Matt Abrahams: The deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and other Black Americans has put the issue of confronting systemic anti Black racism front and center. On today’s episode, we will discuss the role communication can play in helping advance social justice. I’m Matt Abrahams, and I teach strategic communication at Stanford Graduate School of Business. Welcome to Think Fast, Talk Smart: The Podcast.
I am excited to be joined by Brian Lowery, Professor of Organizational Behavior and a Senior Associate Dean at the GSB and, I should note, my boss. Brian’s research explores individual’s experience of inequality and fairness. He also leads the GSB’s Interpersonal Dynamics team. This quarter, Brian is hosting a series of conversations with prominent leaders from all sectors to examine the way race interacts with structures of power and how systematic racism manifests itself in our daily lives.
These conversations will take place in a class, are open to the public as a webinar series, and are being released as a podcast series called Leadership for Society: Race and Power. The podcast is available now. Welcome, Brian!
Brian Lowery: Great to be here, Matt. Thanks for having me.
Matt Abrahams: Well, thanks for being here. And congratulations on your podcast and more importantly, thank you for the work you are doing. Shall we get started?
Brian Lowery: Let’s go.
Matt Abrahams: So it’s notoriously difficult to communicate across differences — across cultural lines, across political lines, across racial lines. What advice to you have for engaging others in collaborative efforts to address racism and social injustice?
Brian Lowery: That’s a great question. People are, not surprisingly, really uncomfortable. So I think it’s hard to overestimate the degree of discomfort that creates, especially, again, in this country given our history. I think what it takes to do that effectively is one, courage. I think people are afraid. It takes humility — acknowledging that we don’t know, accepting that that lack of knowledge might be a function of not paying attention or not making the effort to learn about what’s going on in the world that doesn’t seem to have a direct effect on you.
I think that for many people, it’s quite uncomfortable. It’s, in some sense, a revelation about the self that’s hard to deal with. So I think coming to terms with that is really important if you want to talk productively with others. So I think that a big part of being able to talk productively about issues of race/racial injustice is first coming to terms with your own place in it. And I think that’s what people have the hardest time with.
Matt Abrahams: Sure. Do you have advice what people can do to really turn that reflection inward and really think about their place in it? Are there things that you have seen be successful in your experience?
Brian Lowery: That’s a great question. I think one is as you look out and you see these inequities — and I think people often think of them as the cost born by Black folks and other people of color. One thing is to ask yourself, if you’re not in that group — if you’re not a Black person or a person of color — if you’re, in particular, a white person — what’s your place in it to ask yourself? How is that affecting you?
So now yourself is somehow outside of it, so you don’t have to be — you don’t have to be perpetuating it or — well, most people are perpetuating it because we live in this society together. But you don’t have to be someone who is out doing purposeful harm to be a participant in the system. So accepting that and thinking about how this unjust system is affecting you, your life outcomes, the opportunities you have, the opportunities you can provide to your children — how are those tied up in this unjust system? Coming to terms with that on your own will put you in a better place when you want to talk to other people about these issues.
Matt Abrahams: That’s so powerful. And we have talked before on this podcast in many different guises about taking time to reflect and ask questions. And through inquiry can come insight. And I think that’s really a very useful place to start. Thank you for that. I’d like to turn now to some of your research. You’ve researched white privilege and have documented something you label as “cloaking” strategies that whites use to minimize the discomfort they might experience as a result of their privilege. Can you tell us more about these cloaking strategies and what can be done about them?
Brian Lowery: This is a great question. I keep saying it’s a great question because all your questions are pretty good, actually.
Matt Abrahams: Well, thank you.
Brian Lowery: Good work. Good work.
Matt Abrahams: Thank you. I appreciate it.
Brian Lowery: I think in terms of three broad strategies that I’ve done work on, that I’ve looked into, there is denial — denying that privilege exists, denying that racial injustice exists. Up until recently, and maybe still today, a majority of white Americans report that white people experience more discrimination than Black people.
Matt Abrahams: Wow.
Brian Lowery: So given the statistics, given all the evidence that’s out there for anyone to see, that seems absurd. And I’d argue that that is a psychological defense mechanism. And we could talk about how that comes to be or how people can hold that belief in the context of all of this [confirming] evidence that’s available. That’s one thing that people – just simply denying that privilege exits.
The second is that people can dis-identify with the advantaged group. So they might say, “Yes. There is racial privilege. That might exist. Some white people benefit from the system, but I’m not a part of that group.” So they distance themselves from the group. They just simply don’t think of themselves like those others. “I’m white, but I had a hard time growing up,” or, “I grew up poor.” There’s these other ways that people can talk about hardships that remove them in their own minds and attempt to remove them in others’ minds from the sphere of privilege that’s associated with their race.
And the final one is people might actually act to dismantle their privilege. So when they’re forced to acknowledge that privilege exists and that they benefit from it, that discomfort might lead them to support policies that actively work against that privilege. And we talk about that as dismantling privilege. So those are the three things that I have some research on that examines how white people, in particular, respond to evidence that they may benefit from privilege. So they deny it exists, they dis-identify from the group, or they might actually work to dismantle those privileges.
