Season 1 Episode 9: Organizational Culture, Diversity & Inclusion – A Conversation with Veritas Culture

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Chris Armstrong and Vince Brantley are the Co-Owners of Veritas Culture (www.veritasculture.com) and highly sought-after consultants, facilitators, speakers, and coaches in the areas of organizational culture and diversity and inclusion (https://www.linkedin.com/in/cultureexecutive. Their upcoming book, Unmasking the Culture Culprit, will be released March 2020!

TRANSCRIPT OF EPISODE

Maria Morukian:

Welcome to the Culture Stew podcast. I’m your host Maria Morukian. People are not one-dimensional. Our identity is made up of a combination of events, big and small, that shape our views, values, and perspectives. Join me as I explore ways to build thriving teams, organizations, and communities through the lens of identity and culture.

Happy New Year, everyone. It’s not only the new year but a whole new decade. So, does that mean we have to commit to ten times as many resolutions to be a better us? I took some time off in December and my family and I spent the holidays with my grandmother who just turned 103 years old. This lady is still living on her own albeit with a little help from some neighbors and a walker. She still bakes her own bread and is a super competitive card player. Nobody can beat her. Even with her walker, my grandma insists on getting up every 15 minutes to take a lap around the house so she can get her exercise in. That woman clocked more steps than I did on that trip, let me tell you. We had some time to talk together and I asked her, “Grandma, what is your secret?” She said, “Well, I eat bacon for breakfast every morning.” I said, “Grandma, if you sell a book saying the secret to longevity is fried pork every morning, you will be a millionaire.” She added, “Oh, and I don’t let stuff worry me.”

Aha! And it’s not just that Grandma doesn’t worry about things. It’s more that she is ever in the present moment. She doesn’t spend much time ruminating about what’s happened in the past or what could have been. She doesn’t stress about the future. She just puts one foot in front of the other every day and lives in the now. I know some people hate New Year’s resolutions but I am a fan of them. It’s nice to have a reminder to live with some intention and to try to be my best, to shed habits that don’t contribute to a healthy, fulfilling life. So, my pledge for 2020 is to live like my grandmother—in the now. I am going to strive to leave behind whatever mistakes I made yesterday of which there are plenty and stop the spin cycle in my brain that is constantly feeding my stress about what is coming in the future, what I ought to be doing, what I shouldn’t be doing. I’m going to follow my kids’ advice when they say, “Mommy, maybe you need to take some deep breaths.”

As a fan of all things Broadway, I love the musical Rent, 525,600 minutes. That’s a lot of chances to practice being in the moment. I’ll keep you posted on how I do. So, as my first guest in 2020, I had the pleasure of interviewing Chris Armstrong and Vince Brantley who are the co-owners of Veritas Culture. They are highly sought-after consultants, facilitators, speakers, and coaches, focusing on organizational culture and diversity and inclusion. Vince and Chris are both former culture executives for large federal agencies. Over the past nine years, their combined culture facilitation and assessment experience has amounted to thousands of culture sessions across more than 170 public and private institutions. They have facilitated conversations on some high-profile culture challenges including the Charlottesville race riots and the Pulse Nightclub shootings. Both are diversity executives through the Institute of Diversity Certification and master facilitators.

Chris and Vince also have an upcoming book. It’s called Unmasking the Culture Culprit and it will be released in March of this year. I loved the energy they brought to our conversation. As we drove in the issues like the notion of toxic work cultures, we talked about how diversity and inclusion is integral to creating a thriving organizational culture. We also discussed how we as facilitators and practitioners have to manage challenging conversations that often come with this work, not only managing the emotions of others but also looking into ourselves and recognizing when we might be losing our ability to stay neutral. Vince and Chris also shared some insights from their upcoming book, highlighting some of the common root causes that they see within organizational culture that can create challenges and their philosophy and approach to fostering sustainable culture change. I hope you enjoy my interview with Chris and Vince.

[START OF INTERVIEW]

Maria Morukian:

What were some of the key messages that you received early in life that have had a profound impact on your identity? How you see the world, your core values, anything that comes to mind.

Chris Armstrong:

I would say just one of the first ones is that the truth isn’t always somewhere in the middle. So, there’s a cliché phrase, the truth is always somewhere in the, middle which doesn’t really ask for a lot of exploration. You’re just supposed to look at that and presume oh, okay, well, they’re probably part right and they’re probably part right or well, it happened because this person did this and this person did that. And I actually heard different messages which is it’s not always in the middle and it sort of forces you or at least gauges you to explore a little more to want to sort of look deeper as opposed to just presuming that the picture is what it seems to be is I would say one of them.

Maria Morukian:

How about you, Vince?

