Brené Brown: Hi, everyone, I’m Brené Brown, and this is Dare to Lead. I am so excited about this conversation today. I read an article in the Harvard Business Review, I don’t know, a couple of months ago. And it was titled, “Stop Telling Women They Have Impostor Syndrome.” When I read the article, I was like, “Yes, yes, yes. Okay, I have to talk to these authors.” So today, we’re doing it. We’re talking to Ruchika Tulshyan and Jodi-Ann Burey about their article in Harvard Business Review, “Stop Telling Women They Have Imposter Syndrome”. It’s among the top 100 most read articles in HBR’s history. It’s been translated into multiple languages and it’s been read nearly a million times and will also be included in the forthcoming HBR book to be published in January of next year. That’s January of 2022. They also wrote a second article five months later entitled, “End Impostor Syndrome in Your Workplace,” that gives really practical, tactical advice about how to create a culture of belonging, where this is the whole premise of the article. Don’t make me feel like I don’t belong because of who I authentically am. And then when I’m struggling to belong because of the culture that you’ve built, you tell me, “Oh, you poor thing, you’ve got impostor syndrome.” It’s just really powerful. I cannot wait for you to hear the conversation and to meet these incredibly powerful thought leaders.
BB: Before we get started, let me tell you a little bit about both of the authors that we’re talking to today. Jodi-Ann Burey has a mission to disrupt business as usual to achieve social change. She is a sought after speaker and writer who works at the intersections of race, culture and health equity. Her TED talk, “The Myth Of Bringing Your Full Authentic Self To Work,” embodies her disruption of traditional narratives about racism at work. It’s a really powerful TED Talk y’all. Jodi-Ann is also the creator and host of Black Cancer. A podcast about the lives of people of color through their cancer journeys. Let me just stop and take a breath and pause here. This podcast, Black Cancer, is so important and so urgent, especially right now. I really… A whole-hearted invitation for you to listen. Jodi-Ann holds a Master’s in Public Health from the University of Michigan. She prides herself on being a cool auntie, a twist-out queen, a health advocate, an adventurer and a reluctant dog owner. Jodi-Ann is currently working on her very first book and we can’t wait, and I’m sure we will talk to her again when that comes out.
BB: Ruchika Tulshyan is an author, keynote speaker and founder of Candour, an inclusion strategy practice. A former international business journalist, Ruchika, is now a regular contributor to the New York Times and Harvard Business Review. In her forthcoming book, Inclusion on Purpose: An Intersectional Approach to Creating a Culture of Belonging at Work. It’ll be out in February of 2022. Ruchika is a Singaporean food lover and a mother to a feminist son. Let’s jump in.
BB: First, let me just tell you that I have been so excited about talking to you, your articles are required reading in the MBA course I’m teaching right now at the University of Texas in the MBA program, yes. Welcome to Dare to Lead.
Ruchika Tulshyan: Wow. Brené, thank you for having us.
Jodi-Ann Burey: Absolutely, I’m super excited to be here.
BB: Okay, so I just learned this little fact that your article on impostor syndrome is one of the most well-read, most downloaded articles in HBR, Harvard Business Review, history.
RT: Yeah. We made it.
BB: Yes. And it’s going to be included in a new HBR book. Is this true?
JB: It is true. Coming out early 2022, I believe.
BB: Early 2022, okay. Oh, my God, “Stop Telling Women They Have Imposter Syndrome”. I’ve got 1,000,674 questions for you.
BB: Yeah. [chuckle]
RT: Let’s do it.
BB: Yeah, let’s do it. But let’s start here. Tell me how you two met and started collaborating.
JB: I love telling this story because I think it symbolizes the core of Ruchika’s values and my values as well. We’re just women of color, working in Seattle, operating in similar spaces, doing diversity, equity, inclusion work, focusing on women professionals and have just been circulating around each other in Seattle. I met Ruchika for coffee one time. One time. And suddenly, months after, I get emails from people who are putting on podcasts and conferences and saying, “Hey Jodi-Ann, would you like to speak and offer your perspectives here?” “Hey, would you like to sit on this panel? I got your name from Ruchika.” Ruchika has never seen me speak, she’s never seen me work. That one coffee, like talk about the power of sponsorships.
JB: And so things really took off for me in my career as a result of Ruchika’s trust in me, our connection, her advocacy for other women of color. So fast forward, we met for lunch. That could have been what, the second, third time that we’ve ever seen each other, Ruchika? And in our socially distance, outdoor lunch, because this was the summer of the pandemic in 2020, she shared that she was going to write an article for the Harvard Business Review on impostor syndrome, and that’s where all of this took off but I’m happy to hear from Ruchika, going to tell your side of the story of how we got connected.
RT: Yeah, I’m a little overcome with emotion every time you tell this story, because when I think of what I want to do in my life, it’s that. And Brené, I know you know Oprah really well, and growing up as a young girl in Singapore, my mom and I, you know and here I am, an overgrown Brown woman, a girl in Singapore, seeing very few people like me around, and what I loved most about Oprah, not the celebrity, not great stories, whatever it is, but it is how she could touch someone’s life and change it forever. And later, as a journalist, I heard this again and again and again. I interviewed Sara Blakely, she was talking about how Oprah recommended Spanx on her… Or picked it, or selected it in some list, and it changed the trajectory of Sara Blakely’s life and other so many millions of people everywhere. And when Jodi-Ann tells the story, I think of how that was my greatest dream, and the fact that someone can say that about me is really special that I get to… Not that I’m comparing myself to Oprah, but that sponsorship is something that I deeply, truly, believe in. And of course, the reality is, Jodi-Ann is not only brilliant and intelligent and just the way you tell stories is just awesome.
RT: But I also know, and the research I’ve done over the years has shown how disproportionately harder it is, as a Black woman, and I just couldn’t imagine letting this chance go when the two of us spoke and the fact that you had thought about impostor syndrome so much more than I think, especially from the historical context, when we had that lunch and I was like, “There’s no way I can just write this article by interviewing her, she has to co-write it with me.” And I asked, and the parting thought I always have is, there’s that African proverb, “If you want to go fast, walk alone; if you want to go far walk together.” And to me, not only the success, but to me, it’s those everyday stories, it’s not how many views it got, it’s not that it’s included in a book, it’s the stories we hear from women of color around the world who tell us that it has shifted their relationship with this concept forever, it’s changed the way they see themselves, and that can only happen through the power of collaboration.
