On this episode of Dare to Lead
We are back with Part 2 of this very important conversation with two of my friends, mentors, teachers, and co-creators, Aiko Bethea and Ruchika Tulshyan. Join us as we talk about the state of belonging work—what it is, what’s working, and what’s not working. This is a soulful conversation about the tough work that I believe is at the heart of courageous leadership.
Listen to the episode
“The Heart of Leadership, Part 1 of 2” Dare to Lead podcast episode with Aiko Bethea and Ruchika Tulshyan
“Creating Transformative Cultures” Dare to Lead podcast episode with Aiko Bethea
“Inclusivity at Work: The Heart of Hard Conversations” Dare to Lead podcast episode with Aiko Bethea
“Inclusion on Purpose” Dare to Lead podcast episode with Ruchika Tulshyan
“Imposter Syndrome” Dare to Lead podcast episode with Jodi-Ann Burey and Ruchika Tulshyan
“End Imposter Syndrome in Your Workplace” by Ruchika Tulshyan and Jodi-Ann Burey, Harvard Business Review
“Stop Telling Women They Have Imposter Syndrome” by Ruchika Tulshyan and Jodi-Ann Burey, Harvard Business Review
Brené Brown: Hi everyone. I’m Brené Brown, and this is Dare to Lead, I have am back with Part 2 of a very important conversation with two of my friends, mentors, teachers, co-creators, Aiko Bethea and Ruchika Tulshyan. You really need to listen to the first part of this podcast, to jump into the second part. We are talking about what it takes to make space to create change, we talk about psychological safety and safe places versus actually brave places. We talk about what we’re all seeing personally and professionally in the state of belonging work, what it is, what’s working, what’s not working. And in this conversation, we dig into some real, some real, real issues and some real complex issues. What does it mean to bring your whole self to work? And are workplaces equipped for that, and is that safe, and what does it mean to be restored and how to experience restoration while being present?
BB: This is a soulful conversation about soulful work. I said, during the first episode, I believe belonging work is at the heart of courageous leadership, and it’s the life blood, and the life blood of the belonging work is emotion, and this is hard work, and that’s why it’s exhausting to do, to facilitate, to lean into. I’m glad you’re here.
BB: So, before we jump into the conversation let me tell you a little bit about our guest. Aiko Bethea is the founder of RARE Coaching & Consulting. She is an innovative leader. Through her work, she coaches leaders in organizations to remove the internal and external barriers to inclusion, allowing them to understand each other as people, colleagues, and teams in more connected ways. During her childhood and throughout her career, Aiko has been in places where people who looked like her were under-represented. She believes that when you anchor into your values and discover your voice, you can begin to live the life you want to live and be exactly who you want to be. She is also a certified Dare to Lead facilitator, does a lot of mentoring with Brené Brown Education and Research Group, just an essential person in my life, so… So glad to have her back on.
BB: And Ruchika Tulshyan, just fire. She is the author of the critically acclaimed Inclusion on Purpose: An Intersectional Approach to Creating a Culture of Belonging at Work from MIT Press. The book has sold just many, many copies within its first six months of publication. She is the founder of Candour, an inclusion strategy practice, a former international business journalist. She is a regular contributor to the New York Times and Harvard Business Review. We are frickin’ so lucky to have them here and to be in conversation. Welcome.
BB: Okay, welcome back. Part 2. How you feeling?
Aiko Bethea: Deep breaths.
BB: Deep breaths?
Ruchika Tulshyan: Now I’m ready. Now I’m ready.
AB: Ruchika’s like, “I’m fired up and ready to go.”
BB: Fired up and ready to go.
RT: Yes. Yes.
BB: Okay. I want to start with a topic that I always have an immediate reaction to, and then I also… I have to slow down. On the last episode, we talked about the space between stimulus and response. Maybe this issue is tougher than I think, I’m not sure. So, what was the hurricane that just recently… Ian, right, that hit Florida?
