Article | Passing Shots: Reflections on a Year of Storytelling & Male Allyship from The Corner of the Court Project

by Rachana Bhide

This article first appeared on LinkedIn December 29, 2017. 

December 30th, 2017, marks our first anniversary at The Corner of the Court Project! One year ago, Megan, our first brave voice, submitted her story about her male ally, Dave, as a step to encourage men to play an active role in gender equality.

I say Megan was brave for two reasons: Megan is a graduate of the United States Merchant Marine Academy and currently manages the airfield at Tyndall Air Force Base. But Megan, and the other women who were early submitters to our project, also showed tremendous courage in submitting a story, having had no idea what the project would become. They simply believed in our concept and stepped up to share a personal story – of a father, a boss, a mentor – to help explore how positive examples of male allies would resonate.

Since then, we’ve published 30 stories from diverse, successful women, and the impact that our featured male allies have made are just as diverse and impactful. Whether a man of great positional influence like an NFL coach, or a man of great familial commitment like a husband or father; the male allies in our stories represent the capability of every man to be a strong supporter of women and gender equality.

What We’ve Learned

Reflection is an important part of being a good ally, and in the spirit of role modeling that behavior, here are The Corner of the Court’s reflections on our first year – or as I affectionately sum them up, the “Three P’s.”

Positivity

After we posted our first story at the end of 2016, at the start of 2017 I (perhaps somewhat boldly) wrote, “Now that 2017 has kicked off, I am sharing a personal resolution to make an impact on strengthening the support for male allies.” One year ago, I, like many of us, had no idea exactly what 2017 would bring in terms of visibility to gender dynamics, abuse of power, and the role of men: as perpetrators of abuse, but also as allies in the workplace and at home.

Particularly as the #MeToo movement raised important awareness of widespread abuse, we carefully examined how our project could support women’s voices alongside the painful stories being shared. We tested our message and found women were still very interested in sharing their ally stories, with strengthened resolve to encourage men to be positive influencers of change. We were hopeful when women readers continued to submit their stories of allyship, and specifically encouraged men in their lives to read the stories for examples on how to be a positive male ally.

Partnership

There are a lot of extraordinary people and teams who are committed to gender equality in the same spirit that we are – to build capabilities of men to be better mentors, bosses and allies.

Our partners have done so much for us in our first year. They’ve given our work visibility and critical dialogue through podcasts and television interviews. They’ve expanded our reach through conferences and various platforms online. They’ve given us tools to educate male allies in workshops and over dinner conversations. They also believed in us and have helped share our mission; often, they’ve referred great women to share stories on our site.

Here are some of the partners, friends and supporters we are proud and grateful to have leaned on during our first year:

Athena Rising (David Smith and Brad Johnson)
Better Male Allies
Bloomberg LP
Columbia University
Jennifer Brown Consulting
J.T. O’Donnell, Work It Daily
Julie Kratz, Pivot Point
#GoSponsorHer
LinkedIn
Lean In NYC
Men Advocating Real Change (MARC – Catalyst Inc)
MeTyme Network
PROMOTE
Protege Podcast
Ray Arata / Better Man Conference
State of Mind
Women in Sports & Events (WISE)
YWomen

Psychology

A number of our stories are those of “where I came from” – women talking about the first boss who became a lifelong mentor, or sharing the first lesson she recalls her father teaching her. One of the real gifts I receive from doing this work, is the opportunity to continue learning as a psychologist and researcher. I would be remiss if I didn’t say every story touches me in a unique way. One of the most vulnerable articles I wrote was a personal story about male depression and suicide; discovering that our project also supports men by acknowledging their positive contributions – it is through the stories that our women willingly share about a loved one, that I have been able to witness the importance of letting men know they can make an impact.

Positivity (and positive psychology) is a recurring theme of our project, and it’s because it’s so important to reinforcing and repeating good behavior. And it’s the very foundation of the relationships we reference when calling men gender partners and good “allies” (see: Unconscious Advocacy).

What’s Next…

More stories. More tangible behaviors that help men be better allies. More partnerships and gratitude for those committed to gender equality. These are how we will serve up the “next set” of stories and articles in the new year.

Wishing you an ally-filled New Year and great start to 2018!

 

Article | 6 Things Great Male Allies Do: Lessons from a Project in Male Allyship

By Rachana Bhide

I was having a Sunday chat with a male friend of mine in Madison Square Park here in New York City recently. He’s a successful tech CEO, and very committed to building a workplace that supports women and men equally.

“Rachana,” he said to me. “I went on your website and really like the stories [successful women sharing positive stories of their male allies]. But maybe you can break it down for me even more. I’m a dude, tell me exactly what it is I need to know, in one sentence, that these guys are doing so that I can also do it.”

Well. If I could go “meta” on my readers for a moment, this is it. One of my own male allies, pushing me to refine my approach, so that my work could more effectively reach more men. I reflected. Our project, The Corner of the Court, serves several purposes, one of which is to motivate men to take action and see that they have the full capacity within them to be great allies. And another purpose of the project is to curate stories, so that we can learn more about what’s actually happening out there — what is it that the best male allies are doing? What can the individual man do, to be a better ally?

So I took his suggestion, read through our stories and tried to pick out some unique and compelling themes — specific behaviors, to make it relevant and actionable — that our allies have shown.