Vince Brantley:

Yeah. As you asked the question, I was thinking about my mom and dad and my dad used to always say do the right thing which then the search began as to what right was. So, I think I spent a lot of time trying to figure that out even very young, the right perspective, the right direction, the right way to go. My mom used to say people will either bring you up or down; there’s no in-between. And so, that really started me out being very careful about who I associated with and even when I’m trying to help people who might be in need of help, I make sure that I have people who are also in my court that can help me at the same time. So, keeping that unique balance, understanding that you have to—if you’re trying to help somebody up, you got to bend down to do it so you’ve never at your best. Yeah, those are two things I think that just immediately came to mind.

Maria Morukian:

Chris and Vince shared a bit about the founding of Veritas. They were each serving as executives in the federal government, specializing in organizational culture work. After serving together on several panels, they realized that they had a common philosophy and both wanted to be able to focus full-time on their unique approach to organizational culture change.

Chris Armstrong:

One of the first things I noticed about Vince was when the questions would get asked and we were expected as panel members to respond, first thing he did was ask the audience because if there’s a truth particularly about culture the audience knows it. They’re the collective. We’re not the collective. But what he was also able to do and I think where we really sort of saw eye-to-eye was as people give their thoughts and feelings, our job is to figure out—and I think to answer your question—like what we found in terms of things that really hit home for us is don’t just respond to what they said; respond to how they say it, respond to where they’re coming from, respond to why they said this and not that. If somebody said one thing, respond to why somebody else didn’t reply. So, it was never about Vince. It was never about the panel or the place. It was more about the people who made up the audience.

Vince Brantley:

The only thing I’d add to that is during that session what I found we had in common that a lot of the other panelists didn’t was we were truly seeking an understanding of what was being asked, listening to understand as opposed to listening to respond. So, you’d hear panelists respond to a question and it had nothing to do with the question. It was just like well, this is a great opportunity for me to tell this story and educate you a little bit on where I think you should be going but I don’t even know what your challenges are. And so, whenever Chris would respond, he’d always respond in a manner that included the question and included the person asking the question.

Maria Morukian:

I’m curious to know since you are focusing on organizational culture and change, how do you define organizational culture?

Vince Brantley:

So, whenever we step into a new group and we’re about to have a discussion about culture, we always ask that question first and there will be some answers that will help to define what culture isn’t but for the most part, people get it. They’ll say things like culture is our behaviors, it’s the way we do things, it’s the way we feel and all of those answers are true. We boil it down simply to collective regard and social norms. Collective regard being how we feel about what we do not necessarily what we do. It’s not my profession, it’s not my expertise. It’s how I feel about doing those things on a day-to-day basis. It’s not my position; it’s how I feel in that position collectively. Social norms being those things that we accept, that we reject, that we protect, that we accept, that we expect. And I always use the illustration that in some organizations, if you step on an elevator and you don’t say good morning, the people on that elevator will look and think what’s wrong, what’s wrong with them, what’s wrong with you. Why didn’t you say good morning? There are other organizations in which if you step on it and you say good morning, they’ll look at you and go what’s wrong with you, what’s the problem.

Maria Morukian:

Why are you talking to me?

Vince Brantley:

Why are you speaking right now?

Maria Morukian:

Why are you making eye contact?

Vince Brantley:

Right. Those are social norms.

Maria Morukian:

Yeah.

Vince Brantley:

And you’d be surprised how quickly people will identify and assume those norms, not even recognizing what they lost in the process. And then when they start to feel that grind of discontent and they’re wondering what’s missing here, it’s a part of themselves that they left at the door.

Maria Morukian:

Yeah, without even realizing it.

Vince Brantley:

Without even realizing, yeah.

Maria Morukian:

Yeah, yeah.

Chris Armstrong:

And it gets to like when people say we need to create a culture. Culture’s already there. Or when someone says well, I haven’t been here long enough to give my assessment of the culture. It takes you an hour to assess whether you feel good wherever you are. Your first day on the job you will know within an hour does something feel right or does something feel wrong. You won’t know the entire all-encompassing sort of aspects but you will know what it feels like because we’re and the connection is real.

Maria Morukian:

Chris, Vince, and I had a great discussion around the concept of toxic work cultures. We hear this term thrown around a lot in organizations and teams and I’m always curious to hear how people define what it means when they say they have a toxic culture. Vince and Chris have had some experience in this realm and they said toxic cultures are not as rampant as we are made to think. More often than not, there are toxic individuals or toxic behaviors that are contributing to a negative response within the culture.