BB: So, something came up in the news across my feed that a CEO, Founder, CEO, she got in the news. Everybody picked it up because she told her employees that it was going to be fine, they needed to come to work, they could bring their kids. They’d have a fun day of it, I don’t know if y’all saw this in the news, but as they delved into the CEO a little bit, which was obviously a really bad leadership choice, really terrible, but as you delved into this, one of her other leadership mantras is kind of fireable offense, zero activism at work. No political conversations, no social issue conversations, zero talk about social and political issues at work. And so, it’s interesting to me because I did an interview with… I think it’s Megan Reitz and John Higgins, who had an MIT Sloan Management Review article, which was so good, and their quote is, “We are entering an age of employee activism that may well upend our assumptions about power within organizations.”
BB: And what I want your help reconciling is the bring your whole self to work but don’t you dare talk about anything that might be controversial or unpleasant. So where do y’all land on the zero tolerance for any social, political, or cultural debate? And what are your thoughts about employee activism? I’m curious.
RT: So Brené, you know Megan interviewed me for her research on employee activism, and one thing that I said is what may be activism for some essentially is your core… I can’t remember the words I used, and she’s kind enough to quote me. But essentially for a lot of us, it’s not a choice, and again, back to this empathy piece that I mentioned in the last episode, which is, I struggle with how we see others’ issues as others’ issues. If it’s affecting you, it should be affecting me, and it is affecting me. And I think that’s what it is. I think there is inherent privilege and power, if we’re speaking about power as well, in being able to say, “Today I want to engage in employee activism, and tomorrow I don’t want to engage in employee activism.” And I think for all of us who have had to come into work the next day… And again, I think I see this work as more than just my community, your community, but when there was a rise of Asian violence, every time I’ve had to fly for work as a brown woman, many times in airports, it’s a very tough experience. And then I have to show up and be like, “Hey, let’s go to happy hour everyone.” That’s not an experience that…
RT: That I can put away, I carried it in my heart, and I remember… And I’m reminded that my experience is totally different. And so, I think that there is a privilege, if you’re able to say, No, I don’t want to engage in employee activism, and I don’t want my team to engage in employee activism. And my last thought, and I’ll stop, is what gives me comfort is I’m really seeing that there’s a whole generation out there coming up after me that will find this unacceptable. And we’ve talked about this Brené, but surely, when I hear that kind of stuff happening in the news, and then I think about my students who are heading off into the workplace, I’m like… The cognitive dissonance is so huge, but then I have to remember, this is a big country, there are very many different ways of living and seeing the world, but at least in the world view, the world view that I have, informed of by where I live, I don’t see my students and young people in the workplace today being okay with that.
BB: Yeah, cognitive dissonance is such a great construct to explain what I’m feeling and seeing. So helpful. Aiko.
AB: Your question earlier, even about belonging, I mean, they’re clearly counter to each other. One, you can’t say, bring your whole self to work and then but not talk about yourself, and all the real things that impact you in society and say, “No activism, don’t talk about anything else.” I think that has very much been the way that we’ve operated in the U.S., except that disruption with COVID and George Floyd, etcetera, where people started saying, “Oh, I can’t necessarily separate the two because it’s impacting everything,” even from riots or what have you, in this degree of expectation. But I want to add this other perspective about this, which is this idea at work, bring your whole self to work. Is that a lot of us don’t want to. And when I say a lot of us, it’s us who, we have learned to cope and to survive and to recognize that when I go to work, I can compartmentalize. Matter of fact, don’t want anybody asking me about race or George Floyd or expecting me to speak about it, or hear somebody’s ignorant remarks about it. I just want to come to work, do my job and leave. I don’t expect to belong.