Ready for the list? Here are six things a great male ally does:

1. He knows the culture

In any organization, leveraging your influence successfully relies on knowing and working within the culture. Jen Welter, the first female to coach in the NFL, said her ally, Bruce Arians, Head Coach of the Arizona Cardinals, knew how important it was to focus on the players. “in the process of hiring me… he wanted my position to be something his players were also proud of — in a way, he was letting the guys on the team be heroes in championing me,” says Jen.

Kim says that her mentor, Shawn, knew the pharmaceutical company where they worked heavily valued titles and pedigree. As such, when she joined his team in a senior role, he made sure to introduce her by leading with both her title and educational background — that she was a graduate of MIT, and she would be his trusted advisor.

2. He “signals” to others that he supports this woman and her role

Kim said her former boss used to visibly show others his support in a subtle but powerful way, a behavior she calls signaling. “At the start of the meeting, he would come in with his coffee cup, pause, and then leave. Then the meeting would start. Everyone knew I was still there and I was his delegate.”

Karen’s former boss, Digby, was similarly visible in his support. “He would preface things with, ‘What I learned from Karen is…’” says Karen. She continues, “This demonstrated a great deal of respect for me in front of my new colleagues.”

3. He asks her a really great question

Great allies on our website have often been able to make a lasting impact often with only a few, thoughtful words. A great question has often been the turning point in her career that many women remember. Chief Millenial Officer Liz, says her ally, JC, asked her, ‘What can you do to go the extra mile?’ while she says she was “breaking through many self-imposed limitations. He often asked me questions to get me to expand my thinking to go above and beyond.”

Similarly, when Emily, a Recruitment Marketing Specialist, hesitated about taking a new role, her boss, Kevin, asked, ‘Why don’t you want to be a recruiter?’ “If Kevin hadn’t intervened when I was feeling intimidated by the newness of cold calling, there is a possibility that I wouldn’t have developed the experience and skills that have been so critical to my career as a marketer now,” says Emily.

Nicole’s ally, Rory, similarly gave her a thought-provoking “assignment” to define her five value pillars, which Nicole says “greatly helped me learn a lot about myself” while she was going through a career transition.

4. He trusts his instincts, even if it means taking a chance

Jen knew that Bruce did not have “an easy decision, and certainly it was not one that had been made before,” in hiring her to be the first female to coach in the NFL.

She says, “Bruce is known for his saying, ‘No risk it, no biscuit,’ and that statement definitely applied to his decision to hire me. His courage in hiring me, a woman, has now opened the door for many other coaches to follow. I take great pride in knowing that Bruce was the first.”

Many of our women tell stories of when they first started out in a particular career or job, and that their male ally trusted his instincts as he mentored her. Shelley Smith of ESPN shares, “I was a new, young reporter for SI assigned to the NBA finals in the late 1980s. I was terrified. Jack (McCallum), whom I had never met, took me under his wing, showed me the ropes.”

5. He adapts, pitches in and shifts his own role

Several of our stories show how male allies are willing to make a needed shift without compromising thier own sense of contribution. Megan Anderson, Founder of #GoSponsorHer, says, “Sharing the pie 50/50 is tricky given that the proportions are always shifting and someone always ends up needing to do more of the grunt work at any given time. Mike and I are explicit about those shifts and explicit about who is taking the lead on the homefront at any given time.”

Julie Kratz, author of ONE: How Male Allies Support Women for Gender Equality, says, without her husband, Rustin, “Our coaching business and family life would not be possible. He maintains the home, takes excellent care of our amazing girls, helps with our business, and is always there when I need that nudge or to vent about travel snafus. He’s our family’s rock.”

Megan also says, “If we are going to make real change, we have to allow men to change too — they needn’t carry the traditional pressures being the sole partner with a career.”

6. He builds possibilities

Our great male allies and mentors help us create. This can be an actual, physical co-creation of a product, like Erin Albert’s mentor, Dr. David Borst, who together authored The S(He) Says Guide to Mentoring, a “his and hers perspective on setting up women’s mentoring programs.”

It can also be helping a woman see what possibilities could lie ahead. Sociologist Christin, says her mentor, Dr. M., asked if she would like to go to Cornell University for graduate school, which Christin says, “set in motion a career trajectory beyond my wildest dreams. Had he not suggested Cornell, I wouldn’t have applied and I certainly wouldn’t have been accepted or graduated. I took on an ambitious dissertation project, which helped me land a prestigious postdoc at Stanford… [which led to] my current position which is, in every way, my dream job.”

Know a great male ally? Or a positive behavior of what great male allies do? Share it with me! This list was meant to spark ideas and conversation about helpful behaviors men can practice and emulate. And don’t forget to check out all our women’s stories at The Corner of the Court Project.

View this article on LinkedIn.

Article | The “Surprising” Importance of Women Supporting Men: A Personal Story

By Rachana Bhide

Back in the early 2000s, I was living in DC and was home one unremarkable evening, when I received a terribly alarming voice message.  It was from a guy who I was close to and had known for years; he was now back in town himself after graduating.  We had caught up in the previous days, but I was wholly unprepared for the message I picked up.

“Rach,” it said. The voice on the message was distraught, barely audible. “Rach, I’m having a really difficult time here again.  I don’t think it’s getting any better.  I really think — like, tonight — I think I’m going to kill myself.”

