Regardless of if you're speaking in a classroom or a boardroom, if you're pitching or presenting, each of us has important stories to tell, input to give and messages to share without communication from multiple perspectives, we miss out on valuable needed ideas and insight on this episode. I am so excited to discuss how we can all encourage support and reinforce diverse, equitable communication. I'm Matt Abrahams and I teach Strategic Communication at Stanford Graduate School of Business. Welcome to Think Fast.
Talk Smart, the podcast. Today I am thrilled to be joined by Sarah Sewell, the mortgage professor of Organizational Behavior and Senior Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at the GSB. Sarah's research focuses on organizational theory, social movements and political sociology. She is a thought leader and driver for diversity, equity and inclusion work at Stanford and beyond. I have had the pleasure of working with Sarah on several different projects, and I have seen firsthand her passionate, collaborative and creative approach to teaching and managing.
Welcome, Sarah. Thank you, Matt, and thanks for having me to be part of the podcast.
It's great to have you here. And I have so many different topics I want to discuss with you. I can't wait to get started, shall we? Absolutely. Great. Now, many of us listening work in organizations that are in various stages of implementing DTI programs. Based on your experience, what ideas can you share about how best to implement, assess and reinforce those DGI programs? That's a great question. So here at the GSB, we developed and followed what we call a small wins approach.
And this basically involves empowering people in the organization to develop and pilot innovations in the DNI space and then to figure out good ways, solid ways to test how they're working and to measure their impact. But then importantly, to tell the story about how they have worked so that any of these that have been successful can be shared widely and diffused within the organization, but also to other organizations. And so we based this approach on an article I wrote a couple of years ago for the Harvard Business Review on how to do organizational cultural change.
And we also based this in some work that my colleague, Professor Shelly Carroll, has done that's been more specifically about organizational change, around diversity, equity and inclusion efforts. So we found that this approach worked really well here at the GSB. One of the things that we continue to work on and iterate is what you've asked about assessing these programs. Right. Coming up, with the new ways to measure outcomes, new and clever ways to measure outcomes, because that, of course, is incredibly important to the DNI agenda.
You have been involved in a case writing project that has identified biases in cases used in business school classes. What did you uncover and what does your work imply for the language use in our everyday business communication? And so what we know and as as faculty of business school and students and business school, we've long known that there are many, many fewer case studies written on women and underrepresented minority leaders. In fact, the dearth of such cases has been documented over the years in many articles and in various venues, including the Harvard Business Review.
And and some of us have actively tried to rectify this in our own case, writing activities. But that said, it has always bothered me personally that some of the women and underrepresented minority protagonists in cases are described in stereotypical ways.
So, for example, women leaders are often described in these case studies as nurturing to their employees while their male counterparts are described in more agentic terms and lauded for their vision. So this always led me to wonder what kind of signals are being sent to our students about what leadership is and how leadership matters across genders and across race and ethnic categories. So what we wanted to think about was what what way does language used in these case studies reinforce any kinds of existing stereotypes and biases?
And so that was really the impetus for the case study project, which involved reading each case that's used in our core and elective classes and looking carefully at the descriptions of the protagonists in each case. And when we found stereotypical language, we notified the faculty member using the case study and we've offered to help rewrite the case study if it's one that the Stanford Graduate School of Business owns. Now, in cases which we can't rewrite because they are cases written by other case writing entities, we offer support to the faculty member on how to teach about ways in which.
Unconscious biases might be reinforced through language, so in other words, what we do is we offer to help faculty create teachable moments around bias as part of whatever their lesson plan is for that day with that particular case study. Wow.
That's it's amazing how insidious some of these things are. And this work that you've done has really helped to uncover it. I can imagine a business leader, a manager reflecting on his or her use of language, maybe in the way they introduce some of their colleagues or the way they structure their job descriptions. They, too, could benefit from really doing the kind of thorough work that you did. Do you have any advice or guidance to somebody in that position about what they could do to try to mitigate some of the things you uncovered in business cases?
Oh, absolutely. And a lot of this comes out in various kinds of communications, like written performance evaluations or even in speeches and all hands meetings and so on. And so what I always sort of suggest is that people, once they've written out whatever their communication is going to be, is pause, go back and look at it and do so with a DNI lens. Look at it and ask yourself, are you giving feedback to your women employees? That is different in tone.
Are you using different kinds of ways to describe them then then you might for a similarly ranked man in the organization. So that's one example in performance evaluations. But in terms of communications, such as those that we might hear at an all hands meeting, I suggest that leaders have somebody look at their communication plan, look at the speech and make sure that that there isn't any language in there that might reinforce biases inadvertently.