Matt Abrahams: Those are powerful concepts, and I love alliteration. And so you helped make them a little more memorable as well. I’m going to take you up on your offer. You said you would be willing to explain a little bit more about how people can deny information that seems so readily apparent to others. You’ve alluded to the fact of psychological discomfort and comfort.
I’m wondering how can people, in the face of clear evidence — and not it’s just in the area of racism. We see this in lots of other areas in our lives, where the evidence to some of us seems blatantly clear and to others, it doesn’t. Do you have some insight into the mechanisms underlying that and maybe things we can do to help others see or at least be willing to look at a different perspective?
Brian Lowery: The one that probably stands out most is that people want to feel good about themselves. That shouldn’t be surprising that everyone wants to have a positive view of themselves and that we have psychological strategies designed to maintain that view. And so partly what’s going on is a motivated ignorance about the evidence that might be readily apparent to everyone else. Some of it is systemic in that, in this country, there is incredible segregation, racial and economic. So we’re not forced to see, sometimes, the degree of disparity. I’d argue that — I’d put that second because the reality is almost everyone can see — it’s a part of the broad culture.
If you open your eyes, it’s there to see. But we do, more than some other places, really have a high degree of segregation. So you might not see or even know many Black people if you’re a white person in this country. And if you have significant wealth, that wealth protects you often from having to see people who are in economically vulnerable situations. I think that’s another feature of the system that helps us avoid understanding the degree of disparities and injustice in the country. And then also, it’s true that individuals have done work to attain where they are.
And when we look at people like us and use that as a comparison, then it’s hard to see ourselves as advantaged because we’re surrounded by people like us. And we know plenty of people who had all the advantages we had and didn’t succeed. So that gives us the sense that we’re completely deserving of everything we have. Because people are not really good about thinking about it in terms of — there are multiple components to your success.
A big part of it is outside of your control, but that doesn’t mean that none of it is within your range of control. So we simply augment the part of it that is us and downplay the part of it that is outside of our control, meaning the contribution to our success. And that, again, allows us not to have to acknowledge or grapple with how an unjust system might have bestowed some benefits onto us that led to our success.
Matt Abrahams: And I can imagine that social media and the media in general can help reinforce the beliefs we have so that they can become even more entrenched — reinforcing the denial that we might be experiencing as well.
Brian Lowery: Yeah. I think that the broader society is designed to maintain itself. The society is not going to put things in front of you that are going to lead to unhappiness and unrest. So if you go through your normal day, you’re entertained. You’re occupied. You’re worried about your job and putting dinner on the table. And when you’re not thinking about that, you’re playing some game on your phone or something else. Society is not designed, really, to evoke deep thought about the fault lines in the broader community. That’s not something that is going to be presented to you. It’s something that you have to look for and pay attention to.
Matt Abrahams: And I think that’s where education can help. I recently had the honor of speaking with your friend and fellow associate dean, Sarah Soule on this podcast. And she and I discussed diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts here at Stanford. And I’m curious if you think representation in education is a good way to begin to address inequality, and are there other institutions where we really need to critically focus on advancing diversity?
Brian Lowery: I think that representation in education is important. If you were to ask me where would I focus first, it would be in the housing sector. In this country, the degree of segregation and access to housing is unsettling, if you look into it. It’s incredible. If you know someone’s zip code, you know a lot about them. If you know the zip code that someone was born in, you can predict quite a bit about their life outcomes.
There’s everything from the education that you’re likely to get to the kind of networks you’ll be a part of — are going to be predicted by where you’re born, where you live. So I think education helps in terms of hearts and minds. But I’d like to think in terms of policies and pocketbooks first. I think that the material situations that people are in change the psychology as opposed to hoping that changing the psychology will change the material situation that people are faced with.
Matt Abrahams: Excellent. So there’s a lot that has to be done. Education can serve a role, but we have to focus on lots of other areas. Thank you. I’d like to change direction just a little bit. You’ve created a model of leadership that you teach in [champion] at the GSB. Can you provide us an overview of that model and highlight the role communication plays in it?
Brian Lowery: Sure. I’ll focus primarily on the competencies. There are five competencies. The first is self-awareness, so being aware of what drives us, what our goals are, what motivates us. Also understanding our own strengths and weaknesses — so that’s the first part of the model, the first competency. The second is perspective-taking, that is, understanding that our experience of the world isn’t the world as it is. It’s the world as we experience it. And others have a different experience. Even when we’re in the same situation, the experiences of that situation vary depending on the person’s perspective — who’s there and what their history is, etc.
And this is really important because when we think about managing, when we think about dealing with conflict, we can only do that effectively when we understand the experience of the other person we’re dealing with. And so for whatever reason, human beings will – for a number of reasons, human beings have a hard time holding that idea that their experience of the world is not the world and that other people have a different experience. So that is the second competency.