I don’t remember my immediate reaction, except frantically locating his number on my cell phone and hitting send.  “Come over,” I said — I know I said this, and the next words: “We’ll get you better.”  I honestly don’t even remember if I talked to him or if I left it as a voice message, but within 5 minutes he was already at my door.

When he arrived he didn’t appear broken; he had clearly been crying but I remember thinking he looked quite in control.  We stood two steps from my front door and talked in my foyer– either out of situational urgency, or because we tried to attempt a casual, breezy conversation, similar to how we always were with each other.  But it certainly wasn’t breezy; he talked about the things that had been happening in his life, how hard it was for him to be back in the same difficult environment, and how scared he was to face what was to come.

Two and a half hours later, we hadn’t left the foyer.  We’d both migrated directly onto the cold carpet, sitting across from each other with more eye contact than I’d ever made with him, talking through his pain, our tones beginning to alternate between serious and relaxed.

When he seemed to be OK, we started bantering a bit, and I made a gentle but perfectly timed joke that had him laughing so hard I was actually kind of proud of myself for making him “better” again.  He still remains a dear friend to this day.

Yet he and I never spoke of the incident again.

I would like to say that event changed me and my views on male mental health, but I was too numb at that point to understand (or accept) how someone — a guy — with whom I was so close might be fragile.  It also felt incredibly awkward to suggest he may need any kind of emotional support.  “Talk to me if you’re ever down, I’ll make you laugh” was kind of how I had dealt with all the men in my life.

Getting “Woke” To the Topic of Men and Mental Health

It wasn’t until 15 years later, when I began my master’s degree in psychology, that I remembered the incident. I only recalled it after I was on a date, and my date told me a guy who he had grown up with committed suicide.  I woke up at 2am that night, remembering vividly the entire episode: the foyer, the long talk, and the raw, broken voice message.

As part of my my master’s research I was speaking to a lot of men about topics like leadership and the workplace. And as I was doing so, I was naturally beginning to feel these men’s — often very high — levels of empathy.  The more I spent time with my two best buddies in grad school, the more I realized how wonderfully, traditionally “masculine” and simultaneously deeply emotional they were. So I wanted to explore how men tapping into their emotions could have a positive effect on the workplace and on themselves.

Men Supporting Women… and Women Supporting Men

One key piece of my research evolved specifically to the role of gender partnerships: how men use their natural empathy to positively champion and support women in their lives.  The Corner of the Court is a project and social platform I created that offers a simple, visible way for women to share a story about a guy who has inspired and supported her.  The message is to promote and further encourage such behaviors of our male allies by saying:  “Men… your mentorship to us makes an impact.” 

The woman is the hero of the story she shares on the site. Yet it says volumes, that she is making a conscious decision to publicly share how important her male champion is.

This is an added, deeper impact that the project is making… it offers both a present and powerful voice from women:  When a man matters to us, we take the time to let him know.

I strongly believe that what our men need to hear, and feel from the world, is love.  For me, outside of romantic relationships, I was far remiss in offering any such words to the other men in my life.  The stories we receive in The Corner of the Court cover diverse relationships women have with their mentors, coaches, brothers, fathers, bosses… Yet, read any story and you’ll find that each one is unquestionably filled with love: from the supportive actions the man has offered to the woman, and in turn, how the woman talks about his impact so publicly.

Why We Do What We Do:  My Confession

Here’s where I make my confession:  The Corner of the Court is the most important thing I’m involved with now, and it is absolutely because of the positive message it spreads for male allies and champions who support women (the powerful tennis metaphor of him being firmly “in her court”).  And that will continue.

But it’s no secret, there’s a reason we researchers are drawn to certain topics — they are those topics with which we have some “unfinished business” (whether consciously or not), or poignant experiences through which we have lived, survived, and are especially poised to navigate.

I was in such disbelief the evening I got that call, it took me 15 years to even begin to make sense of it.  I know this project won’t prevent the circumstances of what led to that night in this man’s life, nor can it change the rigid environmental pressures under which I believe men must mask emotional pain or their need for mental health support.

But I do know that my work provides me, and hopefully our readers, a profound and active reminder that we women should let our guys know, directly and often, how much they matter to us.

To those who follow, who share, who submit stories on behalf of our project, thank you. Thank you for supporting our guys, who invest so much of themselves in supporting us!

Article | Unconscious Advocacy: The Inherent Allyship of Male Champions

By Rachana Bhide

Who is the Unconscious Advocate? What does this term mean? Unconscious advocacy is a term I have adopted that reflects a powerful finding from my recent research on male allies (also referred to as male champions, advocates or mentors). It is this: when it comes to promoting gender equality and displaying a voice of feminism, some men display ally behavior that they are not readily aware of.

I created the term to reflect the triggers that humans (men) have when dealing with key relationships; it is of similar spirit to the well-established concept of unconscious bias. With unconscious advocacy, there is something about a male and how he positively supports and champions an individual female — through a family relationship, professional relationship, etc. — in an inherent way, unknown to him. For example, the father who may never call himself a feminist, but has coached his daughter’s sports team because he deeply believes in teaching her resilience and competition; in turn he leaves lasting impressions on her that she will carry forward in her life. It is the male boss who may not have influence on systemic change or diversity recruiting targets at his company, but who willingly engages in conversations with his wife about her career and encourages her to boldly self-promote her accomplishments. It is any man who has naturally supported and championed a woman, but may not realize the impact he has made, often because his efforts would not be formally branded as feminist or seemingly moving the needle.