AB: Maybe I actually don’t even want to belong to this ecosystem, but what I do want is just for you to respect me and my space and keep it moving, because it’s the much taller order to have, which we talked about in the last podcast, is to expect people to have a sense of awareness about themselves, about history, about somebody they’ve never even lived in close proximity or relationship to, that’s a way bigger order. I’d rather let me just go to work and not come up and ask me about all these other things, because now it’s; bring your whole self to work and guess who that usually is going to benefit?
BB: The people whose whole selves look just like the people whose whole selves are saying to do it.
AB: Right. She was just being curious. She was just expressing herself. When you talked last time about the leader who was talking about Breonna Taylor and was like, “But I want people to feel like they belong, and I want people to be able to show up.” What I’ve noticed with clients is that they’re also thinking about, “Well, if I include these people, other people are going to feel uncomfortable and feel excluded, and how do I balance that?” Because if I bring in and talk about Breonna Taylor, the other people are going to be like, “Why is he bringing in race and bringing that in, and talking about that at work?” And now I feel attacked. So, it is this, can you win for losing without people upping their game on humanity overall.
BB: I’m brought to a conversation that I had with Tarana Burke, where it set… the mandate is so much bigger than what to say, when to say it, how to say it, but can you see my humanity? Do you see and respect my humanity? And then there’s no decision tree, there’s no… Should I bring this up? Should I not bring this up. There should be, if you’re connected to people, in my experience, and I will be open to other experiences, because I have a very white experience, but… and it’s limited. In my limited experience, if you’re deeply connected genuinely to other people, the next right thing is usually in front of you. And if you mess it up, that connection usually makes an opening for someone to say, “Boy, that did not land well,” and so is the deeper calling for real respect and connection in humanity? I don’t know.
RT: Yes, it is, yes, it is. And Brené I’m wondering, so I listen to… I obviously don’t have the context for why you went on your sabbatical. I listened to your episode when you came back on Unlocking Us, and I was like, “Oh my goodness,” because I’m currently going through a period of criticism for some of my work around impostor syndrome and sort of reframing the experience that women of color have at work. And when I heard you talk that deep hurt, and it sounded like to me deep hurt and that meanness, the meanness of people. And how do we tell people… right? So, part of wanting to be comfortable and part of that fear and that shame is, what if I get shamed and what if people call me out, right? How do you navigate that and how do you come back? And what I’m trying to say is to this manager who was like, should I say something or should I not, and then there’s all this, but I’ll upset these people, but… I’ll make these people happy, but I’ll upset those people or whatever it is. And you go through that mental calculation because perhaps you don’t recognize that the work here to be done is humanity and recognizing that common humanity and empathy, how do you then come back from there, how do you continue on even when you have faced criticism, how do you know in your heart that you are doing the right thing?
BB: This just feels like very connected to the work we are talking about, a big… Tarana talks about this too, a lot of gracelessness. And I don’t know… Yeah, and I’ve seen your fire. I’m not back on social. I’m very little, because I don’t think it… Yeah.
RT: Great. Good for you. [chuckle]
BB: Yeah. I don’t know that it serves… I don’t know that it serves all the time, but I don’t… I know, and this is why I’ll be curious to see what you’ll think about this, I just… Someone would have to work really hard, harder than anyone’s ever done before, to convince me that shame is a good social justice tool. We are in so much pain collectively and are looking for so many ways to discharge that pain on other people, and I just don’t believe that a tool that is a primary tool of oppression and a primary tool of hate is ever going to be a good tool for meaningful change. And so, I’ve seen some of the work that you’re doing right now, and I’ve seen some of the criticisms, and I want to fight, I want to fight. And that’s not good for me either, because that’s not… When I’m trying to pull apart those parentheses between stimulus and response, fighting is not part of it. I don’t know, I think cruelty is the opposite of seeing humanity in each other. And there’s a cruelty happening right now, that is… Yeah. Aiko, thoughts.
