lordan: Yeah. And I think that in some ways, it's striking that politics within organizations has caused the problems that we worry about and it's all for the solution. It's not going to be a perfect solution, but getting political capital, whether it's through reverse mentoring, whether it's through joining up people within your group or within other groups to move ahead and push the foundations, becomes extraordinarily important if we don't want the same glacial progress that we've had for the last decade.

Brooke Struck: Politics is such a dirty word in so many contexts, and often, because it has led to these identifiable bad outcomes. But that's not a reason to run away from politics or to pretend that good solutions are not political. It's a reason to think that the problem is politics done badly, not politics done at all. And that, in fact, if we believe that there's going to be no power dynamic to negotiating a better solution, then we're really handicapping ourselves because power's definitely going to be part of it.

Grace Lordan: I agree. I agree. It's a depressing part of it, but I agree. One of the things that I talk about with affinity groups and organization is the role of the affinity groups, for me, is really clear, because people can talk about shared experiences. But ultimately, if you want to put pressure on an organization, having all of the affinity groups come together. Because when that happens in most organizations, you have the majority of employees who are speaking together. If we disaggregate across all groups, you end up putting people in minority buckets. But if everybody joins together, the push, if we include allies, tends to be the majority of employees. So you can evoke change. And again, evoking a political will moving in the same way that cronyism moves, but only this time to get to a better outcome.

Brooke Struck: Let's pivot now to concrete tactics. For anybody who's listening to this and has just been, "My gosh! Finally, someone who's expressing all of the things that I've just had latent in my being." What is something that they can do Monday morning to start working on narratives? Let's start at the individual level, to start working on their narratives about themselves.

Grace Lordan: I think the first thing is when you are next offered an opportunity, or you have an opportunity to put yourself forward for an opportunity, pay attention to the narratives that you tell yourself. And if they're negative, there's alarm bells and you're holding yourself back, you need to think about why is that narrative there? I'm very much somebody who thinks you can wrestle with yourself and try to figure out the origin of a narrative for a very, very long time, but don't spend too long at that particular phase. Try to circumvent the narrative as it comes up. I think that there's two good ways to do that. 

The first is to log disconfirming evidence. Essentially, if you have a narrative that says, “I don't belong here”, you're basically fighting imposter syndrome. So, log evidence that suggests that actually, yes, you do belong in the room. Compare yourself to your peers, bring out the values that you have, bring out the added value that you've given over the last year, and really pay attention to that evidence and make it salient the next time that you feel that. Then, ask yourself to give you another story. Really say: look, actually, my credentials are X, Y, and Z, so that's not true. Say something else about me, say something else.

But the problem, I think, for people who really don't believe that they belong in a situation and who really suffer from imposter syndrome narratives is that evoking that disconfirming evidence in that moment when you're feeling rotten about yourself is really, really hard. The easier version is to identify a hype buddy in your life who will be there for you. You can actually say, "I'm meant to be in this meeting today, but I really don't feel that I belong and it's really pivotal for my career" knowing that they write back, “you've got this, you did A, B and C before”, because you've trusted them with this disconfirming evidence.

And what I find really compelling about behavioral science is the literature on beliefs. It won't surprise any listener that if I'm higher in self-belief, I'm much more likely to do well in life. I'm much more likely to succeed, dismally regardless of my skills, talent, and ability. So confidence and bluster is definitely an edge still, in most countries. But secondly, if somebody believes in me, that can be as strong as me having my own self belief. The sheer act of you, Brooke, believing in me and giving me those messages can make me knock it out in the park in the same way as if I was doing it for myself. I think for anybody who identifies a negative narrative, if you have somebody in your life that you can be open with and evoke them on key moments when you need to be cheered along, that's a real practical way that you can, not just do on a Monday, but you can do it with a very, very small time amount, any day of the week.

Brooke Struck: Right. For Monday morning, identify your hype buddy. In terms of doing work solo on your own, one technique that I've found to be really powerful, and I'm totally just stealing this from David Burns's Feeling Good, it's actually a mental health technique. It's called the hot thoughts, cold thoughts technique. You were talking about this process of identifying how am I feeling right now,  then going out and explicitly marshaling that disconfirming evidence. The insight from, David Burns, is just say, yes, totally to that thing, but actually write it down. It's exhausting to try to do that entire process entirely within your head. And generally, you never carry the conversation through to conclusion. The idea behind the hot thoughts, cold thoughts exercise is just to say it like, when you are criticizing yourself, write down that criticism and then explicitly write down the rejoinder to that.