BB: God, man, I love when… It’s actually true of all great things, when the process aligns with the product.
BB: The two things you already just have moved me around is a process that reflects the integrity of the product and the power of co-creation as the heart of equity work, right? Like, wow, we’re already in it. And it’s just the first story. Okay, let’s dig into the first article, because there’s the first article, then y’all wrote a follow-up article, which I thought was really actionable and helpful, and if you don’t know what to do next, I’m calling bullshit, because you haven’t read the second article. So, I really do have a lot of questions, so “Stop Telling Women They Have Impostor Syndrome”. First of all, let’s define impostor syndrome for everyone. Can we start there?
JB: Yeah, so impostor syndrome is this experience of not having an internal sense of your own success despite the accolades, despite any accomplishments, anything that outsiders would clearly say, “Wow, you are successful.” Internally, you can’t see it, you don’t believe it. And when it was initially coined in 1978 as impostor phenomenon, it’s something that they were observing in “high-achieving women”, and I’ll put that in quotations because the original studies around this were very narrowly defined in terms of socio-economic status and race and what have you. But what that signaled to me was when you’re “high achieving”, for me as a Black woman to be “successful” is to occupy more male, more white spaces. And so, when I think about the observation of the lack of that internal sense of your success, I’m actually looking at what’s happening around me and what’s creating that.
BB: That makes a ton of sense. So is it fair to say… I’m going to definitely be coming at this from a social worker lens, because it’s just kind of who I am. Is it fair to say that when things are stripped of context, they can easily become pathologizing?
RT: 100%. And really, what led to the formation of this article is how, even in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, like we were going into lockdown my, at that time, three-year-old was home with us and we were stressed that, “Could you get it from walking down the street?” And I was still being marketed impostor syndrome workshops and, “Spend $9.99 and get rid of your impostor syndrome.” And, “Here’s this conference for women.” And it was very specifically marketed to women, as it still is, even though the research is very clear that there isn’t a gender disparity in who actually experiences impostor syndrome. In fact, the original authors had to come back after other research was done and even admit that actually, “Nope, men also experience impostor syndrome or impostor phenomenon.” And yet it has been pathologized in women specifically, it has led to, I want to say, a snake oil industry, and I know this is controversial, and we’ve had people come back and say to us, “Oh, you’re not a psychologist, you’re not an expert, you’re not a medical expert, you haven’t worked as a coach and talked women through this in their workplace.”
RT: And for me it’s… I think for both of us, it was very clear that the contextual, the environment question was missing and has been missing all this while, which to me is absurd, it’s so obvious and yet it’s been hiding in plain sight. That’s my guess for how… I’ve been a journalist for a number of years, I’ve been writing on the internet for a number of years, this is the first time, again, back to the power of collaboration, but also, how something so obvious, I think was just hiding in plain sight.
BB: So I want to make sure because this is news to me. I’ve read both of your articles, I’ve watched the TED Talk, Jodi-Ann, incredible, and we’ll give you… Everybody don’t scramble right now, just listen and I’ll give you all of the links to everything. Ruchika, you have a book coming out. Is that true?
RT: It is, it’s called Inclusion on Purpose.
BB: So we’ll give you links to where you can find things that are coming, the TED Talk, which is just incredible. The incredible TED Talk. Ah, just so beautifully done.
JB: Thank you.
BB: You’re welcome. So I want to learn about you, but I want to save a lot of my questions about imposter syndrome for our conversation today. So I did not realize until I read the article, is this correct? That impostor syndrome was originally assigned to women only?
JB: It was. They were the core focus of the original study that first termed it as impostor phenomenon. And I think, you know, it’s kind of like the sense of fruit from the poisonous tree where from that moment we just keep pointing at women. And that has sustained over time, even though as Ruchika said, there have been other studies of how impostor syndrome or imposter phenomenon shows up in other communities, but culturally, socially, we still understand it as a women’s issue. I literally have never been to a women’s focused conference, and there wasn’t a, “How To Overcome Impostor Syndrome” session, ever. [chuckle]
BB: So I have just a couple of thoughts on this. [chuckle] First, let me just take something more anecdotally, so I am teaching an MBA course right now, I’m in the middle of it, this fall. And there are 90 MBA students, second-year MBA students in this course. And I asked them about… We were talking about shame and we were talking about armor, and I asked them… It’s very diverse, the group is. And I asked, “How many of you struggle with impostor syndrome?” And 100% of the hands went up, equally across all genders, including gender fluidity, like across the board, every hand went up. I don’t think I really… And I’m going to have a little true confession like, “Hi, my name’s Brené, and I have a confession to make here,” I do very, very few intentionally women’s leadership conferences for very specific reasons. So I thought y’all were going to be mad, but Ruchika you’re like making a little clap… Why? I thought you would be frustrated by that.
RT: No, because, listen, the reality is, and we saw this in the new McKinsey LeanIn report that just came out, women are fantastic leaders, and a lot of what we have been socialized to do and be collaborative and be empathetic, are absolutely leadership skills.
RT: And rather than focus on what we should get rid of, how about we expand the table? And what is frustrating, I think one thing that came out of this article, is Jodi-Ann and I were invited to a lot of women’s conferences, and we did say yes. Because I want women to know that that feeling of healthy self-doubt, that feeling of, “Could I really do well in this new project,” or the stretch goal, or Brené Brown’s going be interviewing me and will I be okay? That feeling of healthy self-doubt is normal, everyone has it across the gender spectrum.
RT: The issue is why are women’s careers being so, so, so demoted and stalled really because of this “syndrome” that’s being placed on them. And so I’m really glad, I’m really glad that we’re moving away, or leaders like you are moving away from that women-focused… That this is a women-focused issue, it’s a societal issue, and it always has been, whether it’s parental leave, whether it’s pay equity, it’s a societal issue. Men and people who identify as men across the gender spectrum need to be in the rooms, people who have privilege and power need to attend these conferences.
