In this edition of Author Talks, McKinsey Global Publishing’s Christine Y. Chen chats with Sally Helgesen about her new book, Rising Together: How We Can Bridge Divides and Create a More Inclusive Workplace (Hachette Book Group, February 2023). In this follow-up to her book How Women Rise, Helgesen expands on her call for workplace inclusion by sharing the behavioral and communication tools everyone can adopt to effectively connect across cultural barriers. An edited version of the conversation follows.
Why did you write this book now?
At the end of 2019, I was delivering a 90-minute workshop on women’s leadership. I expected, based on my experience of delivering these programs, that there would be about 150 women there who were struggling to make their voices heard in a very male-dominated environment.
When I got there, there were about 300 people, and between 60 and 70 percent of them were men. I could not have been more surprised. My prepared program was not appropriate, so I started by asking especially the men why they had come, and they talked about the challenges they had, not just in attracting but in retaining talented women. They said they needed to get better at it or they felt that they would not survive given the composition of the workforce that was available.
Then one man stood, and he said something that turned my head around. He said, “Please, don’t waste your time telling us why we need to get better at this,” which was precisely what I was preparing to do. He said, “We get it. We understand. What we don’t know is how to do it. We don’t have a clue.” When he said that, I thought, that’s what’s missing from the conversation about communicating against common barriers—gender, in this case, but also ethnicity, race, sexual orientation, and generation. What’s missing is the “how to do it” or the specifics.
Who is the intended audience for this book?
It’s meant for anybody. There are specific behaviors or techniques for younger people and for older people, for people who feel very much a part of the leadership mainstream and for people who feel outside of it.
I was writing for two groups: people in the workplace who wanted to get better at communicating and building alliances across a range of divides, and people in the whole HR training world who I felt would benefit by being able to have techniques that would answer the question: How do we do this? I wanted to encourage people to look at the role that inclusive behaviors could play, rather than continuing to focus on uncovering unconscious biases, which has been the approach for the past 20 years.
I wanted to encourage people to look at the role that inclusive behaviors could play, rather than continuing to focus on uncovering unconscious biases, which has been the approach for the past 20 years.
In the ’90s in general, the focus on building more inclusive cultures was always in the service of making better use of interactive and network technologies. It had nothing to do with diversity. It was toward the end of the ’90s that the terms diversity and inclusion became yoked together. This makes absolute sense, because anybody who’s been outside of the leadership mainstream is going to have a harder time feeling included in an organization. I wanted to revisit some of those ideas in the context of the diversity that is such a characteristic of today’s workforce globally.
In your book, you mention that diversity is neither the problem nor the goal but a reality. What is the goal?
The goal is trying to address diversity by building a more inclusive culture. What I’ve noticed is that since diversity and inclusion have become yoked together in organizations, they’ve become almost indistinguishable, but they’re very different.
Diversity describes the composition of today’s global workforce: what we have to work with and the reality of the situation that organizations are in. Inclusion describes the only effective means of leading and managing diverse organizations. For people outside of the leadership mainstream who may not feel included, it’s tougher for them to feel like a part of the larger whole.
One of the ways that I assess whether an organization has an inclusive culture is one of the simplest possible methods: Does the largest possible percentage of people speak of the organization in terms of ‘we’ or ‘they’?
People don’t react to us based on the thoughts that are running through our heads. They react to us based upon our behaviors, how we treat them, what we say, and what we do. While it can be helpful to look at what’s running through our heads, it doesn’t necessarily give us a path forward to how that connects to behaviors. I’m both trying to build on this and propose an alternative.
One of the ways that I assess whether an organization has an inclusive culture is one of the simplest possible methods: Does the largest possible percentage of people speak of the organization in terms of “we” or “they”? If it’s we, it’s probably inclusive, and if it’s they, which it often is, then despite all the mission statements extolling diversity and inclusive culture—it’s not an inclusive culture.
How do you define the word ‘trigger,’ which has a specific cultural meaning right now?