AB: I agree with you about shame not being a tool for social justice. I mean, people think about systems and processes and things when they think about Audre Lorde’s quote about, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” but I think it is shame and cruelty are the tools. Exclusion. I think those are the tools. Not processes and all these other things of what… how people think about it, in government, I think it’s shame and it’s cruelty and it’s things where we break human spirit, and you break human connection, not in just the moment, but over centuries, right? Maybe even in DNA. So, I agree with you 100% on that. And that part about like, how do you come back from it, how would you… I think, I ask myself every time when I’m holding myself accountable, whether it’s about… Accountable about, “Get back up” or accountable about, “I don’t want to drop kick somebody in the neck and choke them out.” [laughter]
BB: Yeah, yeah, yeah, go, go, go.
AB: I think about values, Brené, from actually your work, “Who do I want to be?”
BB: Who do I want to be?
AB: What are my values? What’s my true north? And what’s the output? But the thing I haven’t figured out too though, is, what does it look like to fully restore yourself, but at the same time to be embodied, and to be present? How do you restore yourself, especially when to be present means witnessing cruelty, experiencing it, seeing that there needs to be healing, maybe being in healing spaces, but there’s a lot of hurt and constant perpetuation. I don’t have the answer about restoration. I don’t know what that is.
RT: So deep.
BB: Yeah, it is. And I think to myself like, everybody knows what it feels like to not belong. Everybody. And I wrote really painfully in Braving the Wilderness, how I really struggled to feel like I belonged to my own family. I was an outlier in my family. And when you don’t belong at home, you know… When we did these interviews with middle school kids, and they said, “Oh man, Miss, not belonging… ” And this is a diverse group of kids. They were like, “Miss, not belonging at school is hard, but nothing like not belonging at home.” And we all know what it feels like to be on the outside and to not belong. And to know, when we think about work specifically, that there’s some hard, reflective, interrogation work that we can do to make sure that the people around us never feel like that because of our choices.
BB: There is no work that would be so hard that I would not want to do that, that I would ever want someone to feel that feeling, and we know it. And we know what it does to people. You know, we know. Going back to our conversation from the first episode about psychological safety, there’s nothing that feels safe about doing this work, but it feels brave, it feels value-aligned. It just doesn’t feel good, but it doesn’t feel anywhere as bad as that feeling of being alone. And I think, Ruchika, when I see your work and I read your book and I see some of the stuff coming at you right now, I’m smiling, because I remember thinking, “She’s not going to betray herself.”
BB: And I think so many of us, to not belong, but to fit in, choose betraying ourselves first before we betray other people, because we want to fit in so bad. And then we get to this place where I see you standing so much in your power right now around your work and around hard stuff that you’re putting out, you are holding people accountable in a big way right now. And then just to say, “I belong to me, and I’ll be the last person I betray,” that is going to set some people on fire. That is going to piss… [laughter]
RT: Especially in the package I come in, right? Here I am, this Asian.
BB: But in the package you come in, yes. Yes, especially because what comes to mind for me from shame language is, “Look at you. Holding us accountable, belonging to yourself, not betraying yourself. Who do you think you are?”
AB: How dare you?
RT: Yes. How dare you?
BB: How dare you? Yeah.
RT: And you know what has really helped me, and I don’t know, Brené, if this is something… When I was hearing that episode about you and what you’ve had to deal with, I hope that you can look to… Because for me, it is women of color, who show up every single day, whether it’s through a tweet, whether it’s in my inbox, whether it’s… I have lunch, I’m lucky to have this amazing community who say to me, “I feel so seen.” And at the core of the work I do is taking all those years. I come from a South Asian family, we could write the book on shame, we make movies on shame, right? Women’s shame, girls’ shame, so I have harnessed 3 1/2 decades of feeling shame every single day, and harness that and that feeling of, “You are not worthy.” And so now when I’m told, “You are not worthy”, and “How dare you?”, and “Who do you think you are in your power?”