JB: Yeah. I don’t like going to these conferences personally, because I’m just not a fan of the color pink, and it’s like any time there’s a women’s thing, everything becomes pink and that’s a little rough for me. But the more I occupy women-focused spaces, I actually feel more excluded, more marginalized because we code “women” as white women.
BB: White women, yeah.
JB: Exactly. And I find that in women’s focused spaces, that context just isn’t there. There is a lot of blame and shame, and what can you do better, and I’m like, “Do you know how much women do?” Period. In all aspects of our lives. And so that is always tough for me, and I think what I love about this article and in my collaboration with Ruchika and ideating around the environmental conditions that trigger impostor syndrome and even questioning the term itself, is to kind of disrupt that cycle of blaming ourselves and faux diagnosing ourselves that there’s something wrong with us and we need to be doing something better. That is not how I operate, and I think a lot of that is informed by having a racialized experience as a woman, as a Black woman.
JB: And so what I found interesting about this article, in the creation of it, is we do specifically want to talk about women but we are centering women of color, and even us catching ourselves… And one thing I find really difficult when we talk about “women’s issues”, is that we’ll say, “Women are underpaid for equal work, especially women of color.” “Such and such and such is bad for women, even more so for women of color.” And I was just tired of seeing my experience as a woman of color as this parenthetical mention. Right?
BB: Yeah, quote, comma.
JB: My experience is more than what can fit in between these two punctuations, right. [chuckle] And so I want to center women of color. We want to focus them specifically in this, and it’s been interesting to see how people code the article, “Oh, this is an article about race. No, this is an article about gender.” No, we’re talking about the intersectionality of all of this. And that’s been the most, I think, fun and rewarding part of going deeper into this work.
BB: Yeah, I would never be able to bucket this work. I thought about it, because I thought about so much of combating shame. Actually, no matter who you are, this transcends. In very few things, there’s different obstacles. But for all of us, the most important thing that we need to transcend shame, and to get out of shame, to become more shame resilient, is normalizing and empathy. And it seems that pathologizing is the opposite of that. And, can I tell y’all a quick story and we can maybe use it as y’all can pick it apart and teach us?
RT: Please, yes.
RT: I love your stories, Brené, by the way. I really do.
BB: I thought about it a lot. I got really weepy when I read this article for the first time, thinking back to this moment. It was the first week of my PhD program, and I had tremendous self-doubt. And the kind of self-doubt that includes the fear of getting caught, the fear of being found out, the fear of being the mistake in admissions office, which is all just actually functions of self-doubt. And it’s hard because “impostor” is a very seductive and fitting word. It’s the syndrome that makes it harder, right, for me. But I remember sitting in this class and the professor came in, it was week one, and said, “I know you think… ” Because I have a Master’s degree in social work, and I was getting my PhD in social work. He said, “I know you think you belong to the field of social work, which is a very progressive… But now, you’re a doctoral student and you no longer belong to social work. Now, you belong to the academy. And that is just shift in culture. Our culture in the academy is pale, male and Yale.”
BB: And I remember…
BB: Yeah, yeah.
BB: Why didn’t I have stale? Damn it, that was good, Ruchika. God, that’s good. And I remember thinking, “Shit, I got pale, but I don’t have male, and I certainly don’t have Yale.” My grandfather was a forklift driver in a brewery. He was a teamster. My mom didn’t go to college, you know. I don’t have an academic lineage. I went to school bartending and on student loans. Like, I don’t have the Yale part, and I don’t have the male part. And I remember my friend sitting next to me who is a Black woman. I looked at her and I go, “I don’t want to break this to you, but I’m like one for three, but you’re like zero for three.”
BB: And she said, “No, shit. Like week one.” And so then I remember the next sentence out of this guy’s mouth was, “You have to explore who you are here because to become an independent scholar, you need to bring all of you to this program.” And I was thinking, “But you just said it’s pale, male and Yale so I don’t… How does that work?” So yeah, I raised my hand and said, “I don’t understand how that’s going to work because I’m one for three, and there are people in here that are clearly zero for three.” And he said, “You’ll see, as it unfolds, that it will work.” That was the answer, and I did see. Every effing day for five years, I saw exactly how it worked, exactly how it worked. I got pregnant at the beginning of my second year, and literally was told, “Wow, we thought you were going to be somebody.”
RT: I wish I could go back. Have you gone back and asked those people what they did?
RT: “Did you become somebody?”
RT: They prophesized it for you.
BB: Yeah, maybe they did. I remember, and just becoming a qualitative researcher, they called it, “Oh, you like the pink book,” because unfortunately, the qualitative book was pink and the quantitative book was blue unfortunately, but…
JB: Oh my God.
BB: Yeah, I know.
RT: What does that tell you? What does that tell you about the system, right? And I wish alongside the, “It’s pale, male and stale or Yale,” and we really need you. We really need your perspective. This is what happens to women of color, right, women, period. You walk into an organization, you see it’s pale, male, Yale, stale, whichever one you want to choose, and nobody tells you it’s this, and you bring such an important perspective to this. And I’m sorry if I cut you off on your story, but…
RT: That is what we need more people to hear. We need to hear, “You belong here. Bring your authentic self, because it’s what’s going to change our organization for the better”. And by the way, the academy is just… I have seen Black women, especially, just treated…
BB: Oh, man.
RT: You probably have stories that I couldn’t even imagine, but in the little bit of experience I’ve had, it is just shocking. It really is.
BB: And I can tell you that across the academy and also across corporations, white women have made some strides and in arriving, rather than sticking their foot in the door, have over and over again betrayed women of color. Like it’s repulsive. And clear.
JB: And I think it changes your level of expectation. And so if I were sitting in that classroom with you and heard the professor say that, bringing my whole self, it’s intuitive based on my individual experiences and my collective experiences that you have no idea what you’re saying. You have no clue what you’re asking for, because you haven’t had to struggle to bring your full self. And then as soon as that full self kind of pokes its toe out, then it gets slammed. And so I already know that you have no idea what you’re saying, so I can’t follow through on bringing my full self. I can’t be and occupy women’s spaces expecting that I can talk openly about race, because that space itself is so white.
