…Increase the Focus on Welcoming Diversity. The reason this is Step 4 (rather than an earlier step) is because without a culture of equity and inclusion, hiring a diverse workforce can be about numbers rather than real opportunity for the individuals and for the organization. After all, you can hire a diverse set of employees and they can be terrific, but if they are not treated respectfully, equitable, and others are not open to learning their perspectives, why would they remain in that organization?
As part of our series about ‘5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society’, I had the pleasure to interview Robin S. Rosenberg.
Robin S. Rosenberg is the CEO and Founder of Live in Their World, a company that uses virtual reality to address issues of bias and incivility in the workplace. Robin is a clinical psychologist, author, and executive coach, and has taught psychology courses at Lesley University and Harvard University. She has combined her interest in immersive technologies with her coaching and clinical experiences to foster in employees a deeper understanding of how and why other people are or may feel disrespected (which undermines engagement, productivity, and creativity), and how to approach such interactions differently.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to ‘get to know you’. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
I grew up lower-middle class, and from middle school on went to a public school that was, at that time, all girls.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. It really brought home how important financial autonomy is for women. Of course, this is true for men as well, but it speaks to the issue of equity. For instance, at the time the story took place, it was possible that in a family with only daughters, the daughters would be passed over as heirs and the inheritance could go to some male relative with whom they — or their father — had no significant relationship beyond some blood relationship.
The other book that made an impact on me was Philip Dick’s story We Can Remember It For You Wholesale, which gave a glimpse about the power of “virtual” memories feeling real, which is, in a sense, what virtual reality has the potential to do.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
“Don’t judge a book by its cover.” I think my interest in psychology at a very young age was because I intuitively wanted to learn how to get past book covers to see what was in the pages.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
For me, leadership is the process of motivating, coordinating, and directing others to try to achieve a particular goal. An example of leadership is when a CEO successfully motivates and gets company employees onboard and working toward equity, inclusion, and diversity — not by simply announcing an initiative or mission. In some sense, the key is motivating employees. Hopefully, once motivated and the CEO has articulated a clear goal, employees are in a better position to organize and direct themselves.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
I feel fortunate that, as a psychologist, I’m familiar with the research literature on stress and how to manage it (in fact, I wrote a book chapter on the subject). I try to OVER-prepare well before the event, and to think different strategies and possible pitfalls. Over-preparing means that I don’t have to devote as much mental energy to the particular action in the moment (e.g., giving a a talk) so I have more mental energy to handle last-minute bumps. Also, I make sure I’m using diaphragmatic breathing when I feel stressed.
An example is the first time I was talking to a company about using our program. In the days leading up to the meeting, I outlined, then fleshed out, what I wanted to say and memorized the general flow and each point. When the people at the company wanted to know more details, I wasn’t flustered and knew how to keep the flow going to ensure we covered all the appropriate points. And I made sure to breathe diaphragmatically.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This is of course a huge topic. But briefly, can you share your view on how this crisis inexorably evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?
There are many people who can provide historical context about the lack of equity and systemic racism. What I want to focus on is the relationship between COVID-19 and the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor, plus Christian Cooper’s harassment in Central Park, with Amy Cooper’s fraudulent calls to police potentially putting his life at risk. People across the world were seeing, literally, the profound loss of agency — the helplessness — of Mr. Arbery, Mr. Floyd, and Ms. Taylor that led to their deaths. At the same time, COVID-19 was spreading, and people were feeling their own sense of helplessness against the pandemic and its consequences. Similarly, reports were revealing how people of color were more likely to get COVID-19 and to die of it — another profound example of an unequal system.
After the series of Black Lives Matter protests, many companies talked about wanting to support their employees of color and address inequality. Unfortunately, in some company, the expressions of support have not translated into visible meaningful action, leading some to consider such companies as “woke washing.”
Can you tell our readers a bit about your experience working with initiatives to promote Diversity and Inclusion? Can you share a story with us?