Chris Armstrong:

So, Vince brought up earlier that when we get in front of groups, the first thing we do is we ask them how do you describe culture. So, before we assess your culture, let’s make sure we’re all on the same page. So, when people start saying things like our normal behaviors, our values, how we interact, they’re accurate but the key there is we. So, then we’ll say how would you describe your culture? They’ll say well, it’s toxic. Okay. And remember we’re just doing playback questions. So, is the we toxic? Are your behaviors toxic? Are your attitudes toxic? Are your norms toxic? Well, no. so, what is toxic? And they’ll articulate what is accurate which is there’s toxic people in their organization. But we use this thing called institutional distrust to extrapolate and presume that precedent presumes pattern. So, because there’s been a toxic person or because there’s a few toxic people or because there was just a bad decision—there’s bad decisions—that must mean there’s a toxic culture. But a culture is the collective which it is, every definition. If it’s social norms, how we behave, how we interact, unless the we is toxic which it’s almost never, then the culture is not going to be toxic. And we’ve done 170 or so assessments and three of them have yelled out toxic cultures.

Maria Morukian:

So, what has set those three apart?

Vince Brantley:

The most recent one, once you—

Chris Armstrong:

I think one of the very common denominators is that the majority of the collective has actually given in to that toxicity and the most recent of which, it’s not that they were—they had assumed the belief that these things would never change and so by doing that, they were actually continuing the legacy of toxicity by allowing it, by enabling it. So, there’s an element of peer accountability that is either present or not and once you accept this is the way it is and you fall into complacency, you actually become a part of the problem.

Vince Brantley:

And the negativeness too.

Chris Armstrong:

Then you shoot down any potential solutions.

Maria Morukian:

Yeah. And when new, open focus/mindsets appear, they get shut down, punished, right, and eventually they leave.

Vince Brantley:

Yeah, we used to do these kind of like indoctrinations where we’d get all the new people and this is a very huge agency, they’d come in. They did a monthly, yeah, twice a month and there’d be at least a hundred people in the room who were just in, new. But they’d been in the organization anywhere from two days to two years in some cases. They just hadn’t had an opportunity to go into it yet. And every once in a while, you’d get someone who’d stand up and say something like I really enjoy this place. I’ve been here for three months and it’s just been amazing. The people have been so good. I’ve never been in such a community of excellence and you’ll have a senior person who will stand up and go yeah, you obviously haven’t been here long enough. Right? And so, that hurts on multiple levels. One, who’s going to speak against that senior? Two, who has the seniority to challenge their perspective? And so, not only do you clip the wings of the individual who got up to say something that many people might have agreed to given the opportunity but everyone else who’s listening is also impacted and now they begin to looking for confirmation of that bias.

Maria Morukian:

Right, yeah. The ripple effect especially when you have people in power who are either the toxic individuals or just cynical. Yeah.

Vince Brantley:

Yeah, they influence culture.

Chris Armstrong:

We always say leaders don’t define culture because they don’t but they influence it. Oh my goodness.

Maria Morukian:

Yeah. So, one of the aspects that I find really interesting is in your approach you focus on organizational culture and diversity/equity inclusion is an integral element to that. So, tell me a little bit about what brought those components together for you or why is diversity and inclusion and equity such a core element to developing successful organizational cultures?

Chris Armstrong:

So, particularly in this day and age and this is a great thing by the way, so culture being collective regard as Vince already started particularly in this day and age, the collective expects diversity. They grew up with diversity. It’s part of their DNA. They feel—Vince talks a lot about fairness—they feel injustice. They feel inequity even if it’s not happening to them. So, what’s happening is that expectation which to me is a great expectation is colliding with the old-school mentality of give me a business case which, of course, begs the question did you need a business case to hire your workforce in the current composition in which it exists. The answer is no, of course, because you were comfortable with them. But if you’re going to improve collective regard, you have to be able to bring the collective together and in this day and age more than any other, the collective is not happy unless there’s fairness and equity, unless everyone feels like they can bring their authentic self to the workplace.

Vince Brantley:

Yeah. Diversity is counting all the votes. Equity would be making sure they all count. And so, how do you get collective regard when we are regarded as a collective? And it’s that feeling that makes diversity inclusion and equity almost inseparable from any culture effort you’re going to have, it’s going to involve that. If it’s not the issue, it can be the obstacle to you uncovering the issue because you won’t get there unless you can get the collective to speak out and they won’t do it if they don’t feel like their voice is valued.