JB: And so when I think about this concept of being an imposter and feeling like, “Okay, I don’t belong here,” I’ve been socialized under this idea of like, I don’t belong here since I was 11 years old. The first time I transferred into a predominantly white school, I remember the day before, my mom permed or chemically straightened my hair. And she says, “You know, I don’t want you to feel bad that your hair is not straight.” And I was like, “Woohoo, I got straight hair,” super-excited about it. But from I was a child, I knew that there was just spaces that I wasn’t supposed to be in, that as a norm. And so the concept of imposter syndrome was so odd to me because I’ve been trying to build up my guards, build up myself against this idea of not belonging.
JB: And so then to, not admit it, but to have expected that I was supposed to belong, it’s just weird to me. I’ve been fighting against this this whole time, and so I’m not an impostor. This is how I’m surviving. You know, in some sense, I have to be an impostor. I have to be this different person to be here in the first place. So to be told that you should bring your full self is like I’ve already been socialized around the fact that these are just words. A women’s empowerment, you know, we’re all in this together, and… They’re just words because I’ve always… Especially as women of color, you have to create your own codes. You have to create your own norms. And so the concept of impostor syndrome just felt so foreign to me.
RT: Yeah. I’m going to say my observation is, as someone who’s only been in the United States for the last decade, is we have so much to learn from Black women. And I think part of that is this idea that everyone else, to a large extent, white women, Asian women… Of course, I come here and I’m suddenly no longer Indian, I am an Asian woman, which is made up of hundreds of countries and languages. But for us, we are shown that the only way to progress is to assimilate with whiteness, and for white women to assimilate with the patriarchy. And for other non-Black women of color, largely, it’s to assimilate with this white patriarchy. And it is only in talking with Black women… And again, nobody is a monolith, no community is a monolith. But when I interviewed women of color for the book, Black women again and again told me, “I harbored no illusions that I was going to belong. I was told early.” I spoke to Ijeoma Oluo. She said, “I knew from day one. That was my school experience.” And I think for a lot of other people, we buy into and we uphold the myth of meritocracy. And I think we have a lot to learn about the reality of how privilege operates in this country and how even people who are oppressed can very much serve as oppressors, too.
BB: Yeah, I just keep going back to this quote, “The system’s not broken. It’s working exactly how it was designed.” I think a lot of power is maintained by especially Black women, women of color, believing, feeling… You say this a lot in your work, Jodi-Ann. “I don’t believe what you’re saying. I don’t… These are words, I don’t believe it.” And it’s almost unbelievable to me that people who have power that’s dependent on that not being true, actually think people are going to believe it. Do you know what I’m saying?
JB: Oh yeah, oh yeah. It’s like, we’re like, “Oh yeah, we really want you to bring your ideas. We really love your pushback.” And I’m like, “Yeah, okay. You have no idea what you’re saying.” [chuckle]
BB: And for five minutes. And then it’s like, “Hey listen, could you smile more a little bit in there? And could you make other people around you feel smarter and more comfortable?”
RT: Pet to threat. It’s just… Jodi-Ann.
RT: Do you want to talk about pet to threat?
BB: Talk about that, yeah.
JB: I was just like, “What are you saying?”
RT: Sorry, I blanked on this. I’m sorry.
BB: No, I was like, “She’s either mouthing something to Jodi-Ann, or we’ve lost her sound. But either way, I’m going to freeze it until we know what this was.” But then I got “threat” and then I remembered the bragging about that. So walk us through.
RT: This is so important and I would love… We talked about how Dr. Thomas, her work is transformative and not enough people know about it.
JB: Oh yeah, so Dr. Kecia Thomas, absolutely brilliant, absolutely incredible. We got some of her brilliance in the second article here, but when I first learned about the concept “pet to threat”, that resonated way more with me than impostor syndrome. And so pet to threat is this phenomenon that happens particularly to women of color, particularly to Black women that you can enter an organization, everyone’s super-excited about you, walking around the office, making introductions, supporting you. “Whatever you need, I’m here,” really excited about this potential perspective and work that you can add to the organization. Everyone’s feeling good. Now, for me personally, I’ve never bought into that, period. People are putting on the show, they’re excited but I’ve had enough experiences individually, I’ve had enough experiences collectively that there’s going to be a bait and switch that happens. And of course it does. Once you start actually doing your job, exerting your influence, when you start making those changes that people were so excited about, that’s when they start tempering your influence. That’s when you become threatening to them when you want to make the changes that you were brought in to make.
JB: And so the way that this has materialized for me is walk into an organization, you step into a role that is supposed to be dynamic, is supposed to be organization shifting, is supposed to create some real changes internally and externally. Everyone’s excited. Yes, Jodi-Ann’s on board. Let’s go. Then I enter the meetings, I start asking the questions, I start pushing the work a little bit forward, and I get pulled off of projects. I have been pulled into performance review conversations where I was told that I’m asking too many questions. I need to be more agreeable, I need to help give other people a win. Maybe I should send these questions later over email. And so you’re just like, “Why am I here?” And I had that one such conversation, and I talked about it in the TED Talk. And literally in that moment, I made the decision that I was going to quit, because, “How could I develop my career here when just asking questions feels so threatening to you?” And so when I found Dr. Thomas’s work, I just settled in it like, “Oh my gosh, this is what’s happening to me.” When I look to imposter syndrome, it feels like it’s asking me to question myself, and I don’t. I couldn’t be here if I doubted myself.
JB: And so yes, there is doubt. But to be resilient, to survive in these spaces, you have to create buffers against that. And it’s more helpful to me to understand the water that I’m swimming in than it is to try to look internally. As a Black woman, there will be people lined up down the block and around the corner to tell me that I’m not shit, at all. Why should I be first? I’m not going to cut in line at all and start hurting myself when the space that I’m in is so harmful to me.
BB: God! I think about when I first read about pet to threat and first read that work, the first thing that struck me is how deeply dehumanizing it is. Both pet and threat are completely in service of whiteness.
JB: You said it.
BB: They’re just in service of whiteness.
JB: You said it.
BB: And god-dang, if I don’t see it all the time in organizations that… We work in a lot of organizations, I see it all the time. Yeah.