That's really good advice. And I don't know if you remember this interaction you and I had when we were working on a project together. I had put together a proposed agenda and project plan and I sent it to you and I said, here's a straw man for what I think we could do. And being totally unaware of the gendered term that I was using. And you very kindly, very politely pointed out to me that that term could have some implications.
And I have been very cognizant using that term in others. So I thank you for highlighting that. And I think that's a great example of how just pointing out to people and really taking time to reflect on on language that we might not think as gender that can actually have some implications. So a belated thank you for the education you gave me. Well, you're you're very welcome.
Now, you also had mentioned earlier this notion of microaggression. So I'm wondering if you can share a little bit about what micro aggressions are since you co-authored a paper on that topic. And can you share with us the model that you helped develop to address the problem? Well, absolutely. So when we think about micro aggressions and try to define what this term means this week, we sort of define a microaggression as a commonplace daily verbal or behavioral incident, whether intentional or unintentional, that somehow communicates hostile, derogatory or negative information to a woman or an underrepresented minority.
And I think the key to understanding these is to realize that they're incredibly commonplace, often completely unintentional. But the cumulative impact or effect that they can have on an individual is where that the problem really lies. And again, it's because they're so commonplace. And so in the article to which you're referring, we suggest a three part framework for how to become better at recognizing and responding to micro aggressions. And we call this the anticipate, acknowledge and act authentically framework.
And so we suggest first that all of us must become better at anticipating when and where a microaggression may happen. And this involves being aware of what's happening in the broader local, national, international context and increasing one's learning about other groups and learning about what kinds of comments and behaviors may inadvertently offend somebody. I guess many ways anticipation is about prevention. Mm hmm. Second, we discuss the importance of acknowledging one of microaggression happens. Perhaps we notice when someone has made a remark that might reasonably be considered to be a microaggression, but rather than doing something about it, we look the other way to avoid the discomfort.
So we argue in the article that stepping up and acknowledging the presence of micro aggressions and working on ways to intervene are really a collective responsibility in an organization or at a college or university. Mm hmm. And then finally, we provide some ideas in the article about how to act authentically in the moment when we're either on the receiving end of a microaggression or if we witness one. And the idea here is really that. Everybody needs to figure out a response that feels right for their own style, personality and way of expressing themselves.
And so in the article, we give some examples and we we suggest that people try on these different ways of intervening and see which one feels right for them and recognize that this is a process and a practice and that we get better at it with more practice.
That model is very easy to understand. I personally like it because it's they all start with the letter A.. I'm a big fan of alliteration and I like that. It really is putting the responsibility on the organization and the individuals involved to really step up to address this. Could you give us an example that you talked about in the article regarding how what people can say when confronted with a microaggression you said there are many and everybody has to find what fits.
There's I'd love to hear a specific example.
Sure, sure. I'll give one that I have found seems to work for me. And and that is simply asking a follow up question, a curious sort of follow up question about what was said either to me or said to a colleague or a friend and asking somebody to say, could you say a little bit more about what you meant by that? I'm not sure I understood what you meant or where you're coming from, because often, in my experience, that allows the person who has probably unintentionally or inadvertently said something that was could be offensive to somebody to to understand themselves, to get to that point themselves, rather than being, you know, having me point out why it might have been offensive.
So that one works for me. Other people talk about just simply saying, may I give you some feedback right now about what you just said?
Now, that one for me feels a little less less less comfortable than the first one that I mentioned. So that's what I mean, trying these out, seeing which ones seem to work best for your own style is what we really suggest in that article. Thank you for those specific examples. Each is different in terms of its directness and tone. But but absolutely, I can see some people who would gravitate towards one versus the other. So thank you for that.
You're welcome. Another area of your research and you do so many different things has focused on protests and social movements. I have to ask, what are your thoughts on the various protests that we've seen over the last several months?
Oh, it's such a good question. And I have I have a lot of thoughts, but I'm going to try to be I'm going to try to be concise.
I've written a few various blog posts and so on on these. But I'm going to be concise and I'm going to say that now in this moment, reflecting on the last several months, I'm finding great hope in this protest wave. And I think that my hope really lies in the awakening and reawakening in so many citizens of a curiosity to learn about race and racism and to engage more deeply in allies and anti-racism. And, you know, my research has also shown that protests can change public opinion and can also have profound effects on electoral outcomes.
So I'm also optimistic that the outcomes of these protests may be a restoration of democracy in the United States and lead to a brighter future for all.
I, I really hope your perspective is what turns out to be the case. It's absolutely a critical moment in our history. And these protests have the potential, as you said, to have some really good lasting effects now. So I can't end our conversation without celebrating your work from home creativity. You became a bit of an academic celebrity for your innovative use of your refrigerator. Can you share with us how you've used your kitchen appliances to help your students learn and perhaps share other tricks you've come up with to engage people while remotely communicating?