What I have tried to do here is normalize the whole concept of triggers. Often younger people will arrive having been at university, where they have been taught that they need to be hyper aware of what triggers them and need to push back against it, that it’s part of their responsibility in their growth.
Bringing that to the workplace can be somewhat ineffective and can deprive you of the ability to build a broad range of allies at the start. Triggers are part of life, especially in a highly diverse culture. Recognizing that triggers exist, there will be situations where we are very triggered, and then figuring out how we want to address them in a way that serves our peace of mind and long-term interest is very important.
What triggers can trip people up when they’re trying to find the tools to be more inclusive?
A big one is visibility. If we struggle with making ourselves visible, we can feel triggered by people who are skilled at it. We can draw back from them and make judgments about them. I hear this all the time. People say to me, “How can I gain recognition for my achievements without acting like that jerk down the hall?” Well, that “jerk down the hall,” in your phrasing, may have something to teach you, and you may want to adapt it.
If you’re judging that individual because you’re triggered by his or her comfort in claiming their own visibility, that’s holding you back from being able to adapt what he or she is doing. People who are good at being visible can cause us to overinvest in our own expertise. We may figure, OK, I’ll just be excellent at my job, and then people will notice. When that doesn’t happen—and it often doesn’t—if we don’t find a way of becoming known for it, then we often feel undervalued and underrecognized, and we may disengage.
Finally, people who are very comfortable claiming visibility and see it as a big part of their job can be dismissive and judgmental about people who are not. This can undermine the ability to build constructive relationships for people who are good at visibility. It can also cause them to underinvest in developing their own skills because they may think, “I’m doing it all by claiming visibility.”
There are all kinds of ways that we can end up either feeling offended by what someone says or taking offense at what someone says that has to do with our values, how we were raised, etcetera. As an example, one of the most common observations of younger people doing exit interviews was, “My boss never even learned how to say my name.”
I think a little less emphasis on authenticity and a little more emphasis on what is professional in the situation would help us with communication across a range of divides.
This is very important. A way of demonstrating inclusion is, when an unfamiliar name crops up, ask the person, and ask them once, “How do you pronounce your name?” Write it down, rehearse it if necessary, and then don’t get it wrong. It’s very important communication behavior that can be really helpful.
One thing that I find often gets in the way of communication is that we are encouraged today to act as our authentic self. This can lead to a lot of communication habits that are not particularly helpful, like saying, “I call ‘em like I see ‘em,” or “I’m not politically correct,” or “I have to say exactly what I want to say here because I have to be me.”
This is often not helpful to effective communication across boundaries because it leads us to be insensitive to what other people’s concerns might be. I think a little less emphasis on authenticity and a little more emphasis on what is professional in the situation would help us with communication across a range of divides.
How has the landscape of inclusion changed in recent years?
The landscape has changed dramatically. I’ve been in this field for 35 years now, and one of the primary things I’ve noticed is that I think women and other outsiders to the mainstream are redefining how we perceive excellence in leadership in a way that is often undercredited. A lot of what we’re seeing was considered “soft” skills, not leadership skills, in the early ’90s when I was in this field. They have now been redefined as leadership skills. Building strong relationships and empathy are taught at West Point.
That’s been a big change: how excellence is defined. The other thing I’ve noticed is that women and other outsiders to the traditional leadership mainstream tend to have much more confidence and more awareness that being able to articulate what they have to contribute and getting noticed for it is going to be essential to their careers.
There is much greater solidarity among people who were outsiders before. This is especially true with women. Senior women are eager to and often see it as part of their brand to support women coming up.
Finally, and I think this has emerged in the past few years, there is greater recognition that we can’t do it alone and that we all need allies. For women, we need male allies as well as female allies. We can’t get there with just a network of women, and there is now more confidence in trying to recruit in that way.
These changes in confidence, solidarity, and allies, and the redefinition of excellence in leadership have been enormously consequential. I often do programs and people will say, “Nothing has changed for women.” You weren’t there. You have no idea. It’s changed.