RT: It’s the bait and switch, Jodi-Ann, that you talked about, which so perfectly articulates it. And I think for me, coming from the opposite perspective, the immigrant perspective, the you’re the first in your family to go to university or the first in your family to do all these things, so you better not speak up. You better keep your job here no matter what. You better conform and assimilate. And you’re celebrated for your proximity to whiteness, you made it. And so then to go through the pet to threat experience is different in the way… It’s that bait and switch, it completely catches you off guard. And that’s something Jodi-Ann and I connected on quite closely, because we both worked in the technology industry. And I think we both felt that bait and switch really intimately. And it’s painful, and it is happening every day. There is not a day we don’t hear from women that they have experienced this. And they have been taught to become smaller, and smaller, and smaller to fit in.
RT: And I think of this often, how it starts at a really young age. I’m a mother of a boy. I see how people buy him Legos and STEM toys and “Oh, you’re so bright. You’re so brilliant. You’re going to be so smart.” And I remember being told as a girl, and an Indian girl, “Oh, you’re too smart for your own good. What are you reading all these books for? How’s it going to help you find a man? How’s it going to help you get married?” So we have a lot of work to do. We teach girls to become smaller, and we teach boys… And I apologize for the gender binary here but really, we teach boys to take up space, and then they continue on in the workplace, and are decision makers, are politicians, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. And really the more of us that stop buying into this myth that there’s something wrong with us, for me, that is the power of this article. That is the power of this work.
BB: Yeah, I mean it’s about space, it’s about voice, how much space are we entitled to, what kind of voice are we entitled to, and who owns the space and who’s centered in the space. I’m just thinking about a lot of the work we’ve done in organizations. I think part of what feeds the “pet to threat” phenomenon in my experience, I’d love to know what y’all think, is when white leaders believe they can invite in this work and be comfortable and make no personal changes, that it’s really choosing comfort over courage. It is great until it’s uncomfortable, but it’s hard because organizationally, we know that there is no change without discomfort. And so I think if I had to find a demarcation line from pet to threat, it’s the moment when people get uncomfortable or invited to interrogate their own choices in the systems that they’ve built. Would you agree, disagree? What have you seen and learned and experienced?
JB: Absolutely, it’s much easier to talk about the work and you sound real cool and insightful, [chuckle] and then you actually have to do it or work with someone who is doing it differently, and then you have to protect yourself. I think what makes me particularly dynamic in the work environment is that I’ll risk it all. Listen, there is no trust fund here. But I’ll get fired. I don’t… I’ll go, you know what I’m saying? That’s okay. [chuckle] It’s just me and my dog, I’m good. And so I feel a bit more freer to try to push, to try to do the thing that’s right, to try to execute on the values that you say that you have. You said that you believe these things.
JB: So I’m trying to help you with the thing that you said. So we’re all in alignment. But when I’m actually trying to do that, to make the shifts that implicate you, to implicate your own passivity, it implicates your own reluctance to look at yourself, then it becomes uncomfortable. I had a supervisor once who’s super excited, brought me in, knew my work, knew who I was publicly, knew how I talk about these issues, and within the first week of working there, she told me that it seemed that I had a “race agenda”, and I said, “Yeah, I do. [laughter] That’s why you hired me. Yes.”
BB: Yeah, right.
JB: We talk about gender, we talk about sexuality all the time, we are advancing that work at this company, but y’all cannot talk about race? I don’t understand that. And that became to her a reflection on maybe her own blind spots and her own discomfort. And so we couldn’t move the work forward because it made her personally uncomfortable. I see this with the TED Talk, talk about, can you be fully authentic in a workplace for a lot of people of color and those who are under-represented? They can’t. So then I hear from people who are sitting in these executive leadership conversations that are talking about the TED Talk, they’re commenting on what they’ve witnessed other people experience of, “Could they fully show up? Are they wearing their saris to the office? Are they using their official names and not their “American-English-sounding” names?”
JB: This is what I, executive, am observing for all of the people who work in my company. And so the person who gave me this feedback, I asked her, “Well, did they ask themselves what they are doing to create an environment where these people feel like they can’t belong?” That’s actually what the conversation should be. “What am I doing to create this dynamic? I don’t want you to sit here and observe the discrimination that I’m facing. I want you to understand how you are contributing to that.” That is the hardest part. And what I think would be amazing to unlock this work is for white folks, leaders to look at themselves first, you examine yourself, your behaviors, how you’re showing up, how you are creating the drag, how you are creating the resistance to advancing the thing that you said you care about. Don’t look at me and my barriers. Look at the barriers within yourself to actually move this forward. Because I’ve got me. But do you understand yourself? You don’t.
BB: Really, you don’t. Yeah, it’s really interesting because we share a friend, Aiko Bethea.
JB: Yes, love her!
BB: We’re all making hearts, Aiko.
JB: Yes. [chuckle]
BB: It’s really interesting in the Dare to Lead work, we have rules where if we go into an organization, I don’t ever start with anyone but the C-suites because what’s hard, and I understand that you can do important work not starting at the top, but for our work, what’s hard is that the barrier to people being themselves is the culture people have built at the top to protect themselves.
BB: And so we can’t go in and say, “Hey everybody, be you, take the armor off,” until we assess how safe it is to do that. And what people don’t understand I think, and I think this is your point, that the mythology around, because you talk about the myth of bringing your whole self to work and the myth of authenticity at work, the mythology is that that is the work of the individual, not the work of the leadership to create a culture where people can actually do that. And so a lot of times, we’ve had big money proposals on the table and we’ve worked with leaders for a week, and we’re like, “No. We just can’t do this because I hear what you’re saying, but I see what you’re doing.” And you have created a culture where armor is both rewarded and required for people to keep their jobs.
RT: So true.
JB: James Baldwin, “I can’t believe what you say because I see what you do.”