I see such examples all the time in The Corner of the Court, a program where women choose to share a story about a male ally who has influenced her career and life. Many of these men, when acknowledged, had no idea they were making such a strong impact; most men will react with “Wow… I had no idea.” While others may acknowledge they are “good at mentorship” but don’t actually realize they are doing something out of the ordinary by mentoring a woman.

As a researcher on the importance of developing men as individual male allies, the Unconscious Advocate concept provides us a very strong outlook on the inherent capacities men have within them to be champions for change. Let us acknowledge, nurture and leverage these capacities to make men the strong diversity leaders and allies they are fully capable of being.

Article | Design Meets Diversity: Building Male Allies Through Design Thinking


By Rachana Bhide

As a design thinker and leadership professional, fewer things delight me more than applying design to my work, my research, career or even personal life. The iterative, user-based approach of design allows for freedom in testing out approaches, using metaphoric thinking and consistently iterating toward a better solution.

My recent program, The Corner of the Court, is geared at building self-efficacy of male diversity allies through the voices and stories of women. This program has a has been entirely designed using a design thinking approach, allowing for a deeply human-centered, empathy-based product.

Now that the story-based project within the program is approaching its three-month anniversary, I want to share some design-based principles that this project reflects, in the hopes to both illustrate the success of the overall program so far, and to share a tangible example of the importance of applying design to HR/diversity, a field where empathy is at the heart of all that we do.

5 Stages of Design and “The Corner of the Court”

Empathy: Empathy is about gathering data using various, objective sources such as observations, interviews and the like. The real unique insights happen when we “go there” and don’t make pre-conceived notions about who we are observing, we just allow ourselves to uncover what is.

When I first began my research on men and diversity, I did so as an academic psychologist. And a great perk about being a psychologist is having agency to leverage both quantitative and qualitative data in my research – the latter is where the powerful learning for me took place, that led to developing the program. Most of the interviews I conducted for that first project at Columbia University were via 1:1 qualitative interviews and group discussions with men. I sought to understand things like, “What makes you more likely to support diversity? What are the possibly diverse experiences that you have had as a man? What is your own unique story?”

But while I was in this deep empathy stage, I realized I was gathering a lot of other data too – from women. Women who were reflecting back to me about my project, sharing their examples of great male allies. Women who cut me off (in a good way) when I would explain the project because they were bursting to share a story about a great male ally who they knew. All of this was data that I carried into the next stage, Define, to generate insights that ultimately led to my approach to create The Corner of the Court.

Define/Insights: It became clear to me that there were two key “user” groups – men and women – and sub-profiles within both (e.g. men who were strong allies, men who were not, women who had strong allies, women who did not, etc.). I thought about and tested a lot of opportunity statements and ultimately realized one major gap was how to leverage the power of the female voice in building male allies. Bringing the faces and words of successful women as a visible outcome of positive allyship; harnessing the willing voices of these women who wanted to tell a man’s story. This became the opportunity statement that would support the full body of research outcomes about building male allyship I’ve previously written about.

Ideate/Brainstorm: The Corner of the Court is a metaphor which I used in my keynote address to male and female executives at ESPN, FOX Sports and LA84 Foundation at a gala honoring outstanding female executives in the sports industry.

In design thinking, we encourage use of imagery and metaphors to draw inspiration in order to address a challenge. The image of a tennis court was a powerful one to reflect the design-based insight I wanted to show around the effect of allyship: That the female voice is, and remains, the central theme. The female is the athlete, the competitor, the protagonist of each story. She is out on the court, sweating, deciding her next move, wrestling with emotions and physical exhaustion and all that comes with playing her hardest for each point – while her male ally or coach, is fully active and present, in the corner.

It need not be so obvious, but there’s a beauty of using design and metaphors to suggest an experience. It allows for mental freedom to go where we choose; for example, we could equally take a moment to consider the male ally on the court – in which corner is he standing (across from her, or watching from the back corner)? As she switches sides to serve, what is his new vantage point? How is his presence on the court, yet not as an active competitor, making him feel? All of these complex considerations about the topic are wholly permissible and non-threatening when using a metaphor to which all sides can relate.

Prototype: In the age of Agile development, rapid change and yes, use of design thinking, prototyping allows a “try-it-and-see” method. That’s the approach I took in launching the program. I started with a few passionate women, we got on the phone and crafted the first stories… and then we put ourselves out there. We didn’t allow ourselves to get distracted by “likes” or how many followers we had; what mattered in the early stages was whether we were making an impact. How were the stories landing? Where were we getting the most feedback? Which leads us to…

Test: In design, we are always seeking feedback. The feedback that first led me to the project design was based in empathy, and I take a similar approach in gathering user-based data around how the project is landing so far. I look at things like:

– What are women saying about how their story was received by their male mentors?
– What are male readers saying about the stories?
– What are the male mentors saying about the awareness of their impact?
– How do the variety of stories (featuring personal or professional relationships) resonate with readers?
– What excites readers with each story?
– What questions are people left with?

