Journey to Unconscious Competence – Ep.21

Teaching Social Justice – Ep.20
March 3, 2021
Advocating for Diversity – Ep.22
April 2, 2021

Dr. Helen Turnbull talks about immutable and permeable forces, how to manage our biases, explains how unconscious competence leads to genuine inclusivity, and discusses the “imposter syndrome” and its effect on internalized oppression. 

Melyssa Barrett: Welcome to the Jali Podcast. I’m your host Melyssa Barrett. This podcast is for those who are interested in the conversation around diversity, inclusion, and equity. Each week I’ll be interviewing a guest who has something special to share or is actively part of building solutions in this space. Let’s get started.

Dr. Helen Turnbull is a world-recognized thought leader in global inclusion and diversity. Her extensive research focuses on unconscious bias and its impact on all aspects of inclusion. She has unparalleled knowledge on the complexity of inclusion, and a deep understanding of the patterns and mental models contributing to exclusion. She’s the author of three online psychometric assessment tools on unconscious bias and inclusion, namely Cognizant, the ISM Profile and the Gender Gap Assessment. She also has an e-learning program on unconscious bias and inclusion, and she is a frequent keynote speaker on these topics globally, speaking to senior executives in every continent. 

In addition to her PhD, Dr. Turnbull has two master’s degrees in organizational behavior and mental health counseling, and an undergraduate degree in psychology and sociology from The Open University. She has won numerous awards for her contributions, including the Distinguished Research Award for her journal article and her most recent book called The Illusion of Inclusion, which is really her seminal work on this topic. As a professional member of the National Training Laboratories, she developed and delivered their first ever three-day virtual annual member meeting. And she is an accomplished keynote speaker recognized by the National Speakers Association as a certified speaking professional and a global speaking fellow. She is one of only 33 people in the world with this designation. 

In addition, Dr. Turnbull has award-winning clients. And what that means is that not only is she doing the work to make major contributions, but her clients are actually doing the work and also receiving awards in the areas of diversity, equity, and inclusion. So please join me in welcoming Dr. Helen Turnbull.

All right, so I am so excited today to be joined by Dr. Helen Turnbull, PhD, also the author of The Illusion of Inclusion. And so I really want to dig into some of these details, because as I was reading your book I was so… There was just so many nuggets of great information. And I know since you have been working in the space now for decades, I’ll say, that you have a lot of wisdom when it comes to just this journey of diversity and inclusion that is ever present now as we talk about it. So first of all, I would love to ask you how you got to the actual title of the book, The Illusion of Inclusion?

Helen Turnbull: So thank you Melyssa for having me today. I’m looking forward to this conversation. The Illusion of Inclusion. Right, so I got to the title in many ways because I’ve long believed that as well-intentioned people we believe that we behave inclusively, but we don’t really. I believe that from a neuroscience perspective our brains are hardwired for selfishness and similarity, and not for diversity and inclusion. So in other words, our brain, our limbic brain actually protects us. So it’s that almost the amygdala, the fight-flight is, “Is this person a friend or a foe? Should I lean in or should I back off?” And all of us have that instinct, that’s not going to go away, and therefore I think we’re much more careful about who we include than we want to believe we are. 

So the idea that we can have a policy statement that says we’re an inclusive organization is great and it should be there, but I also think we have to take stock and be honest with ourselves about, “Am I really being inclusive of this group or these individuals or that person?” Because there’s a myriad of reasons why I can justify my mind’s not including you.

Melyssa Barrett: Yeah, it was really interesting to me also as you were going into just the unconscious bias, but also kind of how you can have triggers of unconscious bias that even though you have a focus and you’re aware that the unconscious bias can actually be triggered maybe from an event 10, 20, 30 years ago that you don’t even know about.

Helen Turnbull: That’s right. We get triggered and stimulated by our history, obviously, our own personal history and the history of our group membership. And we’re not consciously walking around aware of many of these issues. And so for me as a white person, for example, I don’t wake up every morning and say, “Wow, I’m still white today.” I don’t always know how my privilege shows up. I don’t always know when I’m making decisions unconsciously about people. I believe that as we walk from our office to the front reception to pick up a candidate, that the minute we see the candidate we’ve made decisions. I mean, they say we make decisions about people in three to four seconds. I do believe that’s true, but I also believe that we make diversity decisions in that same three to four seconds.