RT: So the interesting thing about inclusion, like deep inclusion, anti-racism work is you’re either uncomfortable or you’re doing it performatively. It literally is an either/or. I mean I was raised never to talk about racism, never to talk about sexism. I was rewarded as an immigrant in this country for conforming to all of these systems upholding, pushing Black women, pushing other women of color out of the way so that I could progress. And I have had to live with that, and I have had to face it. And I think if you don’t do that, you’re not doing this work. And to your point about the C-suite, when I researched and interviewed gender-balanced organizations, and I absolutely was not intersectional in my work when I started, nine out of 10 times, the only thing that held together these companies, that brought together these companies that were gender-balanced across the world, across sizes, across industries, venues, etcetera, was leadership commitment. That’s it. And this is sometimes the hard work of attending… I can see why you say no to these women’s conferences largely, because the change cannot fully start from the bottom, it cannot. It has to start from the top. Leaders need to create psychological safety. Please look up Dr. Amy Edmondson’s wonderful work, to all listeners.
RT: I adore her, and talk about… I want to share a story about Dr. Edmondson if you have a moment. [chuckle]
RT: So I was really excited, I was invited to be part of this really prestigious conference in London, and I show up there and there’s Dr. Amy Edmondson, she’s going to be getting an award, she’s sort of in the distance, and I… And I’m so excited, and there’s obviously a line to talk with her. By the way, I brought my mom, so I’m like, “Mom, this is who Dr. Edmondson is,” and she’s like, “Oh wow, this is exciting.” And so I finally get my turn and I walk up to her and I say, “Dr. Edmondson, your work has really profoundly shifted the way that I think.” She’s like, “Thank you so much.” And then I get interrupted by four white women who come to me and say, “Could you please take a picture of me with Amy?” And they moved me out of the way, they handed me the camera, and I shook my head, and then they found some other guy to do it, and I walked away. And I felt like I missed my chance. And Nilofer Merchant was at the same conference.
RT: And I went to Nilofer later and I said, “Hey, Nilofer, this thing happened to me,” and then I forgot about it. And then after that conference, I went on home to Singapore. I promise there’s a point to this story. When I come back to Seattle, in my inbox is Dr. Edmondson’s book, signed personally by her, and I believe it’s because Nilofer told her what happened, and she has become such an advocate of my work. I interviewed her for my next book, she often retweets things I do, which I’m like, “Oh my gosh, Dr. Amy Edmondson.” But my point is, to really show up in the moment, you have got to disrupt the way that you’re doing things. The ordinary course of business is, you’re really busy, there are like hundreds of people trying to talk to you, you forget. But if someone shows you and holds a mirror up to you like, “Hey, this thing happened, and this racist thing happened, it was a racist incident,”
RT: You have a choice in that moment how you’re going to respond. And the fact that she could go back to her office and arrange for a signed copy of her book to show up at my doorstep, that’s one example of how I’ve seen this in action.
BB: Yeah, I quote her work all the time. She’s amazing.
BB: All right, I would be remiss if I did not talk about the second article. Because the first article came out in February. Five months later, you wrote the follow-up after the first article blew up. And all of us said, “It’s mandatory reading for all of our students and all of our people, and it’s just incredible. ” And you offered the follow-up article, “Actionable Steps That We Can Take”. I just want to read a few of them because I think they’re so incredible. “Pivot the language employees use to describe themselves. Be honest about the impact of bias. Reduce biases against women of color at work. Be data-driven and rigorous. Quit gaslighting and listen.” I’m going to say that twice. “Quit gaslighting and listen. Sponsor and mentor women of color. Set up accountability mechanisms for change,” which I think is so important, at least in my experience, because you cannot always count on people being brave. So if you have not built brave systems to catch us when we’re all being chicken shit in that moment, when we’re afraid because the conversation has gotten too real, too hard, too honest, the systems have to reflect the courage you want to see in people, because we’re not always going to be brave enough, myself included.
JB: Oh yeah, same.
BB: Do you know what I mean? Yeah, yeah. Y’all have to come back and we have to do this again, because I have to leave time for the rapid-fire because I’ve been guessing all day what you’re going to say. So are y’all ready for rapid-fire?
RT: Can I just really quickly say one thing, Brené?
BB: Yeah, of course.
RT: Collaboration and supporting each other is messy. It did not take five minutes to write the first article, and it certainly did not for the second article, and we work on different timelines, and we’re just very different people, and yet… If the TLDR of an… Obviously, you’re silly if you’re not going to listen to this whole podcast, but the one-piece takeaway I hope people have is it is easier to go it alone and you still have to make that effort to do it together even if it’s messy and it sucks and it’s hard. All right, sorry, rapid-fire. [laughter]
BB: No, I will just add to that that Tarana Burke and I just did this book together on Black voices on vulnerability and shame and resilience. And co-creation is a function of equity work, and lived experience should always trump academic experience when it comes to credits, money, all of it. It’s just really important. Not something we learn in the academy, PS. Okay, y’all ready?
JB: I’m ready.
BB: We’ll switch who goes first. Ruchika, you could go first on this one. Are you ready?
RT: I’m nervous. Okay.
BB: Fill in the blank for me. Vulnerability is…
JB: It’s sometimes,… Listen, if no one thinks that vulnerability is… It’s a difficult experience. So yeah, I’ll keep it, but it’s tough. Brené, the work is hard.
BB: No, I’m… Today I’m 100% Oscar the Grouch with you, trash, put it in the trash today. Okay. So Jodi-Ann, I’m scared, but I’m going first on the next one.
JB: Let’s hit it.
BB: What’s something that people often get wrong about you?
JB: That I don’t have feelings. People really like the strong Black woman trope. They really like to look at me and think that I don’t need help and that is so, so wrong, and that’s something that I’ve had to de-program myself. So yeah, people get… I think people get that wrong about me, that I’m just like hardcore, no feelings, and it’s just so far from the truth.
BB: I’m going to think about that in conjunction with your answer to the first one. Okay. Because it is so hard right?
BB: Okay, Ruchika, something people get wrong about you?
RT: Literally the opposite, that I’m submissive, I’m not going to negotiate for myself, I won’t advocate for myself.
BB: Oh. Okay. This is great. Jodi-Ann, you can go first on this one. A piece of leadership advice that you’ve been given that’s so remarkable, you need to share it, or so shitty you need to warn us.