It's like, "I never do this thing well." Well, the rejoinder is, "Well, that's not true. Maybe you don't do it well all the time, but here's an explicit instance where you did it well." And then you will feel yourself, classic imposter syndrome, you will go and find that next thing: "Well, yes, but that was an exceptional time. It doesn't really count", you'll discount it. And again, you can push back against yourself and say, "No, that really did count. Look at all of the good outcomes that came from it." Actually going through the process of writing that out, rather than trying to keep it all within your head, can be much more effective in addressing these kinds of things.

Let's pivot now, again, just slightly remaining within the tactical sphere, what can we do Monday morning, But this time, specifically, about the broader narratives about our organization, not just narratives about ourselves. If I have this idea, or if we have this idea, that this is an organization where people have to buckle down and just work hard to get over it, no matter what the obstacles are, and that's how people succeed here. What can we start doing Monday morning to start changing those narratives?

Grace Lordan: I think the first thing is that, if you're somebody who has low power, it's going to be really hard to change the organization. Unless you have policies and procedures within your grasp, you really should focus on your own team. So, what can I do to change the dynamic within my own team? Within teams, when people actually gather together, that's a prime opportunity for changing the tone of the team from pessimism to optimism. What that really means is that if somebody has an idea, you really champion their idea, even if you don't fully understand it sometimes. Having new ideas come out in a toxic environment is really, really hard. Payattention to voice: who's getting to speak up, calling on colleagues and nudging colleagues who don't necessarily speak up. So, really changing the dynamics of the meeting.

If you think about toxic environments and meetings that we have, the big symptom is cascades, where the people who are in the ingroup will essentially dominate, and they'll keep speaking one after the other, one after the other. If you wake up on a Monday morning, adament to change the dynamic, whether you're in the in-group or not, calling on somebody who traditionally wouldn't have spoken, or you yourself speaking up and then asking somebody else for their opinion on your thought can really change the dynamic. I think for people who decide to do that, the process will be slow. What they should do is, to keep their morale, keep a log of when you tried to change the dynamic. Who spoke in the meeting?Who didn't speak in the meeting? How many new ideas did I actually hear? Slowly you'll start seeing a shift in that data, if you persevere in changing those dynamics very, very simply. And hopefully, you'll get to a place where you can actually say you cause tipping and the social norms of the team have now changed.

Brooke Struck: Sounds almost like you're describing an experiment: intervening and recording data.

Grace Lordan: Yes. I say this all the time when I teach inclusive leaders: we should always think about experimentation as randomized control trials. Why do we need them? Because there is selection, there is systematic differences where actually gathering data is often done between two big time periods and randomization becomes important. If I can gather my own micro data as somebody within my team, whether I'm the leader or a passenger in the team, I can monitor it over these small time periods and you can see the differences coming. Then the before-and- after really comes to life.

Brooke Struck: All right. I think that's an excellent note to end on. Grace, thank you so much for your time and your insights. Really appreciate you coming on the show today.

Grace Lordan: Thank you, Brooke. And hello to all the audience! Hope to stay in touch soon.

Brooke Struck: Yeah. Sounds great.

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About the Guest

Grace Lordan portrait

Grace Lordan

Dr. Grace Lordan is an associate professor of Behavioral Science at the London School of Economics and Political Science and the Founding Director of the Inclusion Initiative, a program that brings together teaching, research, and practice to build inclusive work environments. An economist by training, Dr. Lordan’s research focuses on behavioural biases, occupational sorting, diversity and inclusion, conduct, culture and groupthink. 

Outside of academia, Dr. Lordan is an accomplished writer and speaker. Her insights have been featured in the ​​Financial Times and Harvard Business Review, and top finance and technology firms regularly lean on her insights through speaking engagements. Her first book Think Big, Take Small Steps and Build the Future you Want, is slated for publication on March 25th, 2022. A trusted advisor, she uses her expertise to guide the UK Government’s skills and productivity board, the BEIS social mobility taskforce, and the Women in Finance Charter.

About the Interviewer

Brooke Struck portrait

Dr. Brooke Struck

Dr. Brooke Struck is the Research Director at The Decision Lab. He is an internationally recognized voice in applied behavioural science, representing TDL’s work in outlets such as Forbes, Vox, Huffington Post and Bloomberg, as well as Canadian venues such as the Globe & Mail, CBC and Global Media. Dr. Struck hosts TDL’s podcast “The Decision Corner” and speaks regularly to practicing professionals in industries from finance to health & wellbeing to tech & AI.

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