And the very idea that we say, “I don’t notice that you’re black,” if you don’t notice I’m black you’re either colorblind or you’re running red lies, one or the other, because obviously, we do see color. So that’s the story we tell ourselves. So I think that the work around inclusion and DEI starts with ourselves. It starts with me taking a long, hard look at how does my privilege as a white person show up? How am I interacting with people? Who do I let in, and who do I keep out?

Melyssa Barrett: Yeah, that’s really interesting to me, because then you talk a little bit about self-sabotage, and then you go into the immutable forces of inclusion, which is kind of a journey in itself. So can you talk a little bit about that?

Helen Turnbull: I can, because I think that there are in my book, The Illusion of Inclusion, I talk about what I call the Inclusion Complexity Model. And it has three immutable forces, and four permeable forces. I’ll about the immutable forces first. Is the first one is the issue of dominance. Is that I believe that dominance is never going to go away, it’s immutable, it’s there to stay. Now what could change is which group is dominant. And I think that’s part of what we’re seeing in the world right now as people struggle with, “Wait a minute, I want to be inclusive, but I don’t want to lose my share of the power base, right?” And so the question is that dominance will always be there. 

It’s there in our interpersonal relationships, who is the dominant partner in the relationship? Who gets to say where we go for dinner nine times out of 10, et cetera? And it is there in our relationships across race and gender and sexual orientation. So I don’t think that’s going to change. And because it’s not going to change, I believe that people, leaders, and people in the DNI space, HR people need to be very aware of its presence and the impact of it. Where does privilege power indifference show up, and how does it show up? And when we talk about inclusion, we can’t talk about it in isolation of the dominance of privilege and power. 

Melyssa Barrett: That’s awesome.

Helen Turnbull: And that’s the first immutable force. And the second one is the issue of unconscious bias, which you mentioned earlier, that, look, the good news about unconscious bias is it’s become trendy. We’ve been talking about it now for what? Maybe 10 years. It’s the thing that everybody wants to learn about, but it’s never going to go away. I do not believe that just because you learn to describe affinity bias or pattern recognition that you can stop it from happening. I think it’s going to live there, it’s going to creep up and get you. If you’ve watched my TED Talk you’ll know that I talked about one of my unconscious biases was finding myself about 15 years ago maybe, on a plane from Dallas to Fort Lauderdale with a woman pilot, and panicking, and thinking, “Oh, there’s a woman flying this 757, maybe I should get off and take a flight tomorrow morning.” And I thought, “Helen, hang on a minute. Don’t be ridiculous. I mean, you’re a diversity consultant. You’re not meant to think like this.”

And so what I got in touch with that night, though, quite seriously, is well, “Why is she making me nervous? Why am I not assuming she’s just as competent to sit there as a man?” And this is International Women’s Month so here I am, right? Admitting that as a woman it goes back to these individual biases that we have to work on is that my image of a competent airline pilot was tall, white, male, with silver gray hair, probably ex-military, Air Force or Navy. Now he could fly the plane, I was questioning whether she could. 

And that’s how our unconscious biases can show up in a millisecond. And so they’re never going to go away, they’re going to keep sitting there. You have to take them from the back of your neck to the edge of your shoulder, and at least know that they’re there. So next time I find myself on a plane, post pandemic of course, then I’ll know if I see a woman in the cockpit, I’ll realize, okay, I’ll calm down that not that it’s gone away, not that it’s no longer an issue for me, but I have to manage it. 

And so I believe that unconscious bias is an immutable force. And the third immutable force a little bit more complicated, it’s what I call degrees of difference. It’s our tendency to want to be if you like binary in the way we talk about diversity and inclusion, where we talk about gender, and we say men and women. We talk about race in this country, we refer black and white, and then we add in all the other diverse groups, and/or heterosexual and LGBTQI. When in actual fact, all of us live somewhere on that normal distribution curve. There are degrees of difference amongst white women, there are degrees of difference amongst black women, there are degrees of difference amongst white men. 

And it’s not just the individuality, it’s the fact that some people live on the right hand side of the curve where they never think about these issues, and other people are on the left hand side of the curve thinking, “It’s the first thing I think about in the morning.” And then there’s people in between, “Yeah, I’m aware of it, but…” And so I think that the degrees of difference are often ignored in the corporate world, because what we do, and I understand this, is we start at the top of the organization, and we say, “We have to train the leaders.” And so we put programs in place for the senior leaders. And then we think now let’s get to the next level of the management. And then we roll something, maybe a two-hour thing or an online thing, all the way down the organization. So we’re looking at the vertical axis. But what I’m arguing in degrees of difference is we also have to manage the horizontal access, and then the intersectionalities in between. 