Maria Morukian:

Yeah, absolutely. Well, and going back to that question about talent, right, maximizing, whatever word we want to use but leveraging the immense talent that we have in our organizations, people all are looking for that balance between having a sense of belonging and connection to the organizational culture. I want to feel like I fit here. I understand I can play by the rules and those rules feel good to who I am. And I want to be seen for my unique characteristics and talents, right? It’s that optimal distinctiveness theory and if you don’t have that, how do you have a thriving culture? So, I mean the diversity and inclusion case is so clear when you think about creating an effective, high-performing organization and yet it does seem like sometimes we are banging our heads against the wall up against that prove to me that this is important. Yeah.

Vince Brantley:

It’s old-school versus new-school because there was a time when it was thought not to be important. Just do your job. If you just do your job, it’ll all work out. Just focus on the mission. What do we need to focus on culture for? The mission is our culture. If we do our job, then everything will be fine and that’s what you’ll feel your validation because you’ve done a job.

Maria Morukian:

Yeah, yeah.

Vince Brantley:

Right. But did you see me when I did it? Did you recognize how I did it? Do I feel that I was seen? All those things make a difference.

Maria Morukian:

I asked Vince and Chris to give me an example of their approach to organizational culture change that is successful and sustainable. Here’s what they shared.

Vince Brantley:

So, through a culture session, you might walk into a situation and this was the case in this particular example where everyone’s pointing at one particular leader and saying this is the problem. Right? To include the entire executive staff, one person is the problem. And so, you listen to understand. Tell me all about this. Tell me about—okay, all right. And then who told you that? How did you know it? And then where did you see it? And then once you start figuring out and what they’re able to see themselves is I’m the one that’s sending the negative message because what he’s given me is a direction that I didn’t agree with. And so, I tried to push back but because he didn’t change, then what I decided to do is I started to alter his message. So, he said everyone needs to be in at noon and instead of me saying be in at noon, I said well, we got to come at noon because of what he said and I have no idea what that’s all about. It’s ridiculous. Right? And so, these layers—so, I guess to summarize that, it’s like people know what they feel but they don’t really recognize it instantly as who they are and how their actions actually contribute to the entire situation. And once they get that awareness, then they start not just pointing the finger but they start thinking about what could I do differently. And you can see it. You can see it in their eyes. They’re like yeah, I owe it to my workforce to be better because while I’m pointing up at one person, if I’m the senior executive and I’m pointing at one person, everybody else is pointing at me. They’ve never seen the senior executive. They only see me and then those senior leaders and then those subordinate leaders, they’re all doing the same thing, all through the chain. For this to be that type of collective despair, so many people have decided there’s nothing we can do.

Maria Morukian:

Yeah, yeah.

Chris Armstrong:

And so, you take those two things, you do an assessment and then the most important part is retrain the collective. So, where we’ve seen culture change, the Nirvana is you do the data review, you do the culture sessions which are more meaningful, you put together the assessment but then you train a subsection of the collective to do exactly what we did. And in fact, when we’re doing the culture sessions, one of the best things that happens is them coming up to us and saying how do we get involved, how do we do this and we’ll say I’m glad you asked because we don’t intend to stay long. Part of our philosophy is get in and get out. If we have to be there year after year, we’re not really helping them because if you can improve collective regard, you have to invite the collective. So, train them to do culture facilitation, train them to get to root issues, train them to—

Vince Brantley:

To listen to understand.

Chris Armstrong:

Listen to understand which is the most important and to be able to deal with issues as they happen as opposed to letting them fester. But that’s the most important. And then what you end up having is them briefing the assessment to their peers, not us. We might be in the back room just sort of because they’ll ask us can you observe us while we’re practicing. Let them do it and then we watch from afar.

Maria Morukian:

I think that’s so important because one of the biggest frustrations I have is sustainability of these initiatives. And how have you seen success in terms of once you’ve shared the knowledge and the skills and given them the opportunity to facilitate the change themselves, when you hear back from them a year later, two years later, however long, what has been the secret sauce that has kept the momentum going? Because a lot of times what I see and I don’t know if you’ve experienced this is we do all the good practices, we train the folks, you have these people who have the excitement and the knowledge and then six months to a year later, we revisit and it’s kind of just fallen by the wayside. So, what have you found to be the way to kind of keep that momentum going while still maintaining distance?

Vince Brantley:

You have to involve the collective. It can’t be a chosen few. It’s either tiger teams that solution where it’s like we’re going to get these Jedi experts together and you guys can get the Lean Six Sigma, you get the bells and whistles and the chevron and you go out and create the change. But those people get tired and they move on and they get promoted and they move on. And then what did they change? Right? But when you get the collective involved, you’re resetting their expectations, you’re resetting what they accept, you’re resetting what they expect. And so, it’s harder to remove it. You just can’t. You can’t just fall back. We’ve had directors go in and out, in and out and they fall right onto this change. And who’s going to take that away? You were just in the space of I don’t want to give this service because I don’t want to give them any problems. But a particular senior officer inherited an office space where he had a back entrance. It was just his entrance. Right? So, he’s the only person who could go up the stairwell. Right?