Yes, absolutely. That was such a funny picture picture that was captured by my son, who is home from college, sheltering in place and distance learning. Yes. And I was struggling one day trying to figure out an effective digital whiteboard when it suddenly occurred to me that our old school fridge in the kitchen might do the trick. And so I tested out a little tiny, tiny spot with a dry erase marker on the refrigerator. And it worked like a charm.
And, you know, just in general, I think we are all getting better at engaging others in our new remote way of working. One of the insights that I have is that people are feeling cognitively overloaded right now. Yes. So as educators, I think we have to find ways to reduce cognitive overload. So, for example, I now offer my information and much smaller pieces interspersed with breakout groups or asynchronous work and shared documents. That's one of.
The tricks that I've been experimenting with, I've also been working to make my slides more visually appealing and much less cluttered. And this is where I've had the opportunity to watch you teach frequently on slide design. And this has been very helpful to me.
Well, thank you. Yes.
And so I'm also using music and video in my lectures now to offer some variation in sound and visuals. And then finally, because of my sense of humor, I've been known to show up using camera filters with the ad silly hats and accessories just to bring a little bit of levity to my lectures and make people laugh.
OK, I got to know, what's your favorite filter so far? There's some really great ones in SNAP and the one that I particularly like is putting a cat on my head.
I can I can see that in my mind's eye for sure. So really, what it boils down to is, is respecting the fact that people have cognitive overload in this virtual world that we're in and really trying to come up with a variety of different ways of communicating and allowing people to interact just to keep them engaged and to to avoid that fatigue. And if you have to use your refrigerator and toaster, it sounds like. Absolutely. So before we end, Sara, I'd like to ask you the same three questions that I ask everyone who joins me.
Are you up for answering these? Absolutely that great. If you were to capture the best communication advice you've ever received as a five to seven word presentation slide title, what would it be? Are you ready for this man? I'm ready. What? So what? Now what? I've heard that before.
Tell me why one of my my dear friends and a communication guru who taught me this framework and talked to me about how this could be used in a slide presentation. It could be used in a town hall speech and it could be used even in an email communication. And having communicated with you by email on many occasions. I noticed you do this and I have been trying to take this into all of my communications. What? So what now what? Well, thank you for the plug and I'm glad that that was advice that has been useful to you.
It's very useful to me and others have said that that structure is helpful. So thank you. And a reminder to everybody, structured messages are messages that are much more easily digested and received. So thank you. So let me ask you, question number two, who is a communicator that you admire and why Lin Manuel Miranda. And this is because through his words and Hamilton, he simultaneously ignited a desire to learn about the history of this country and he ignited a passion to fight for freedom and democracy.
And importantly, he did so in such a clever, joyful and playful way. That's why I admire him so much. He's an amazing personality.
And I just have to share a quick story. I heard an interview with him in in Hamilton. For all of those who have heard it, the rapping the singing in some cases is so fast that he would actually have to think about the consonant blends, the certain letters to allow somebody in their breathing to say these things so fast. And what if somebody is fascinated by communication? I was amazed to take it down not to the word, but to the consonant to figure out how to say it the most effective way.
He is truly a genius and an excellent communicator. Question number three, what are the three first ingredients that you would add to a successful communication recipe?
Yes. First, know your audience. Mm hmm. Second, keep it simple. And third, make them feel an emotion.
Yes. So we the first of yours, we have talked about many times about knowing your audience share with me about the emotion piece. That's that's really powerful.
Yes, I I take this from some of the things that my colleague, Professor Jennifer Crocker, has shared with me when she talks about the importance of story. And she often tells a story about how she realized early on in her career as an educator, as a professor, that her students didn't really remember much of the content of what she taught them, but they remembered how they felt. So I've been consciously trying to make sure that there's some emotion baked into my communications.
I think that's so important. And in fact, Jennifer was on the podcast talking about her new research into humor. And we did touch on on the notion of emotion and humor and storytelling. So that's a great reminder. Thank you, Sarah. I knew this would be educational and entertaining. I also knew that you'd have tons of valuable thoughts and ideas on how we can work to ensure more voices are heard. Each of us has a critical role to play in fostering.
Equity and inclusion in our workplaces and beyond. Oh, and by the way, I can't wait to see how you use your microwave to expedite your students learning. Thanks so much. Thanks for joining us for another episode of Think Fast, Talk Smart, the podcast produced by Stanford University's Graduate School of Business. For more information and episodes, visit GSB, Dot, Stanford, EDU, or subscribe to our show wherever you get your podcasts. Finally, find us on social media at Stanford GSB.