And so there’s relationships here, just for me individually, I’m white, I’m a woman, I’m heterosexual, I’m Christian, et cetera, and I’m a baby boomer. All of these things matter to me, but they don’t all matter in the same moment, necessarily. But the other part is the relationships that I as a white woman, for example, Melyssa have with you as a woman of color. Do I make unconscious assumptions that because we’re both women that we share a lot in common? And do I not see because it’s in my blind spot that as a woman of color you have a different experience, that you have a different story to tell, not just individually, but from your group identity? And so degrees of difference means that we have to unpack this much more carefully than we’re currently doing. 

Melyssa Barrett: Yeah, it’s funny that you mentioned that because I think when you start tossing out intersectionality, I mean, it kind of goes back to you spent a lot of time talking about the Rubik’s Cube in your book. And it kind of reminds me of that because there’s so many different dimensions. And me being Hispanic and African American, for example, it’s like, am I more Hispanic or less Hispanic or more black or on one day than another or whatever? And it’s like, it’s all who I am. I am who I am on any particular day connecting in lots of different ways with people. 

Helen Turnbull: Yes.

Melyssa Barrett: And I think what’s interesting is, and probably you get asked this a lot with respect to just the negativity associated with diversity and inclusion, because now we have people fully engaged and they want to understand how to build momentum and move this, and I know you’ve been working in it for a long time, but how do you deal with folks that are maybe not interested in embracing this whole notion of diversity and inclusion?

Helen Turnbull: Right. So I believe a couple of things about that. One is that I’ve long believed that if I can reach 10% of my audience, and have them go from folding their arms, rolling their eyes and thinking, “Really? Diversity for the next few hours?”, to actually thinking, “You know what, that was pretty interesting. I didn’t expect it to be so interesting.” If I can reach 10% of the audience, who then go out and reach 10% of their audience, then we begin to make a difference. I also want to take people where they’re at on the journey. I don’t assume that everyone that I’m watching Working with knows nothing, nor do I assume that they all know all the answers. And so I’m going to try to interact with people based on what they tell me around their feelings. 

I also don’t make the assumption that I’ll reach everyone, that that’s where that person is that on the journey, and there’s not much I can do in this moment to change them. But if I can change enough minds and hearts, then I can start to help people to look at what do they have to do, A, to individually be more inclusive, and B, collectively be more inclusive as an organization. And I do have a reputation for doing this work in a way that’s very non-threatening, and it really helps people to see the issues and to lean into the issues and to hear each other. Because I think that’s part of the work and the conversations. If I can’t hear what you’re saying, Melyssa, then there’s no common ground for us to be able to come together on this challenge.

Melyssa Barrett: Yeah, it’s so funny you say that because I always look at diversity and inclusion as the use case for diversity and inclusion. You are creating the conversation, you’re connecting, you’re identifying those differences, and hopefully synergizing and creating new wonderful things just based on our own unique positions in many cases. So I love that idea. And then you talk, I think one conversation I had with you in the past you were talking about how a lot of times even as you look at people where they are, sometimes they’re not looking at the other person where they are. And it’s not always about us, right? It’s often times about where someone else is on the journey, as well as where we are.

Helen Turnbull: That’s right, because I think that there are individual stories. I mean, one of the things I’ve learned over the years of doing this work… I started doing DNI work in 1985, actually, and one of the things I’ve learned is that you don’t always know a person’s story. So I don’t have the privilege of knowing your stories, I’m not necessarily clear on why you’re getting triggered or reacting in a certain way. And that even if I don’t know your story, respectfully, I need to know that you have one. And that’s part of trying to work with people when there’s resistance to this topic.

I mean, I will say to leaders when I’m working with them, “If I could give you a 10% increase in the bottom line of your business, would you be interested?” And I’ve never had anyone say no. “If I could give you a 10% lift in employee engagement, would you be interested?” And people obviously say yes, because the Gallup Poll suggests that in 2019, they said that there was 65%, 65% of people are not engaged at work. I mean, that’s huge. And I actually believe quite sincerely that a way to close that gap is to figure out how to be a more inclusive work environment. Because it’s not about hiring diverse people, it’s figuring out what you have to do to keep the same diverse people that you hired, and not just have a revolving door.