RT: I look to the notes from the women of color who say, “Thank you for helping me be seen. Thank you for helping me give language to all the gaslighting I’ve experienced,” and that is what’s helping me at this moment, even on the days where I’m like, “Oh my goodness, I want to run and hide,” and I see publishers with power saying things like, “Oh, we should change the language around this,” speaking… Aiko, speaking about what you and I are talking about, “Let’s not use this word. If you re-framed it and you didn’t use this word, or you didn’t bring race into it, or you didn’t talk about inclusion in this way, instead used that framing, we could make that work.” I’ve had my work changed after it was published because it made people uncomfortable, and that’s when I’ve had to say, “Well, this wasn’t for you, this was for you, and thank you to those who saw me.”
AB: I think the work that Ruchika does, and Brené, I’ll say your work too, I remember the first time I saw you talking live too, is that it actually… DEIB is like a business, it’s very white-centered. I mean that’s why we say micro-aggressions instead of aggressions and racism and discrimination and misogyny, and why people don’t want to say white supremacy. It’s why… There are so many things about the whole DEIB work now that has become co-opted into money making too. Ruchika as you know, some big companies saying, “Now we have a DEI Institute.” Well look at your leadership and what have you, but when I think about, Ruchika, your book, you’re saying, “No, this is what it is.” And like, when you’re putting a stake in the ground of, “This is what it is, and what it’s not.” And Brené, the first time I heard you talk, it was a room about 125 people, there may have been about five brown people in the room.
AB: And from the front of the room, talking about bell hooks and Audre Lorde, like you did this thing, which I don’t think before that I’d never seen a white person do, which was make the five brown people who were the fewest in the room actually feel like we belong, while the other people were kind of… Many of them were scratching their heads and trying to figure out, “Wait a minute, did we miss some pre-reads?” And I actually was thinking this too, but us five brown people felt like, “We belong here, yes, and we can say what we need to be able to say.” And those are rarities. And we talk about the sector or the work around equity work, is like, there’s a lot of charlatans out there too. And we talk about people betraying themselves. I think if we go back, I mean, as a generous way of thinking about and also running into some of these people, I think they never actually did the work to figure out who am I, and why am I doing this work and what does it mean?
AB: And it’s hard, I think, to figure out what your opinion about things is when you’re so immersed in a system that’s already told you who you are and how things are supposed to be.
BB: Oh yeah.
AB: And I fight it a lot. So you and Ruchika, what you’re doing is that you’re creating these other frameworks which the system and people are going to resist, and to resist it means, I need to blame people, I need to fight people, I need to disempower people, I need to belittle, diminish, take away their credibility, whatever it takes, so that I don’t even have to do my work… my own work and look at myself either, and who do I want to be and who am I. So, I hope you all do stand in. I don’t need to hope because I know you will stand in and keep speaking what has to be said, because I think it empowers all of us, like the rest of us.
BB: Well, I wouldn’t be doing the work I’m doing… My work today would not look like my work today without you, Aiko. So, I will say that just, you know what, you have taught me? That… To people listening, they might be like, “Shit, that’s the worst compliment I’ve ever heard.” But I don’t need anyone listening to get it, I just need you to get it. It is an absolute failure to divorce this work from pain, and that’s what you’ve taught me, that it’s an absolute failure to divorce this work from healing. This is not cognitive driver’s ed. This is soulful work.
AB: And I think that’s probably the reason why a lot of people don’t sign up for it. It’s not that it’s uncomfortable, when people say, “Get comfortable having uncomfortable conversations,” it’s not, it’s really painful.
BB: It’s painful. Not as painful as not doing it though.
AB: Yeah, if you’re willing to be connected with people.
RT: Yeah. Aiko, the way you show up, it’s truly, truly… I mean I feel so connected to the story you told me about how kids made fun of your mom’s accent because I am an immigrant and my kids made fun of my mom’s accent and being the translator and being the one who… You know, it… You grow up quickly. And that early reminder of like needing to translate the world as a kid, it has a very profound impact on you. And many of us tuck it away because we’re like, that was so hard and painful and shameful. Like we felt a lot of shame. And some of us like yourself, use it as your superpower. That’s what I see.