Maria Morukian:

Well, that’s a very clear message that’s being sent to everybody else.

Vince Brantley:

Right. And heaven help you if you end up coming up there. What are you doing? Right? And then one guy comes in and he says this is ridiculous. Why is this entire doorway and stairwell just for me? Change it. Now who’s going to come back and reset that?

Chris Armstrong:

We’re talking three-star level.

Vince Brantley:

Once everyone—it’s like wow. You know? Yeah. You know? What new admiral or three-star level, who’s going to come in and then say you know what? Let’s take that back. That’s a very difficult thing to do once you get the collective.

Maria Morukian:

Yes. And if they do, there is major fallout.

Vince Brantley:

Oh, yeah. Then we all know who you are.

Maria Morukian:

Yeah, yeah. Exactly. I remember once I was at the State Department and it was my first week on the job. This is such a great example of the unspoken rules, the organizational culture, and what happens when nobody clues the new person in to the rules. So, my director had asked me to come to the senior staff meeting to be introduced to the leadership. And so, I came and I got there early because I was excited. And so, I sat down at the table and other people filtered. They kind of would look at me, smile, say hello, good morning, sit down. Nobody said anything else to me. The senior person who was running the meeting comes in, an ambassador comes up behind me and says you’re in my seat. I just cringed and walked away and I sat in the back of the room. But one, it was the message that oh, this person has their seat because they are the senior most member. But it was also looking around to all of the other people around the table and thinking none of you told me.

Vince Brantley:

That’s right.

Maria Morukian:

So, what message does that send to me about who I can trust to look out for my best interests and the fact that not one person clued me in. so, there were just multiple factors but it was really interesting as an organizational culture person sitting back and saying well, isn’t this fascinating from an anthropological perspective that you all threw me under the bus but also that this rule, this unwritten rule, exists because I don’t see your name on this chair and how refreshing it was when this person left and a new dean came in. And I remember coming in for a senior meeting and saying which one is your seat? I don’t want to sit in and he was like I don’t care. You can sit wherever you want to sit. You sit at the head of the table if you want. I was like thank you. But so interesting, right, these tiny little elements to culture that can have such a profound impact on who feels included, who feels valued, who has power. It’s just really fascinating how we sometimes expect that well, that’s just the way things are and it gets perpetuated.

Chris Armstrong:

And it gets to what Vince says about inviting the collective. A lot of what we hear unfortunately from people is an assumption that the collective is only senior people or the select few and one of our big things is if you don’t have the junior workforce as part of the collective, you’re doing something wrong and if you’re not inviting the naysayers, you’re doing something wrong.

Maria Morukian:

Yes!

Chris Armstrong:

This whole thing about well, we need the right people. You do need the right people but the right people aren’t people who agree with you. The right people aren’t just people at certain grades. And the only other thing I would add is the reason these efforts don’t work, people don’t focus on red issues. They focus on things like poor communication, poor leadership, limited resources. None of those are root issues. They’re all symptoms. And if you want proof, look at the fact that they pop up year after year regardless of how many town halls and emails and SharePoint sites and new leaders and new policies and new structures.

Maria Morukian:

Yeah. Are there themes to core issues, the root issues that you’ve seen crop up across organizations?

Chris Armstrong:

So, themes like everything changes except the complaints. So, again constant restructure, constant policy changes and yet the complaints remain. Best interests of the organization versus best interests of the individual. So, I might not like the fact that there aren’t as many promotion opportunities as needed so I’m going to complain. Organization can’t just create promotion opportunities but the reverse is also true. I might think that the best thing is for us to release this strategy. That’s the best for the organization. Is your workforce ready? No. Then get them ready first. So, there’s this constant balance of what’s best for the organization versus what’s best for the individual and people struggle with presuming positive intent. They assume that if the workforce isn’t doing what the organization needs, they’re selfish or if leadership made a decision I don’t like, they’re uncaring. Where’s the balance? There has to be a balance. And underneath all of it is this thing called institutional distrust.

Vince Brantley:

So, it’s basically when you can take a specific reason, whatever it may be, for distrusting and then apply it to an entire institution. So, instead of my supervisor treated me badly, I might say something like you can’t trust any of these supervisors here. Well, how many supervisors have you had?

Maria Morukian:

Yeah.

Vince Brantley:

Two. And were both of them—no, well, actually it was just one. Oh, okay. But why do you send that message? Because no one’s going to have the peer accountability it takes to check it.