So, I mean, you can look across your organization and say, “We’ve got diversity, Helen.” And I’m like, “Yeah, but do you have inclusion? Do people want to stay, or if I come back a month from now, will it be the same diverse people in the organization?” And so I think the work is in separating. Diversity, equity and inclusion are all three different pieces of work, basically.

Melyssa Barrett: Yeah, you’re definitely… And I think in your book, you also talk about I want to say it’s globalization versus-

Helen Turnbull: Glocalization.

Melyssa Barrett: Yeah.

Helen Turnbull: Yeah. Yes.

Melyssa Barrett: Which I thought was really interesting because you’re really talking about diversity on a global scale, but really adding in that local flavor, I’ll call it for the needs of the local community of wherever it is your company is. So I thought that was really cool.

Helen Turnbull: Yeah. So and if you think about that, the major corporations over the years, that’s where privilege, power, and difference shows up, is when we expand to be global and then we send our people from the US or the UK to whichever country and they run the organization, they manage the plan, they put the senior managers in place, and then they train the locals. But they rarely until recently train the locals to become the CEO, to become the head of the leadership team for marketing, et cetera. And so there’s been a trend in recent years away from globalization towards glocalization which says, “Let’s get the local senior leaders in place as soon as possible, so because they understand the culture much better than we do.”

Melyssa Barrett: Yeah, that’s awesome. Let’s pause for a moment, we’ll be right back. And then you talk about diversity, equity and inclusion and the work that you’ve been doing. And I know you’ve been doing it for a long time. So there’s lots of people that are out there maybe thinking they’re at the beginning of their journey. And to your point about the illusion of inclusion, which is kind of almost like ever evading, how do you think… I know you go into specific assessments and all of those things. Are there things that companies should be thinking about in order to really drive momentum?

Helen Turnbull: Well, I mean, I think I start with any client where they’re at, is, “Tell me how much work you’ve already done, tell me about your workforce,” and then really custom designing for that situation. I think that the real issue is, again, it’s recognizing what’s the work around diversity? Are you putting in place systems and procedures that allow for equity? So are you making opportunities available for women and people of color to move up through the organization? Do you have policies in place that you live up to? So it’s not okay, for example, to have a policy statement on the wall of every conference room that says that you treat everyone equally, and then have a workforce of perhaps people who are gay and lesbian who don’t feel safe to talk about being gay or lesbian because they know that’s not okay in the company.

So when your policy statements are disconnected to the way people feel, there’s work to do in the diversity space. Around equity, it really is about pay and different things, and are you really looking at what equity means in the systems and procedures? And then in inclusion, I think I try to help organizations to see all the variables that make up… Inclusion feels like a soft word. People think, “Of course, I’m inclusive.” I mean, I’ve never met anyone who says I’m going to work today to exclude people. And at the same time, we’re not all inclusive. And I think that that’s what I want to help people to look at.

And well, you mentioned my assessment tools a minute ago, and I developed three online assessment tools, Melyssa, because I realized that leaders like numbers, they like things they can measure, they like ways to prove that there’s an issue. And so I thought, well, if I could show them through these assessment tools that they individually have worked to do, and that they collectively have worked to do, and I could show it to them numerically, then perhaps I can demonstrate that we have to close this inclusion gap. And that’s what I set out to do, is to help leaders to see that they need to have some skin in the game. It’s not okay to delegate this to HR and say, “Yep, I know there’s a diversity issue, why don’t you run a program here and there.” It’s not okay, we have to see, “What’s the work I have to do?” Which I think in many ways, brings me to the other part of my module in my book is the permeable forces.

Melyssa Barrett: I was just about to go there. Yes, please. 

Helen Turnbull: There’s four of them. The first one is affinity bias. And we’ve all got that, it’s not going to go away. Each of us has an affinity to hang out with people that make us comfortable, not necessarily from my own race or culture, but people that align with my values, and that’s never going to go away. But what I have to challenge is, who’s in my inner circle, and who am I not letting in? Because every one of us can probably cite the person in the meeting whom I just can’t listen to because their voice annoys me, it hurts my ears or I just don’t think they’re quite smart enough. And we’ve all got ways to shut people out, or, “I have to work with them, I’m not going to lunch with them,” that kind of thing.