Test has been one of the most interesting stages for this project, because it has invariably led to another round of empathy. As I gather data on the above, I simultaneously continue to uncover hidden insights about the topic of male allyship: Women who approach me and say “Gosh, I would love to submit a story, but I’m afraid I just don’t have a compelling example of a male ally… is that bad?” Or, coming to the early realization that of all the stories that have been shared so far, nobody has yet submitted a “husband” as the featured male ally (though we’ve had older brothers, fathers and professional figures). Or some men who have said they wish they could have played such a role in a woman’s life, but they feel it might be too late (it isn’t!). Such insights help The Corner of the Court both meet its stated purpose to tell the stories of women and their male allies, while also uncovering a lot of unseen activity and emotion around the topic.

As such, if we think in our tennis metaphor, we are still in the “first points” of the game, of the set, of the match, of the tournament. We are ready and poised to continue to tell the stories of women and their male allies, to make an impact on our readers. And as we work toward gender partnership, iterating and being strong designers of the male ally experience, the thread in our work is this: It is the metaphor of the woman athlete, on the court, fiercely and valiantly playing for each point. It is, after all, she who is willing and continues to inspire her male ally, and all of us, with her story.

——————————-

Submissions are always open! If you would like to share a story about a male ally, please inquire or submit here.

See all of our women’s stories here.

The Corner of the Court Project is aimed at building self-efficacy of male champions, allies and mentors.

Article | “The Person Factor”: Male Allies and the Formula for Success

View this article on LinkedIn:
“The Person Factor”​: Male Allies and the Formula for Success

By Rachana Bhide

Developing strong male allies is an important element of any diversity program, and organizations have been increasing their focus in this highly important space. Yet organizations are often seduced into thinking that effective diversity programs require a set of enterprise-wide projects and initiatives to make impactful, large-scale behavior change. While such approaches are all extremely valid and have a rightful place in corporate diversity, there is a critical element that often goes untapped when looking at male allyship programs, which is, simply, the individual male ally himself.

Psychologist Kurt Lewin applied his principle of field theory to offer that, “Behavior is a function of Person and Environment,” depicted as a heuristic formula: B = f(P,E). Simply stated, one’s behavior is a combination of him/her as an individual and the environment in which he or she is acting. This means that your own behavior won’t be the same if you are in two different environments, and equally, no two people in the same environment behave the same way.

This deceivingly simple concept highlights one of the main challenges in designing diversity programs, particularly in male allyship programs: If we want to change behavior, we would be best served to look at both elements of the function — that is, the Person factors and the Environment factors.

Environment factors are things like:

– work climate
– training initiatives
– recruiting policies

Person factors, arguably a bit more complex, have to do with:

– attitudes
– thoughts
– personality

We find that organizations tend to focus heavily on the Environment factors of allyship, investing a justified, yet significant amount of time and resources into programs and initiatives, often from the top-down or a centralized mandate. Yet we would be well-served to invest our efforts also on the other meaningful piece of the equation: A focus on the individual male. What is it that makes him desire to be an ally? What fears does he have? What tradeoffs does he feel he has to make? These are areas that might be touched on through training but often don’t go further in an organizational setting to make any meaningful individual breakthrough. Group discussions and workshops often turn quickly to action planning and program design, which are necessary but only contribute to one part of the equation.

As workplace psychologists, we know that getting into deeper elements of the person takes time, permission, and often iterations of coaching or other tailored interventions. It may therefore not be the easiest or quickest approach, yet in my research I found a set of key “person factors” did reflect in organizations’ most compelling allies — for example, those allies who had made meaning of their experiences through reflective practice and those who were strong individual storytellers.

What can organizations do? The straightforward answer is to adopt an individual approach to allyship in addition to programmatic, environmental and structural approaches. Start with those allies who have expressed an interest in developing themselves — beginning from whatever level of proficiency they currently have — and take care to develop and sharpen their individual commitment. Use expert coaches and resources to help them draw out their experiences and convey the meaning of their allyship. I did this with one organization’s male ally group, by allowing space for men to bring their personal stories of “why I am an ally” and iterate on associated feelings and attitudes through reflection and storytelling. By honing in on elements of the Person, we build allies who can act as confident ambassadors of behavior change.

“But such fluffy tactics won’t work with our culture,” some might say. Well, that’s kind of the point. Focusing on the Person factor happens in a space independent of the environment; as such it can be tailored to the needs of the individual. When done intentionally and effectively on the “right side” of the formula, it can become not just an additive, but a real multiplier, for change.

 

Article | Storytelling with Strength: What Male Champions (and all Leaders) Need to Know

By Rachana Bhide

In my work as a change management leader and diversity researcher, I’ve been delighted to see how the concept of storytelling has evolved into a well-respected and sought-after skill for leaders. Storytelling is used in a variety of industries and functions, including marketing and sales — with many improvisation and theater companies specializing in training leaders in this verbal art.

Storytelling as a verbal art in the business world can take on many forms, depending upon both the storyteller and the key objective of what the story must convey. Some stories become narrative descriptions of a product. Other stories relay the spirit of a customer journey. And some stories recount personal examples from the storyteller, in order to raise awareness of a key issue, or build buy-in for change. This last approach to storytelling is what I will focus on in this article, specifically around simple tactics that will help Male Champions of diversity be more effective in telling their stories, to influence others in this important topic.