JB: I think a leadership advice that is shitty, so I’m going to warn you…
JB: Particularly for folks who are under-represented, is to bring your whole self. If you don’t test the waters, if you don’t look to see if there’s water in the pool, it’s unwise to just jump. So I would say to qualify that and to make that advice better is to understand the situation that you’re in, and with vulnerability, with courage, and with time and information, bring your full self and bring it hard. [chuckle]
BB: Oh God, that’s beautiful. Okay, Ruchika?
RT: How do I follow that up? [chuckle] I think it’s this deep-seated belief I have that inclusion is leadership, and it’s a quippy tagline that I use, but I really think that if you want to be a leader, you want to bring people along… One of my favorite podcasts with you is with Barack Obama, President Barack Obama, so it was just wild when the email came through for us to be invited here, but really how much of greatness you can build when you are inclusive and you bring in the voices and the perspectives that have been overlooked. I wish people taught me that because what I was taught about leadership, trash advice, was that you have got to push people out the way, make space for yourself, it’s all about you, very white-centered, very patriarchal thinking.
BB: Yeah, and only driven around performance, which actually backfires because it doesn’t even work for performance in the long run. It’s true. Okay, this is great. So you want to go first again, Jodi-Ann?
JB: Why not. Let’s just do it.
BB: Let’s do it. What is the one leadership lesson that the universe keeps putting in front of you over and over because you have to keep re-learning it? [laughter] I wish y’all could see her face.
JB: This is… You know what? This is really great because my therapist had to cancel our session today, so I appreciate this.
BB: This is at the intersection of leadership and self-work for sure.
JB: The universe keeps putting in front of me that collaboration, and we’ve talked about this, is really the best way, if not the only way, to make transformative work. You can absolutely do stellar work on your own, and I think a lot of my life situations have forced me to do that. I got this. I could do battle by myself, right? And everything that I’ve done that has transformed people has been a product of my work with someone else.
BB: Mmm. That’s good.
JB: And I have to keep re-learning that.
BB: Whoo! Okay, yeah.
RT: My turn? Boundaries.
BB: Yes, Ruchika, please.
RT: I’m horrible with boundaries. I’m so bad with saying yes and trying to please people and… Yeah, it’s a leadership lesson. Like when you get stuck doing mediocre things, you’re not going to be able to do the brave and great things. And yet, time and again, I’ll say yes to something because I don’t want to upset someone and then I’m like, “Why the heck am I doing this?” And then, oh, by the way, I show up to Brené Brown completely exhausted and stressed. So this is the leadership lesson I keep feeling like I have to learn again and again, and honestly, I’m tired. I am just tired of doing it. Because, again, back to this idea, we socialize women and we condition us and reward us for… It’s… We need to stop. It’s just bullshit.
BB: I’ll second you on that. It’s bullshit, [laughter] but what great shares these two have been. I just… They resonate so deeply, personally with me. I’ll charge you both for the extra therapy sessions, both… Literally, I was just with my therapist last week who said, “You know, like, you’re six, like, wow, we’re still talking about boundaries.”
BB: I’m like, yeah. Yes.
JB: Can I say something about that?
JB: I was talking to my therapist a couple of months ago, and I’m like, “This must be so boring for you. I feel like I just talk about the same things over and over and over and over again, like I’m tired of it. I just… I have the same problems.” And then she goes, “You want new problems?” She’s like… [laughter] She’s like…
BB: That’s good.
JB: “You don’t want new problems. Stick with the ones that you have.”
BB: No, yeah, yeah, I’ll take the life-long problems. Yeah, that’s true. That’s a real… I’m going to write that on a sticky note.
JB: Oh, yeah.
BB: All right, Jodi-Ann, what’s one thing you’re excited about right now?
JB: I am excited about taking my time back, speaking to the boundaries. I’m going to Arizona for the first time on Saturday. I’m doing a little staycation right when I get back, to just be in nature. And I’m excited to use the rest of the year to look back at everything that I’ve accomplished, since I was “let go for COVID”. I knew they was trying to get rid of me. I was doing a lot there, but like… [laughter] And just being on this entrepreneurial path, I think our culture is so go, go, go. We don’t get time to appreciate the work that we did and to be proud of ourselves, so I’m so excited to just have nothing planned for an extended period of time and just reflect on everything that I’ve been able to do.
BB: I love that for you. It’s beautiful. Yeah. Ruchika, what are you excited about?
RT: And Jodi-Ann, can I just say that being let go, I think, was the best thing that ever happened to you? Seriously, I’m so glad, because look at all that happened since that time. And I know we met shortly after again, so… The same with you, Brené, when whoever said to you that, “Oh, we thought you’d be something… ” [chuckle] Well, they were right. By a long shot. All right, so for me I would say that it’s my next book. And it feels like the book that I was born to write right now, and I wrote it during COVID. I wrote it with my son at home, which was really challenging, with a four-year-old by then. And it still gave me so much life and light at the end of the day, after interviewing women of color. That was actually the first time I interviewed Jodi-Ann for the book, and she’s the first story in the book. And when I go back and I read it, I just feel so glad. I feel humbled that I was… Eww, it sounds very hokey, but that I was chosen to tell these stories and write about women of color in a way that will hopefully really transform minds, as so many others continue to obviously… This work isn’t done in a vacuum. There’s so many amazing books and stories coming out, and it is our time. It is past our time. So that’s…
BB: Lord, they’ve had a long run. Yes, I am so excited and I cannot wait until the book comes out. And please, get us a copy so we can shout it from the rooftops.
RT: Thank you, thank you so much. Thank you.
BB: Yeah, absolutely. All right, this is going to be really interesting. We asked you for five songs you couldn’t live without. Jodi-Ann?
JB: I’m so excited about my list.
BB: Okay. “Finale” from Priscilla: Queen of the Desert soundtrack, which I have to just say is probably one of the best soundtracks in history.
BB: Yes, yes. “Caribbean Medley” by Donnie McClurkin. “Doo Wop (That Thing)” by Lauryn Hill. “Proud Mary” by Tina Turner. And “Before I Go,” of course, the Beyoncé version. In one sentence, what does this mini-mixtape say about you, Jodi-Ann?
JB: My mini mixtape says that Jodi-Ann knows herself.