But we have to ask ourself, who are we listening in? Who do we have an affinity for? And who are we shutting out? Because quite often, the people we shut out notice us more than we notice them. So if I’m your boss and I don’t say good morning to you, but I say good morning to everyone else, you know that I’m not saying good morning to you. And you can make up a story about that.

Melyssa Barrett: Yeah. Well, and it’s-

Helen Turnbull: It might be right or wrong, but-

Melyssa Barrett: And those are the things that stick with you, right? Those are those subtle acts of exclusion that people carry with them, and those become these triggers later.

Helen Turnbull: Yes, exactly.

Melyssa Barrett: When somebody asks you to do something it’s like, “He didn’t even say hello to me before, and now all of a sudden-“

Helen Turnbull: “Now you notice me, right?”

Melyssa Barrett: Exactly.

Helen Turnbull: “Now when you want something.” Yeah.

Melyssa Barrett: Exactly. 

Helen Turnbull: Yeah. So I don’t think affinity bias is ever going to go away, but I think we do have to, if we’re sincere about DNI, I think we do have to challenge our own tendency to shut people out, and ask ourselves, “What’s that about?”

Melyssa Barrett: Yeah. 

Helen Turnbull: So.

Melyssa Barrett: Yeah. And sometimes it does seem like it’s like, “I didn’t even notice that I did that,” so.

Helen Turnbull: Yeah, exactly. 

Melyssa Barrett: Yeah.

Helen Turnbull: And the second one is assimilation. And it’s a little bit more complicated, but I think of it as the other side of the coin from affinity biases. If I have an affinity for people who are like me, and then I bring in people who are different, diverse, then everybody who’s diverse is trying to figure out what they have to do to keep me comfortable. So what is it I need to do? “This is Helen’s style, what do I need to do to make sure that I keep Helen comfortable?” And so each one of us… And when white men do it too, but each one of us does something every day to fit into the organization, to adjust our style.

And Deloitte University did some excellent research. I think it was in 2013, where they interviewed over 3,000 people and asked them, “Do you bring your best self to work? Do you feel free to bring your best self to work?” I don’t have the numbers in my head, but it’s like 84% of people of color said, “No, we don’t bring our best selves to work, we don’t feel free, we’re covering up a part of ourselves.” And all the way down to I want to say 55% of white man, heterosexual white men also said, “I don’t bring my best authentic self to work.” So every one of us is doing something each day to make sure that I fit into the culture of the organization. But the real question is, what are we losing? And what kind of environment could we create, to allow people to bring their best and most authentic self? I do argue that people shouldn’t bring their whole selves to work, because I think there’s a piece of all of us we should just-

Melyssa Barrett: Leave at home, right?

Helen Turnbull: Leave at home, you leave it for the weekend.

Melyssa Barrett: Yeah.

Helen Turnbull: But I think that we could… It’s that inclusion gap that Gallup talked about, that we could close that if we began to figure out, “What am I doing as the leader of this team, Melyssa, to shut you down? What am I doing that doesn’t make you feel safe to tell me what’s really going on, or to give me your best ideas?” So I think assimilation, I have a client a number of years ago, an African American male, whom I was standing next to when he was talking to his CEO, white male. And he changed what he was about to say mid sentence because both of us could see the CEO getting uncomfortable with the conversation. And I asked him afterwards, “So how did that feel?” He said, “It didn’t feel good, Helen.” He said, “But I knew that he was getting uncomfortable, and I knew if I didn’t switch what I was saying, then we were going nowhere.” He said, “And you need to live to fight another day, right?”

And so all of us do that. But I think leaders need to, they need to take a look at this issue of, “What am I asking my employees to do?” It’s not okay to just say, “Well, Helen, listen, I’ve got diversity on my team.” I once said that to a senior manager, and he said to me, “My women are happy.” And I said, “Okay. How do you know? Have you asked them?” He said, “Well, no, but they’ve never complained.” And I said, “Well, you might want to ask, you might want to have a conversation about are they able to bring their best selves to the table?” So-

Melyssa Barrett: Yeah, that’s interesting.

Helen Turnbull: It’s complex. Yeah.