Our programs are designed to increase awareness of the ways that bias and incivility can manifest itself in the workplace, and help people learn skills for respectful engagement with each other. In part of our program, employees take the first-person perspective of a white woman. (Other parts of the program have them taking the perspective of a Black man, a Black woman, and people from other demographic groups.) In one of the scenes, her male boss comes over to look at her computer screen so he can understand what she’s seeing on a spreadsheet. As he’s looking at her screen, his crotch is basically in her face. Men who have experienced this part of our program have told me how much this experience stayed with them — even months later — and how they take pains to handle that type of situation very differently. It’s gratifying to hear about that type of impact.
This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
I don’t want to focus on diversity for diversity’s sake, but rather, about what happens when DEI is done right: The company creates an inclusive culture, focused on learning from each other and the unique perspective, skills, and abilities that each person brings. So a diverse executive team, in a culture that values learning and inclusion, can have a wider range of perspectives, ideas, and talents.
There are other reasons to focus on having a diverse executive team. Historically, there’s been an, unfortunately, bias to overlook qualified diverse candidates for promotion, which then becomes a problem throughout the talent pipeline: As diverse employees are less likely to be promoted, they’re less like to have a chance to develop some of the experiences that are helpful for executive leaders to have. But when the focus is on having a diverse executive team, people start thinking about diversity in the whole talent pipeline. A second reason to focus on having a diverse executive team is that issues about DEI get heard at the very top.
Verna Myers, Netflix VP of Inclusion Strategy has said, “Diversity is being invited to the party. Inclusion is being asked to dance.” I’d add that equity is being part of the team hosting the event — the team that decides the music, the guest list, the type of food and drink, and the event date.
Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. You are an influential business leader. Can you please share your “5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society”. Kindly share a story or example for each.
In my mind, “Society” is too big a place to start. So let’s focus on our time at work (whether in person or remote), where we spend the bulk of our awake hours 5 days/week. To me, the underpinning of DEI is about “unearned respect” — respect not because of a person’s position, accomplishments, or some demographic variable, but rather simply because each of us is human. Therefore, each of us should be treated with dignity and respect. The five steps below flow from that view.
- Step 1: Equity Review. This includes not just equity in compensation packages, but in resources allocated, how work assignments are made, and mentoring, sponsorship, and promotion opportunities. In other words, make sure that all types of opportunities, resources, and benefits are equitably offered and distributed. With work from anywhere, it includes equity in the technology each employee is given, wifi bandwidth, the space in which to work, among other factors.
- Step 2: Rectify Any Inequities. Be as transparent as possible about the results of the equity reviews, the steps taken for remediation, and the steps to be taken going forward to maintain equity. Being transparent about the steps toward equity focuses awareness on fairness and respect and the organization’s commitment to action viz diversity, equity, and inclusion.
- Step 3: Demonstrate Respect. Once equity is in place and everyone knows and sees the organization’s commitment to equity, the focus can expand to other ways to demonstrate respect for each person, highlighting inclusion and belonging. In part, the goal is to instill or deepen a learning culture — learning from each other, learning from mistakes (rather than hiding failure) — and a culture of openness.
- Step 4: Increase the Focus on Welcoming Diversity. The reason this is Step 4 (rather than an earlier step) is because without a culture of equity and inclusion, hiring a diverse workforce can be about numbers rather than real opportunity for the individuals and for the organization. After all, you can hire a diverse set of employees and they can be terrific, but if they are not treated respectfully, equitable, and others are not open to learning their perspectives, why would they remain in that organization?
- Step 5: Get Feedback about how things are going and learn from it.
We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?
I hope that we can make a dent in creating equity, true inclusion, and appreciating diversity as part of being open, curious, and respectful to others. My guess is that it will happen slowly.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Mark Zuckerberg. I think that many aspects of Facebook have been detrimental to society as a whole (though perhaps benefitting the individual user in certain ways). I’d want to understand his perspective — why he privileges certain types of Facebook interactions and not others — and how doing so helps him achieve his goals despite the costs to society. How he reconciles his goals with the actual negative consequences.
How can our readers follow you online?
On Linked In: https://www.linkedin.com/in/robin-s-rosenberg-b6942329/
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!
Thanks for inviting me to share these thoughts.