AB: I would say, not just me, I would say us.
AB: I would say… And then we’re connected to our communities, and I think when we’re talking about this, we’re carrying a lot of our own stories with us, the ones that we may be proud of and the ones that we’re not. And people think this is a crappy invitation, but it’s an invitation for other people too to. “What are you carrying?” You don’t have to keep carrying the things that you’re not proud of and you don’t need to keep perpetuating it.
AB: Because when you don’t, it’s just going to fester. You keep harming not only other people but yourself. And it’s an invitation. I mean, that’s what I think it really is. Who do you want to be and do you want to be a soul free of roles? And how do you put things down? Right? But it’s hard, because even having this conversation, I’m like, it is thinking about your own hurts, the hurts of people who you love the most and witnessing it.
BB: The hurts you’ve caused.
AB: Yeah, I was just going to say that we’ve caused, and that the people we love have caused. That’s some hard stuff.
BB: Yeah, I mean, I think I’m going to call these the invitation because this, this is what this is. It’s an invitation, and it’s not an easy invitation, and I don’t think anyone that does this kind of work extends it, thinking that it’s easy.
BB: I’ll stand beside y’all any day of the week, and I’ll hide behind you on the other days.
AB: Get up.
AB: Ditto. [laughter]
BB: Get up.
RT: Thank you, thank you for lightening that a little bit.
BB: Well, no, I will stand with you, but I’m also… And I’ll stand in… I’ll stand in front of you too and take it.
RT: Thank you.
BB: But sometimes I’ll want to crawl behind you, make sure I’m not…
BB: I’m a brave person, but I also hurt.
BB: And I think if I…
AB: We’ve got to take turns, and that’s what we talked about.
BB: Take turns.
RT: We’ve got to take turns.
AB: You’ve got to have your community, and you’ve got to have your circle, and…
BB: Yeah, yeah.
RT: You do. You do.
BB: And I’ll just say this, not it, [chuckle] I don’t want to go first. Y’all, thank you so much for being with me on this and thank you for this conversation. It was… I don’t know that I’ve ever heard or had. I know I haven’t had, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard a conversation that was more honest about not just what’s on our mind, but what’s in our hearts, about the importance of belonging to ourselves and to each other. And I think we do know this from PET imaging and neuroscience from the last decade. In the absence of connection and belonging, there is always suffering. And there is so much suffering in the world today. And so much of it is because people believe, this is my thought, that the work is too scary. But I don’t think it’s as scary as not doing it.
RT: And you know that connection… I mean, just look at this.
BB: Yeah, yeah.
RT: And I think of… Aiko and I have only met in person maybe like twice. You know, there was that one time. [chuckle] But imagine having this level of connection with someone, imagine being able to really take off every single filter and just really be like, this is… This is how I’m feeling today, and it’s not put together, and I just know that you’re going to love me regardless of that. And how many people get to do that. But it doesn’t come for free.
BB: Yeah. Not enough people get to do it. And I think… Yeah. I’m deeply grateful. Thank you both. Thank you for your work. Thank you for showing up. Thank you for being honest and thanks for spending your time with us on Dare to Lead. Super meaningful conversation for me personally.
AB: Thank you for inviting us.
RT: Thank you. Thank you.
BB: Thank you for listening. Such an important conversation. As always, you can find an episode page for Part 1 and Part 2 on brenebrown.com, where you can get links to their work, their articles, to Ruchika ‘s book. Check it out. Again, brenebrown.com, click on podcast, Dare to Lead. And you’ll see it right there. Appreciate you’re here. Stay awkward, brave, and kind. And we talk about doing hard work here, life-changing, world changing hard work. I don’t think we get there without a commitment to awkwardness, bravery, and deep kindness. 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 Kevin McAlpine. And the music is by the Suffers.
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