Melyssa Barrett: I know. I’ve heard people say, “Well, I have diversity. I have two black people on my team,” or whatever. And it’s kind of like, “Really, is that how we’re-“

Helen Turnbull: “Is that how we’re measuring this?” Right. Right.

Melyssa Barrett: So interesting. I think the other thing that you talk a lot about is the unconscious incompetency, and kind of the… And I’ve always thought about it as the journey to conscious inclusion, but you actually have kind of all these other components in here on the journey to I think it’s unconscious competence. 

Helen Turnbull: Competence. Yes. Yes. Yeah. Yeah.

Melyssa Barrett: So I was like, “Ooh, this is a tongue twister,” as I start to think-

Helen Turnbull: It is, yeah.

Melyssa Barrett: Because you do kind of start off with I think you said unconscious incompetence, and then you start to… You become aware. Like you and the airplane pilot, you at least noticed it, right? 

Helen Turnbull: Right. Right.

Melyssa Barrett: Because I think a lot of people just kind of go, just make the call and go.

Helen Turnbull: Just make the judgment and… Right, exactly.

Melyssa Barrett: Yeah.

Helen Turnbull: Yeah. Yeah.

Melyssa Barrett: And I’m a terrible flier, as much as I fly, I am a white-knuckler for sure. For me it’s like, I don’t care who’s flying the plane at all, I just don’t want to be up in the air to begin with.

Helen Turnbull: It doesn’t seem natural, right?

Melyssa Barrett: But I think it’s the journey to unconscious competence. 

Helen Turnbull: Competence, yeah.

Melyssa Barrett: Competence is a challenging one because there’s so many different dimensions that you get into with respect to your own beliefs and values and your environment and all of those things. 

Helen Turnbull: Absolutely. I mean, I think I used the example in my book about learning to play golf, for example, that I mean, I’ve been playing golf since I was 12 years of age. But when you first play golf, when you look at somebody playing golf, you think, “That’s easy.” But when you pick up that golf club and try to hit that tiny little ball, you discover it’s not so easy. So you go from an unconscious incompetence where you just don’t know, to suddenly you’re consciously incompetent. Because you’ve discovered, “I don’t know how to do this, this is harder than it looked.” And then if you’re willing to stay the course, then eventually, like Tiger Woods, becomes unconsciously competent, doesn’t have to think too much about how to hit that ball well.

And the same is true for how we work with the illusion of inclusion, and the complexity of inclusion is that it takes work for me to become unconsciously competent, that I really have to figure out what biases I’m bringing to the table, what assumptions I’m making, and what adjustments I’m willing to make, in order to be in relationship with people of difference before… And I also don’t think you ever can reach a point where you think, “Okay, I’ve graduated.”

Melyssa Barrett: Yeah, “I’m inclusive now,” right?

Helen Turnbull: Yeah, “I’ve got it. Yeah, stamp of approval.” I don’t think we ever reach that point. And a case in point for me, Melyssa, is the recent conversation about gender identity, and gender pronouns, et cetera. That is complicated for people who’ve never thought about it before. Forget the resistance that we’re hearing, I understand all of that, because that’s going to mirror the conversation about racism over the years, but it’s complicated. And if you’ve never had to think about what pronouns you’re willing to use and use other people’s preferred pronouns, and you’re like, “Well, hold on a minute, why should I?” And so now I go from that was never on my radar screen to feeling unconsciously… Or sorry, consciously incompetent.

Melyssa Barrett: Yeah. Well, and it’s so funny because I think you talk about a lot of companies sitting in the level three, which I think is like conscious incompetence.

Helen Turnbull: Yep.

Melyssa Barrett: Look, I’m trying, I’m testing my memory here. I think it’s interesting to me because I find that it’s almost like you go back and forth between, “Okay, I am now unconsciously competent about knowing something that I maybe didn’t know before.” But then you think you are consciously competent, and then you realize, “Well, maybe I don’t know as much as I thought I do,” right? Because-

Helen Turnbull: That’s right. That’s right.

Melyssa Barrett: There’s so many… And so you could literally, to me, I feel like you could go back and forth, and back and forth, and that whole journey to unconscious competence becomes a lot more evasive because it’s like, “Can I really get to the point where I just unconsciously am competent about so many different things?”

Helen Turnbull: “I don’t have to think about this anymore because I know I’m always going to say the right thing, or listen correctly.” That doesn’t happen. 

Melyssa Barrett: Yeah. 