Maria Morukian:

Yeah, yeah.

Vince Brantley:

You know? No one’s going to ask that next question. So, I get to hide behind the narrative. I also don’t have to discern my own thoughts. I don’t have to sift through the negativity. I can just cast this wide net out and everybody’s going to respond to it.

Maria Morukian:

Right, right. There’s that cognitive dissonance that comes with having to look internally and say how am I contributing to the challenge. Yeah. And yet that can be so freeing. It’s like oh, I don’t have to live under this cloud of victimhood if I just shift the mind side and own what I need to own about this.

Vince Brantley:

Yeah.

Maria Morukian:

So, you all are in the midst of publishing a book.

Chris Armstrong:

We are, yeah.

Maria Morukian:

So, can you give me a little sneak peek? The title, what’s it about, what can we expect from it?

Chris Armstrong:

So, the title is Unmasking the Culture Culprit and it’s really the brass tacks of workplace culture. So, it doesn’t get into societal culture, at least not this particular book. But it’s really just helping people explore what culture is versus what they perceive it to be because it’s such a broadly used term much like diversity inclusion that soon we’re going to be numb to it. We’re numb to unconscious bias. Oh, here we go again. We’re unconscious bias training. We’re getting numb to diversity inclusion. Oh, here we go, counting people. We’re going to get numb to culture so we’re trying to create some awareness about what it actually means and to some of the questions you asked earlier, what are the root issues, what are the symptomatic complaints, how do they tie together and more importantly, how do you move forward with all this new information?

Vince Brantley:

Yeah. This has been such an interesting and amazing journey, not just what it’s meant to me or what has been to Chris. I mean it’s like you get to see the change in the eyes of the individuals who need it the most. We’ve been facilitating discussions and someone said do you mind, I don’t want to be rude but I just need to make a phone call really quick. I do apologize. You know? And it’s just like that’s real change. You know? The reason why so many people sign up for the training after the sessions is because at the end of those sessions, they see themselves differently and they want to be a part of something better. They just want more of the how. How do I get there? What role can I take? And so, it can be frustrating because the thing that we are challenged with is it’s always Groundhog Day. There is no unique culture. There’s no unique organization. We’re just human beings trying to do the best we can with what we have, with feelings.

Maria Morukian:

Yeah.

 

Vince Brantley:

Right? That’s what it all breaks down to. So, you find institutional distrust just about everywhere, you find personal association where people are just kind of judging the world based on how it’s impacted them, not necessarily for what it is. We see the world as we are and not as it is.

 

Maria Morukian:

Yeah.

 

Vince Brantley:

Mission superiority over leadership where organizations and individuals value the mission so much they overlook leadership challenges, they overlook leadership excellence, they overlook leadership opportunities in that we’ll have things like you’re going to be working for Chris and Chris is, he’s different. So, just bear with him. Okay? This is a good time for—I mean it’s a great time in your career to kind of develop that kind of toughness you’ll need, to kind of deal with difficult people.

 

Chris Armstrong:

This has actually happened.

 

Vince Brantley:

Yeah. So, he’s just—sometimes he’s going to say some things. Boy, I tell you. He says some things sometimes even that makes me chuckle. You may not find it so funny but we ask that you just bear with him because he’s really good at what he does and if you can just deal with that, then you’re going to learn so much during this tour. Good luck.

 

Maria Morukian:

Wow. Right, right. Well—

 

Chris Armstrong:

And then what he just went through are three of the big root issues of personal association, institutional distrust and valuing mission over leadership.

 

Maria Morukian:

Vince, Chris, and I swapped some stories and tips for facilitating challenging discussions. When emotions are so easily triggered, when people make statements or share perspectives that exhibit toxic beliefs or behaviors, how do we manage that without shutting people down? What happens when we as the facilitators are triggered and can’t maintain our own neutrality in that moment?

 

Chris Armstrong:

Our first gig that we got after leaving the federal government was two women killed themselves.

 

Maria Morukian:

Oh, wow.

 

Chris Armstrong:

Because they had been sexually assaulted. They have reported that there was an investigation going on and leadership left them in place, made no changes while the investigation was going. Why do I bring that up in this context? Because as we were discussing with some of the people who were having some of the culture sessions, I distinctly remember a particular individual who said look, I wish that didn’t happen to them and he wasn’t responding to what happened to the women, he was responding to—the people in the room who were angry, rightfully so. He was like look, I don’t wish what happened to them to happen to anybody but we have to grow bigger spines around here. If you don’t think you come here to do back-breaking work, you’re in the wrong place. That is a value mission or a leadership mindset and it’s real.

 

Maria Morukian:

Ah, that’s painful.