Why is Effective Storytelling Important for Male Champions?

In my research, one of the most critical findings I had was that men who were strong champions of diversity were able to recount an experience from their own lives that, when reflected upon, helped build their own case for why diversity matters. And these specific examples are the foundation of great, compelling stories — they must be shared and leveraged in a positive way that will not just set the stage for change, but help Male Champions be as convincing as is their own conviction, to galvanize others toward supporting their efforts.

The targeted techniques I will share below are an amalgamation of various training courses, books (references below), and “trial-and-error” in coaching Male Champions specifically to tell effective stories. I’ll illustrate four tactics for verbal storytelling that will help listeners build an emotional commitment toward change. I’ll highlight with an example for each tactic and explain why the tactic is important; in a few instances I’ll share what specifically happens in the brain when stories are told in this manner.

Because the tactics below are for verbal stories, it will help, as you read this article, to read any examples out loud.

How to Tell a Compelling Story: Four Tactics for Male Champions

Tactic 1: Use Present Tense

As speakers, we assume that our listener is as interested as we are in the story we have to tell. That may or may not be the case. So, no matter how compelling an example we pick, when we “recount” a story of our own from the past, even with the most mesmerizing of words, we are still telling it from our own vantage point, making the listener effectively a “consumer.” However, when we shift our narrative to present tense, something happens: The wall between speaker and listener comes down; in effect, we as speaker are inviting our listeners INTO the story with us.

Compare: “I was sitting in the boardroom that day.”

To: “I am sitting in the boardroom.”

Immediately, the stage is set and every participant in the room is now part of the scene. This is very important for Male Champions when they talk about diversity to both large and small groups, so that their stories and experiences are no longer just their own; in the moment they now belong also to their listeners.

Tactic 2: Use. Short. Sentences.

When telling a story to an audience, short sentences show power and confidence. They also allow the listener to process every word, when a deliberate pause is inserted after each sentence. Written stories may look better with longer clauses and use of complex sentence structure; but for effective verbal storytelling, shorter is better. I recommend you read this out loud:

Compare: “As I sit, I notice the expression on the Chairman’s face, and note an intense fear in his green eyes.”

To: “I sit. (Pause). I notice the expression on the Chairman’s face. (Pause). His eyes are green. (Pause, extra). I see fear.”

What is the difference? In both instances, the listener’s brain is being activated primarily in Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area — the language processing parts of the brain — where the listener decodes the words into meaning. Unless a deliberate action is taken by the storyteller to “do something with those words,” the message just sits there in the listener’s brain with no real emotional commitment.

With short sentences and each pause, however, the listener is able to not only decode the words into meaning more readily, but is primed to take those words into other parts of the brain where they will be further experienced as though the listener is in the story him/herself. This happens in the next step:

Tactic 3: Like Van Gogh’s Starry Night — Choose Illustrative Imagery

Before telling our story, it is helpful to have a detailed mental picture of what we want to convey. If we are telling the story of the boardroom, we must take ourselves back to that moment in our minds, and pay attention to what was happening that day — was the air conditioner humming? Was the door slamming shut? Were chairs swiveling? Details that we can add to our story — again, in short sentences and present tense — help paint a complete picture for the listener.

In the story, are board members swiveling in their chairs? The listener is now receiving the story in the motor cortex, where motion is experienced. If the vice-chairman in the story is eating a succulent, icing-covered doughnut, the listener’s sensory cortex now lights up. All of these details then help the story be further encoded into the listener’s brain and be fully experienced by the listener. Advanced storytellers may also use movement to convey description (for example, acting as the vice-chairman and demonstrating the manner in which he ate the doughnut).

Tactic 4: Pick a Specific Point in Time

Stories that intend to convey an experience and build commitment are most effective when they describe a particular moment. We don’t need to set up the story with a lot of details or explanations of what was happening before the scene that we are telling a story about. We can trust that if we tell the story using the above tactics, the listener’s ears and brains will fill in the necessary information, so that the focus remains on the moment itself.

Compare: “I was about to attend my first board meeting and I was really nervous. I prepared a ton for the session, but I still felt nervous in the hours before the meeting. Then I walked to the boardroom and saw the Chairman. He looked at me and I completely froze.””

To: “I walk into the boardroom. (Pause). The Chairman swivels in his chair. (Pause). His green eyes find me. (Pause). I freeze.”

Both examples convey a sense of nerves, but the second is more powerful when told aloud — foregoing any setup before the actual story in favor of allowing the listener to experience and feel what is happening in the room, and in the storyteller’s head, at that very moment.

Putting it All Together: Making it Work for Male Champions

Now that you’ve read the four simple tactics, compare the following two verbal stories, adapted from one of the Male Champions I interviewed:

Version 1: “I was at the pool one day, watching my daughter’s swim meet. I was so proud of her but then shocked, after she won a ribbon in the 200m backstroke. She seemed more concerned with whether her friends approved of her victory than being proud of her own accomplishment. It was at that moment I realized how difficult it would be for her to visibly shine in her own accomplishments. I had never realized it before, and that was the day that I said I would be a champion for gender diversity.”