Helen Turnbull: There’s so many variables in the story, and it’s always evolving. I mean, I think that takes me to, because I’m sure your listeners won’t love it if we don’t talk about the last two permeable forces.

Melyssa Barrett: Please.

Helen Turnbull: The third one is political correctness. And for me, when I started writing the book, I thought, “Oh, political correctness has gone too far because really what it’s doing is it’s causing us not to be honest with each other.” But I was writing the book in the 2015 timeframe, and I began to think, “Maybe it hasn’t gone too far, maybe we need a little bit more of it so that we can stop saying insulting things to each other.” And so I came to the conclusion to be honest with you, that being PC, as it’s currently defined, is not helpful because it does silence all of us. 

It doesn’t encourage us to have courageous conversations. It doesn’t encourage us to give each other grace in the relationship we build. So I redefined it to mean, polite consideration, that we really do have to be curious and polite and interested, if we’re genuinely wanting an inclusive environment. And if we’re genuinely wanting to be inclusive, we can’t have a closed mind, we have to be open to differences and to make space for each other. So, that’s the third one. 

And the last one is the issue of Claude Steele, who wrote a book called Whistling Vivaldi, where he talked about the idea of that African American young man who was a student of his walking down the street and noticing white people crossing the street to avoid him. And he decided that he was going to learn to whistle classical music. So he started whistling Vivaldi. And that’s the name of the book, whistling Vivaldi. And now he began to notice white people smiling at him, because classical music… Now this is the unconscious bias. Classical music seems recognizable, and less threatening, and so he noticed the difference.

And what Claude Steele was talking about is internalized oppression, is what are the negative messages that you get as a woman of color, I get as a woman, because that’s my subculture identity, that I take on and sabotage myself? So I don’t need men to tell me that I’m not as powerful as they are in whatever way, because I can tell myself that story. Imposter syndrome is a typical example as a woman thinking, “I know I’m really good at what I do, but if only they knew.” So we have this story in our head that we’re not as powerful as we think we are.

And so internalized oppression, I was with a colleague the other day there when he said, as a black male that he was giving more credence to what other people said about him, rather than the view he had of himself. And I think that that really is an accurate way to describe the damage that’s done by the dominant culture telling subcultures who we think you are. And then we take on that message and live down to it rather than up and beyond it.

Melyssa Barrett: Well, and a lot of times when we I think sometimes we make up our own stories, right? We constantly have that story of doubt in our mind. I think we were just talking about we are our own worst critics.

Helen Turnbull: Yes.

Melyssa Barrett: And yet there are so many things that we do right, and that we should be confident about. I mean, you mentioned the imposter syndrome. We talk about code switching a lot, and you mentioned an example of that. So it’s interesting to me that the way you go through the process that you also talk about, you kind of bring everybody through, and then you really go back to it starts with you-

Helen Turnbull: Exactly.

Melyssa Barrett: Being that inclusive change agent. Which I thought was just awesome because really, everybody at a company, no matter where you are, I mean, the company is made up of people, and we can only go as far as the people are allowing us to go. 

Helen Turnbull: Exactly.

Melyssa Barrett: And I think it’s awesome that when we start with the board or the CEO, we have to be able to drill down. But we do get to that frozen middle, and so that becomes a challenge to try to permeate whether you’re coming up the organization or going down? How do you start to permeate some of those challenges that exist within the middle?

Helen Turnbull: Yeah. And I think sometimes the frozen middle happens when the people at the top are not engaged enough in the messaging. So my earlier reference to it’s not okay for leaders to just say to HR, “Figure out what training we need, and here’s the budget.” That the leaders themselves have to be speaking authentically and with one voice, and so that they make it clear to the frozen middle that they’re sincere about wanting this kind of change, and not that this is an HR program that A, is being imposed on people and B, taken away from my real job. 

I mean, I make a strong case that diversity and inclusion is part of your real job, and that, that would close that inclusion gap that the Gallup poll talks about, and doing that work would improve your productivity and your employee engagement, your commitment, your employee turnover. And all of the things that you over here care about, if you would do this work well, you would have more engaged, more committed, more loyal, more productive employees. And so I think that it’s important to understand that DEI work is not separate, it’s part of what is your leadership mission. And when you have congruency in that, you have better results. 