 

Chris Armstrong:

Oh, it is. And that’s why [inaudible 00:36:29], it can be difficult. There’s a reason why there’s always two facilitators. We never facilitate alone.

 

Maria Morukian:

Absolutely. Yeah, yeah. Because you never know when one of you is going to need to go take a little bit of a break.

 

Chris Armstrong:

Well, when we teach facilitation, one of the things we always say is if Vince sees me walking to the front, what does Vince do? He walks to the back and vice versa and it’s eye contact now. I mean we’ve done it so many times. But you need that because you had to be neutral to the audience and you can’t just walk out of the room so you have to take a mental break but realize I can no longer continue to engage with you. We’re humans as well.

 

Maria Morukian:

Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely.

 

Vince Brantley:

We were having a diversity inclusion culture session with diversity inclusion leaders and we had one of their seniors basically who just had the courage to say what some of his peers felt but they weren’t saying anything. They just kind of nodded. He says well, when it comes down to diversity, some people are just more gifted than others. And so, there are people on the left who got like super upset and they wanted to shut him down. And I’m like him finish because you have to hear them out. You can’t take it personal. You have to listen to understand. If you just let them talk long enough, they’ll begin to hear themselves. But you’ve just pulled them out of their own way. So, tell me a little bit more. Why do you say that?

 

Maria Morukian:

I think that’s so important because that’s where in our organizations and in our society, I think we’re really doing ourselves a disservice by shutting one another down mid-sentence and we have so much misunderstanding because we’re not creating the space for people to feel safe sharing their full perspective because sometimes we misunderstood the message and other times they didn’t realize the gaping blind spot that they have until they say it fully. And then they’ll have their own realization or at least they’ve finished their thought and been heard and then they’ll be more open to hearing other people’s perspectives and mindsets. But when we automatically wag our fingers at each other and say I judge you, we’ve lost the opportunity to grow together.

 

Vince Brantley:

That’s right.

 

Maria Morukian:

I mean again going back to that notion of a thriving culture where the focus is on the collective, that’s the antithesis of the collective. If it’s like it’s about me and how what you just said hurt me rather than creating space for us to come to the table.

 

Chris Armstrong:

That’s why we always say the two biggest root issues are personal association and institutional distress because personal association is me being triggered by something that impacted me. Institutional distrust is not only was I triggered but I was triggered by you because people like you, I don’t trust in general. I don’t trust women, I don’t trust men, I don’t trust cops, I don’t trust blacks, I don’t trust leftists, I don’t trust rightists, I don’t trust social justice warriors. So, then the personal association is more triggering. So, those two things—

 

Vince Brantley:

[crosstalk 00:39:32]

 

Maria Morukian:

Yeah.

 

Vince Brantley:

They just polarize so quickly. Why?

 

Chris Armstrong:

Those are the two biggest root issues.

 

Maria Morukian:

Yeah, yeah.

 

Vince Brantley:

East Coast, West Coast, Tupac, Biggie. Opposite triggers.

 

Maria Morukian:

Yeah. Because we’re hard-wired that way.

 

Chris Armstrong:

We are.

 

Maria Morukian:

And it’s just becoming more conscious of how to untrigger ourselves in the moment.

 

Chris Armstrong:

Yes. And part of what I like about what you do and not just the questions you ask but interactions we’ve had in the past is a lot of people in our space use this thing we call presumptive communication which you don’t use but it’s harmful. So, presumptive communication says that I’m in the culture space where I’m doing leadership training or I’m a political pundit or I’m a news reporter and I’m going to use words that presume everybody agrees with me. So, I’m going to say things like you walking into a culture space and saying I’m here to help address your culture challenges. I know like most organizations you have culture challenges. You don’t know that they have culture challenges but it’s easier to use presumptive communication these days because people are so easily triggered. There’s people who take advantage of that trigger. Look, we all heard the same thing. Right? That’s a presumptive statement.

 

Maria Morukian:

Yes.

 

Chris Armstrong:

We all think the same way but in talking with you and internally sort of the questions you’re asking and the Illuminations you’re bringing up tells me you’re someone else in this space who’s actually in it for the right reason and not to take advantage of the mob on either side. On either side.

 

Maria Morukian:

Yeah. Trying, I’m trying.

 

Chris Armstrong:

No, I think you are.