Version 2: “Maddie emerges from the pool. (pause purposefully after each sentence). She is victorious. She picks up her blue towel. It is sopping wet. I notice her face. Her eyes. Her eyes, are sad. She turns from the pool. Maddie walks, toward her friends. Her feet leave hard, wet footprints across the concrete. Her friends greet her. There is no joy. They do not congratulate her. I remain standing, frozen — in the distance. The 11am sun is beating down. My head is hot. I finally see what her struggle will be. I finally understand. I am a changed father.”

Both versions accurately depict what has happened that day at the pool, and the tension occurring in the father’s head. The first story is compelling and honest, and works in many settings and business environments.

But the second story, when read aloud, brings the listener to the pool that day, along the journey with the father describing the story. The listener feels his pain, experiences his a-ha moment, and can empathize on a far more emotional level with him, why he has now chosen to tell this story and become a champion for equality. Additionally, the listener may also become curious about the others in the story — what is his daughter feeling as she leaves wet footprints toward her friends? What insecurities did her friends show that day? What about all the other people — parents, children — at the swim meet? The storytelling technique has opened up many more possibilities for discussion, which is what the Male Champion’s real role is: To spark commitment, dialogue and action for change.

So how can Male Champions use this technique? Often Male Champions use their position to influence colleagues — men and women — to support workplace equality initiatives and further the diversity agenda. Male Champions can and should take their personal reflections and use the above technique to create a solid, compelling story; one that can readily be shared in front of audiences, on panels or even in 1:1 settings.

In fact, even if the Male Champion isn’t verbally telling his story in such a setting, when the time is taken to craft the story in this precise and descriptive way, the Male Champion himself typically finds a renewed sense of purpose and deep emotion toward his own commitment. This is important, as the process of being an active champion requires both reinforcement and ongoing reflection; this process is ultimately a solid step toward becoming an even stronger leader of change.

If you would like more information on how to build effective Male Champions for diversity, or tell a powerful story for change, feel free to contact me.  And for some great written stories from the flip side, check out The Corner of the Court where women share their own written words about a Male Champion who has influenced them.

For added information, I recommend reading Leadership Presence by Belle Linda Halpern and Kathy Lubar, or checking out The Ariel Group executive presence training.

Article | Male Allies for Diversity: Let’s Build Confident Champions

By Rachana Bhide

Now that 2017 has kicked off, I am sharing a personal resolution to make an impact on strengthening the support for male allies (also referred to as male advocates, or as I refer to them in my work, “male champions”) in a meaningful way; building upon my research at Columbia University about how to engage men in diversity.

One of my calls to action is around building confident champions. While conducting my research I spoke to a lot of men about their involvement in diversity initiatives, and I also spoke to a lot of women who were specifically interested in this topic. It struck me, in the same way that it struck me to hear the men’s stories; that many women had compelling stories of their own, specifically about male mentors, friends or colleagues who had visibly given them coaching, guidance and inspiration to follow their talents.

As I dug deeper I found that when it came to women who readily identified a strong champion in their journeys, one element was missing: Feedback. That is, most women at best thanked their mentor regularly (at worst, gave no feedback), but in all instances there was no intentional discussion to share with the male champion, the specific impact that champion’s behavior had made on her as a female in the workplace.

Here is why this intentional conversation is important. I will illustrate it through a story:

Why Even “Great” Allies Need to Know

I’ve been supporting two professionals (a male and a female) in their personal grassroots mission to build male champions in their company’s technology department. They found three additional male “allies” who had expressed interest in being part of the initial task force. This is an organization I’ve previously worked with, but it was the first time I would hear the stories from the men themselves (none of whom currently hold leadership positions, but are indeed poised to be strong change leaders through their passion for this topic).

After they shared their stories of why they were passionately committed to diversity and gender equality, I asked each of them, somewhat off the cuff:

“How effective, on a scale of 0 to 10, do you think you are as an ally?” I purposely didn’t give them a scale or criteria; I merely wanted to hear their initial reaction.

Here were the responses:

“0” : From the man who was organizing the entire effort.

From the other three: “5”, “2 or 3”, and “6” (the gentleman who said 6, said “I call people out if I see bad behavior!”)

Now, I had purposely not given them a scale — no set of criteria that would help them determine if they were a “1” versus a “10” — because I wanted to hear their instinctive reaction in their own beliefs. And what I found in this small but compelling example: four of the most proactive men in this organization, the men who are quietly driving a task force committed to promoting gender equality… don’t have the belief that they are making a difference.

The Important Role of Intentional Conversations

So I asked them. “What would make a difference in your self-assessment?”

They didn’t reply at first. So I asked another question. “If a woman told you,” I asked, “that your behavior was making an impact on her in a positive way… would that help?”

They nodded their heads vigorously. “Absolutely!” they said. Then they continued by saying that anything to help them see that there is visible progress, affirmation that they are saying the right things, and reinforcement of specific behaviors that have helped advance the cause, would greatly build their confidence in their efforts.

This is why the intentional conversation is so important. It is not to be confused with a “pat on the back”; rather, it offers a discussion about those specific and measurable behaviors that have made a positive difference. Then, men can internalize the behaviors, commit to replicating them, and enlist other champions by sharing their stories and tactics. I realize it sounds simple but this call to action really is that easy: for women and others who have been supported by a champion at some point in their careers: Just tell them.