Melyssa Barrett: Awesome. That’s such an awesome way to pull this to a close because I think it’s just such a wonderful opportunity to chat with you and to talk about all the things that you have been doing. I mean, since 1985, I’m sure you feel like, maybe we’ve come some distance, but we still have a long way to go.

Helen Turnbull: Yeah. Well, I kind of feel, Melyssa that we’ve taken a few steps back, obviously, in the last year or so. And at the same time, in the last 12 months, I’ve been doing a lot of webinars on Zoom for clients talking about how to become an ally. And so how do you partner with each other, across race, across differences, in order to become advocates and partners in creating a more inclusive workspace? I think it’s important to have these conversations to help people to understand what is not okay to say, as well as what is helpful to do, so.

Melyssa Barrett: Yeah.

Helen Turnbull: The work is not done.

Melyssa Barrett: No, you’re right, you’re right. And it’s not always… And to your point, it’s not black and white, sometimes it’s black and black, or white and white. Let’s talk to each other and make sure that we’re-

Helen Turnbull: Definitely.

Melyssa Barrett: We’re connecting. So I think that whole reframing process that you talk about is so important. So any final things you want to talk about with respect to diversity, equity and inclusion?

Helen Turnbull: Yeah, I think I would just close by saying, one of my favorite quotes is from Socrates who said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” But I would want people to think that their unchallenged brain is not worth trusting. And so that we really have to do the work of thinking, “What mental models do I have? What mind viruses if you like, am I carrying, that are stopping me from being willing to lean in and be more inclusive?” And so the work starts with you, and if you can do that work, then you can more authentically make a difference in your organizations.

Melyssa Barrett: That is awesome, the unchallenged brain, I love it, I love it, is not trusting. 

Helen Turnbull: Right. Is not worth trusting.

Melyssa Barrett: It’s not worth trusting. So, I think we all have to realize it’s not a bad thing to have that tension for you to really challenge yourself first, and then kind of challenge other people around you with your allyship.

Helen Turnbull: Yeah, so I wouldn’t say that I do this work with humility, that’s probably not true. But I do this work recognizing that there’s a lot more to learn. I was chairing a conference last year, and one of the senior white men, it was not a corporate conference, but one of the senior white men said, “I’d like to have the chat switched off.” And the chat had been a little bit interruptive the day before. We were on Zoom. And my response to him in part was just we were running 30 minutes behind, and I thought, “Oh, that might be helpful.” And I said to the technical people, “Can we do that?” And the woman said, “Yes. Yes, we can do that.” I said, “Okay, let’s do it.”

And an African American woman said, “Stop.” She said, “Right there, right there, that’s an example of privilege. White man says something, white woman agrees. Nobody else gets asked if it’s okay.” It was devastating in the moment. I was like, “Whoa, me? Are you kidding me, you just put me up? I’m supposed to know better.” And yeah, on reflection, I didn’t love that moment, if I’m honest, and I didn’t love because I tried to explain and she said, “I’m not interested in your intentions.” So I didn’t love the exchange that happened. But afterwards, what I got in touch with was as a white woman how much I hear white men’s voices as the voice of authority.

Melyssa Barrett: Hmm, yes.

Helen Turnbull: And I unconsciously responded to him saying, “Let’s do this.” And I suggest, “Okay, sir.” And without realizing in that moment that I wasn’t asking other people what they thought. So it’s very easy, and that’s why I believe if it lives in my body, Melyssa, it lives in yours, and it lives in everyone else’s who’s listening to us today. And that’s why we have to do the work, and be honest with ourselves. It’s not all fun. 

Melyssa Barrett: Yeah, no. That’s for sure.

Helen Turnbull: Sometimes we trip over it.

Melyssa Barrett: Yeah, we all trip over it, right? So we can always be better and learn better. And once you know better, you do better. 

Helen Turnbull: You do better. Right, exactly. Exactly. 

Melyssa Barrett: Well, thank you so much, Dr. Helen Turnbull, for participating in this wonderful conversation. Keep doing the fabulous work that you’re doing and I just am so privileged that we were able to connect through another workshop so that I could get to know you. So hopefully we will continue to stay in touch. And I thank you for all of your work in the space.

Helen Turnbull: Thank you, Melyssa. It was a pleasure. I enjoyed our conversation.

Melyssa Barrett: Thanks for joining me on the Jali Podcast. Please subscribe so you won’t miss an episode. See you next week. 

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