 

Maria Morukian:

And it does. I think to what you were saying earlier about how we’re all human and as facilitators our job is to try to create space for everybody which means we also have to manage our own selves and I find that to be a constant and lifelong journey. There are moments where I’m triggered and it’s like I’ve got to tag out. I’m just [inaudible 00:41:31] for a minute. So I can come back and really be willing and able to listen because there’s value in this other person’s voice but I can’t hear it right now. And if we can’t admit that and say it and be like I got to walk away but I will be back, right, then I think that’s tough I think for many of us who are in this space. I’ve talked with a lot of people about what one of my friends refers to as the woke Olympics that where many of us start to believe ourselves to be the superior ones. Right? I have the knowledge, I am righteous and I know not only are these other folks wrong but they’re bad and they’re stupid and they’re evil. And we see that playing out across the board.

 

We also talked about the balance we have to find in this work between being open-minded and meeting people where they are and also standing firmly in our values and beliefs of what is right and helping leaders determine when they need to address toxic behaviors that can destroy an organizational culture.

 

Chris Armstrong:

The last chapter in our book acknowledges that even if you don’t have a toxic culture, you have to handle toxic people because if you do not, it will start sliding towards the toxic culture. The truth isn’t always somewhere in the middle. There are toxic people. There is no truth in the middle to someone who is sexually assaulted.

 

Maria Morukian:

Yeah.

 

Chris Armstrong:

There is [inaudible 00:43:04] to somebody being called a tar baby.

 

Maria Morukian:

Yeah.

 

Chris Armstrong:

There’s no truth in the middle there. This gets to oh, it’s just how they were raised. That’s not a truth. That’s a factor. It’s not a truth that limits what happened in either of those situations.

 

Maria Morukian:

Right, yeah. We can respect the individual as a human being without validating the behaviors that are contributing to injustice.

 

Chris Armstrong:

Acknowledge human realities without—yeah, yeah, yeah. Oh, it drives me crazy.

 

Maria Morukian:

So, last question, for each of you, I’m curious to know as you look into the next year or two down the road, what are you most inspired by? What are you most excited about when you think about the work that you’re doing and what you’re contributing?

 

Vince Brantley:

I’m pretty excited about this book and a podcast that will be coming out soon, our vlogs because it’ll give more people an opportunity to hear. I mean in many cases we’ve just been conversation starters and just getting people to talk and listen differently. For as long as people can find within themselves the courage and the vulnerability it takes to have real conversations, we’ll always be capable of progress. But we become stagnant because sometimes or, I believe, we grow more protective or more risk-averse. We don’t want to be called or labeled anything and nowadays what you say about a person always says more about you than what you said about the person. So, I’d just rather not say anything at all. And so, we’re not even listening; we’re just there. And that’s where these narratives take hold. So, if someone comes with something negative in the room or if I counter them, then they may call me out. Then people going to be looking at me and I’m not going to say anything. Somebody else would’ve said something if something should’ve been said. And so, I’m just going to sit here. I think when I leave, I’ll go to the water cooler and I’ll talk to my two friends and they have their two friends and I don’t even realize what I’ve done because I could’ve asked a question right there in a moment that might’ve inspired others to ask the same. And so, that’s our approach. I mean that’s what we’ve seen, that’s what we’ve been doing and it’s so exciting just knowing that these two mechanisms, the book and our own presence may get us into more circles of conversations that will beget more circles of conversations so we can get through to more people.

 

Chris Armstrong:

Ball me crazy but I’m looking forward to the 2020 election because it is going to demand emotional intelligence and low personal association and institutional trust, things that aren’t present right now and I’m looking forward to the opportunity to not only facilitate some of those dialogues—because we did the last time, we’ll certainly do it again this time—but to also train people to do that, to bring more people into the space you are capable of doing this because this isn’t traditional facilitation and in fact, most people who take the facilitation training course don’t pass it because they come in where they listen to respond and I sort of already know this material. So, I’m looking forward to the election. I’m looking forward to bringing more people who can help do that kind of work.

 

Maria Morukian:

That’s great. All right. You gave me a new mindset to approach November 2020 so thank you. I love what you both are saying about trying to pass this along to as many people as possible so we can start to create that ripple effect. It’s really, really wonderful, valuable work that you both are doing. So, thank you very much for coming on and hopefully we’ll have you on again after the book is published.

 

Chris Armstrong:

[inaudible 00:46:54]

 

Vince Brantley:

Thank you for having the opportunity and thank you for everything you’re doing and the way you’re doing it. It’s really, it’s remarkable.

 

Maria Morukian:

Thank you so much.

 

Chris Armstrong:

Yeah. It’s a different way for sure.

 

Maria Morukian:

Thanks for listening to Culture Stew with Maria Morukian. This episode was produced by Derrick Michaud and Shelby Row Productions. I would love to hear from you. You can subscribe to our podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, and Stitcher. You can also find me on Twitter @MMorukian and check out the blog at CultureStew.me for more.

 

 

RECORDING ENDS

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