This is why I have launched the Corner of the Court project, a visible platform that allows women to create an intentional acknowledgement, and also inspire other women, by sharing how a male ally has helped them. It is a public way of giving men the confidence in their behaviors, illustrating specific stories and examples to which men and women alike can relate. Sharing stories of success is important to both men andwomen, as we work side-by-side, raise strong daughters and sons, and volunteer in our communities for a better future.

Won’t you join me in building confident male allies? If you have a story to submit, I invite you to contact me on LinkedIn directly. As attested to by the men themselves, your story and recognition will make a difference.

Here’s to building confident champions and allies in 2017!

(Note: There is a whole body of psychological research around self-efficacy — the strength of one’s belief in one’s own ability to complete tasks or achieve goals; which relates directly to this article. I have not included this research directly in this business-focused example, but if you would like to read more I recommend reading Dr. Albert Bandura).

Article | The Psychologist and the Architect – A Story About Design Thinking

By Rachana Bhide

As a business psychologist, I like to say, “workplaces are human spaces.” My father, an architect, sparked my fascination for how design influences people’s moods, productivity levels, and fosters collaborative behaviors.

Design thinking has become a wonderful method for executives and employees alike to drive innovation through a set of principles such as user empathy, reframing, and insight-generation to solve tough problems (or rather, “see opportunities”). Design thinking can foster tremendous innovation for enhanced customer experiences in areas such as hospitality, retail and HR.

However, I have seen time and again that companies tend to overlook the most fundamental and important step in making design thinking work; that is the empathy stage. The empathy stage is all about developing a deep understanding of your user — not in generalities, but in specificities. It’s not about making broad assumptions (“millenials want X” or “women seek Z”), rather, it is about becoming absolutely enthralled by the lives of your users, to help generate meaningful and previously-unnoticed insights. Being “enthralled” means interviewing, observing, and even taking note of the details of users’ daily routines, ones that they themselves may have even overlooked. When we get the empathy stage right, we can finally begin to design for the unseen; for what the user profoundly needs and wants. For me, it is where psychology hits design, in a way that can truly transform user experience.

Here is one story — in the spirit of design it is a personal one — that illustrates the power of human empathy in design thinking. When I joined my new job, the entire department had just been gifted with high-end branded vests for us to wear (or not). When I received my vest, I was elated (yes, elated). I tell you, I wore that vest all the time. It didn’t matter what I was wearing to work that day, I always wore my vest on top of even my most favorite, fashionable dresses. I wore it on the train to visit my parents. I wore it all over New York City. I even wore it after work on a date.

When colleagues asked why I was wearing it (all the time), I very honestly answered, “I’m not sure. I think it’s because my dad always told me to wear a uniform if one was given to me.” And so this was ostensibly the reason, and it made perfect sense, and nobody thought anything further of it. Had a designer embarked on empathy through interviewing, this would seem, on the surface, to be a “breakthrough insight” (style-conscious adult woman who studied fashion at Vogue, wears company vest. Hmm… ).

However… the story was far deeper than that. Several weeks later, I was visiting my parents in Virginia. And I was of course, wearing the vest. At lunch, while my niece and nephews were helping my mom with food, my sister-in-law smiled and said, “Look, you and your dad are both wearing the same thing.”

I looked at my father who was sitting next to me, and it was the first time that day I realized it: He was also wearing a vest, nearly the same shade, branded with his own company logo. I had been subconsciously dressing like my father. 

Here’s why this is important: As a design thinker myself, I had always assumed the reason I wore my company vest, was because of my father’s advice. And it WAS because of my father, but it was for a deeper reason, one that I had not known when people simply asked. The real reason: I wanted to be like my dad. As a proud daughter, following in his footsteps, building a career for myself, taking lessons from him, and in this one instance, nearly imitating him as a sincere form of flattery.  And I hadn’t even noticed it myself; I’d spent all morning with my father, yet hadn’t paid any attention to what he was wearing. It would therefore take a designer to observe — and yes, become enthralled by this encounter — to generate one possible but powerful user insight: “37year-old woman adores her father so much, she finds seemingly mundane ways to show him that he has influenced her career.” When we really “go there” with such empathy-driven insights, we push boundaries and allow for far greater, unique perspectives into designing a user experience.

Now, imagine how an HR department, for example, could innovate around that one example to drive my engagement as an employee: Invite my father on a one-day trip to see my office. Send my father a vest of his own. Offer 1 day of paid time to be home and show my family the projects I work on. Invite my parents to volunteer with me and my colleagues on a company philanthropy project. Send my parents a photo of me in my work environment as a holiday gift. While these are unique to “me”, I can’t imagine that one idea couldn’t be extended to engage many more employees who identify loved ones they want to integrate into their company experiences.

I share the story because as humans, we have quirky, beautiful, nuanced behaviors that represent who we are, and what is meaningful to us. Very often, those very nuances lead to the insights that drive innovation in experiences such as retail, recruiting, employee engagement, guest services; the list goes on. But we can only get to the heart of these if we commit as designers to being fully embedded with our users’ lives through empathy; becoming enthralled by their behaviors and not shying away from powerful stories we might discover.

It’s the perfect blend of psychology and design. I like to think I learned it from my father.