BB: Wow. Hard stop.
JB: Hard stop, full stop, as my mom would say. Full stop.
BB: Beautiful. It’s beautiful. Okay, Ruchika, ready?
BB: “Storm” by Vanessa-Mae. “All or Nothing” by Athena Cage. Is IT “Jiya Jale?”
RT: Jale. “Jiya Jale,” yeah.
BB: By… Help me with the artist?
RT: Lata Mangeshkar. It’s a Hindi song.
BB: “Fly” by Nicki Minaj, featuring Rihanna, and “Mama” by the Spice Girls. I loved listening to both these playlists. In one sentence, what does this mini-mixtape say about you?
RT: Global, I hope. Global. I really feel the word global citizen is something that’s usually related to white people who travel around the world, when so many of us leave so much, as Warsan Shire says, “Nobody leaves home unless home is in the mouth of a shark.” And especially at this time as we are seeing refugees and immigrants, we… Global, global citizen.
BB: Okay, I went out of order because I want to end on this. Jodi-Ann, tell me one thing that you’re grateful for right now.
JB: I… This might be corny. [laughter]
BB: I love corny. Corny is always good.
JB: I’m grateful for myself. I’ve been through so much, as many people experience traumas. But just after my health crisis and really having to contemplate and accept my own death, to be faced with that and to see it and see, is that going to be real for me right now? And to see who I am now, and what it took for me to get there, that there was a period in my life where I couldn’t see myself anymore. And when you can’t see yourself, you can’t protect yourself. And I was really on the edge of my own survival. And to be someone who is so far away from that version of myself now, it means so much to me that through all of that, I still have my personhood. I’m still fighting for myself, I’m still defending myself, I’m still creating space for myself. And yes, I was supported by my community, my family, my siblings who were with me the whole time, but you’re still responsible for your own survival, and I’m just so grateful that I didn’t give up on myself.
BB: That’s beautiful.
RT: That was so unfair, Brené, that I have to follow that?
BB: That was beautiful. And we don’t think about that, we don’t think about… Yeah, we don’t think about being grateful for ourselves, and what we survived. It’s beautiful. What about you, Ruchika? What are you grateful for today?
RT: Since we went so deep, I’ll go a little less deep. And I’m really grateful for my mom’s chicken biryani. She is a wonderful cook. And the fun thing about this is she’s actually vegetarian, so she’s never tried it. So she’s never tasted this dish that people for years have raved about, like decades. We’ve had people come to our house, begging for it, and she’s never tasted it. So there’s a power of feeding someone, I really believe. I love food, I’m Singaporean, I think about food all day that after this conversation, my next thought will be, “Oh my God, I just spoke with Brené Brown and Jodi-Ann Burey, and now I’m going to go think about lunch.” But my mom’s chicken biryani is so nourishing, so wholesome. It’s been two years since we could have it in our house. She lives far away, so she was able to visit. So I’m very excited about that. Grateful for that.
BB: Oh my God, I will be stopping by, that’s my favorite dish in the whole world…
BB: So I would love to share some of that for you. And I have to say Singaporean food courts, just drop me there and pick me up like hours later.
RT: Right? Oh, I’ve missed it so much, yes.
BB: What an act of love, to create something that is specifically for someone else. Like, wow, that’s beautiful. I am grateful for the two of you, I am grateful for these HBR articles, I’m grateful for your teaching and your leading. People ask me all the time, why are we talking about race and gender and identity so much in these Dare to Lead programs, because there is no such thing as daring leadership if you don’t have those conversations. It is a prerequisite for courageous leadership to lock eyes with the unsaid and surface it and say it, and then heal it and make systemic changes. And so, y’all are doing that work and you’re changing us, and so I am grateful for both of you today. Thank you for being on Dare to Lead.
RT: Brené, thank you so much. And I want to just add that how much it benefits even people with privilege when they have these conversations and when they lean in courageously to what it means to experience racism and sexism and all these other forms of oppression in others, and how much… This is why I love Ijeoma’s book, Mediocre, how it’s a pyramid scheme, meritocracy and whiteness. How much it’s a pyramid scheme even for white people, especially white men. And so, this work allows all of us to be more vulnerable and more daring, and it actually benefits everyone. Yes, there’s this race agenda that Jodi-Ann and I have been hearing with quotation marks… [laughter]
BB: Yeah! Thank God.
RT: With the air quotes. But indeed, hopefully it’ll benefit women of color, but it really will also change that deep hurt and pain that it causes to treat others so poorly, right?
BB: Yeah, you keep putting your work in the world and I’ll keep doing everything I can to amplify it because I believe in what you’re doing and I’m grateful for it. You make us better. Thank y’all.
JB: Thank you, thank you so much.
RT: Thank you.
BB: All right, if you’ve already read the HBR article, I bet you’re thinking this was so good to be able to meet them in person and really break it down. And if you haven’t read it yet, you need to go right now and download it from HBR. You can go to our episode page where you can find everything you want to find out about Jodi-Ann and Ruchika, links, how to find them, where to find them. You can find Jodi-Ann and Ruchika online at their websites. Jodi-Ann’s is jodiannburey.com and Ruchika’s is rtulshyan.com. So Jodi-Ann Burey is J-O-D-I-A-N-N B-U-R-E-Y, and Ruchika’s is R-T-U-L-S-H-Y-A-N. Again, we’ll have links on the wepisode – on the wepisode [chuckle] We’ll have links on the episode page. Maybe it should be called a wepisode page. What do you think, Barrett?
BG: [chuckle] I like it.
BB: Yeah. Thank you all for joining us for Dare to Lead, and thanks for just being on the learning path with us. I feel like every day I’m learning, unlearning, re-learning, and then unlearning some more so I can re-learn. And it’s great to do that in community, so thank y’all very much. Stay awkward, brave and kind. The Dare to Lead podcast is a Spotify original from Parcast. It’s hosted by me, Brené Brown, produced by Max Cutler, Kristen Acevedo, Carleigh Madden, and Tristan McNeil, and by Weird Lucy Productions. Sound design by Tristan McNeil and the music is by The Suffers.
© 2021 Brené Brown Education and Research Group, LLC. All rights reserved.