Matt Abrahams: You know, Brian, we have talked about that notion of perspective-taking and empathy many times on different episodes of this podcast. It is so critical to get out of your own head and try to understand what motivates others, what they need to hear. I really appreciate that that’s part of your model and that you articulated it so well. I’m curious if you can share the other three components of the model beyond the two you’ve just shared.
Brian Lowery: Of course. And I’ll just say one more thing about perspective-taking. It’s not just trying to figure out what someone else is experiencing or has experienced. Sometimes, it’s taking the time to ask and understand the other person and have them tell you what their experience is as opposed to trying to understand it from your perspective. The third one is context. And by that, I mean the social environment, the physical environment, the space in which you are having your interactions with other people. That has an effect on how you show up, how other people in the environment show up, and how everyone understands the situation.
As an example, during COVID, many of us if not all of us are moving towards more virtual communication. That is a shift in context. That’s going to change the way people understand you and the way people experience you — the way people experience the conversations that you have. And so you have to keep that in mind. You cannot engage in exactly the same behavior and assume that you’re going to get exactly the same results. The context shifts. So understanding the way that context changes experience is an important part of leadership.
Fourth, critical analysis and decision making, and that is all the technical expertise that you need to have to be a good leader. Understand how to use big data if that’s a part of your organization or your job. Do you understand your books — accounting? Being technically competent is obviously a key to being a successful leader. Mastering the technical aspects of your job is key. Making good decisions. Also, there’s so much information in the world right now. There’s so much data that being able to extract what you need from that vast array of things that are out there and make good decisions is really key.
And then the last one — but not least — is holistic communication. That is, how do you convey what’s in your head and what you need from other people, what your vision of the world is? How do you convey that to other people? So not just your words, but also the way you dress, how you say your words, the tone of voice, the examples that you create in your behavior – all those things are cues that people use to make sense of you and what it is that you are about and what it is that you need from them. So holistic communication is the fifth competency that we talk about in the model.
Matt Abrahams: Well, you certainly know that I’m going to be a big fan of that last competency. And it’s really important from the perspective of my view of the world. But all of those factor together — all five of those competencies factor together to really help people be effective leaders. You have some specific ways of helping people accomplish the different steps in that model. Is there anything that stands out as a best practice that you teach as you teach that model to people?
Brian Lowery: One of the things that I highlight is that people should be curious. I think there’s insufficient curiosity, for example, about the self. People often think they understand themselves, but they aren’t paying attention to how they behave. They’re not asking themselves what could I have done differently here. There’s that — paying attention to the self. There’s curiosity about other people. If someone does something that upsets you, are you asking why they might have done that? What’s going on with them? Are you trying to make sense of it? Are you trying to understand their perspective? Are you asking them questions? Are you asking them good questions?
So I think curiosity is a big part of what it takes to improve on those things. I think vulnerability can be useful. And we do a lot with that at the GSB as well — helping leaders think about how to let down their guard enough to learn and grow. I think that’s a big, big part of improving on these dimensions. And then being willing to experiment, too — try new things.
A lot of people are really into these models of personality. I’m this kind of leader. I’m that kind of person. And I think that a great leader is flexible. You can come to be what you need to be or what your team or organization needs you to be in that moment. If you only have one way of leading, that’s much more limiting than if you have a wider range. So the willingness to experiment and try new things, I think, is also key.
Matt Abrahams: Several of the things you just suggested are things that I completely agree with and advocate for. I spend a lot of time talking to people about taking the time to reflect. There’s that definition of insanity — doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results. And a lot of us live our lives, especially when it comes to our communication just doing the same thing because we’ve always done it that way.
And I think reflecting — what worked, what didn’t work, how did this result in that — can really help us adjust. And then that notion of experimentation is critical because that’s how you actually really can see the difference. I often say my mantra is we have to change habits into choices. And the only way you can develop other choices is through reflection and experimentation. So I really appreciate what you just said.
Brian Lowery: Let me say one more thing about the leadership model before we go ahead. All those things that I said are [amoral]. And by that, I simply mean they are ways to be effective with other people achieving — the ways that achieve goals. But it doesn’t say anything about what those goals should be. And so I think a model of leadership should also have values. I won’t get into what those values should be. But I would just say that a good leader, not an effective leader — and I want to make a distinction.
Effective is being able to achieve your goals, which is important, but there are plenty of people who achieve their goals that most of us would find unworthy. So the question what does it take to be a good leader requires you to reflect on the values that you hold dear — and not simply a list of things that are good but a small set of things that are core to the way you want to lead and the way you want to live. So I would also say in the model, it’s important to consider deeply what values are most important to you.
Matt Abrahams: Absolutely. Very, very well said and critically important. I can’t let you go without asking about interpersonal dynamics. It’s one of the GSB’s most famous and important classes. Can you share some of the key lessons participants take away from their experience? And maybe even best practices relevant for leaders who aspire to lead diverse teams?
Brian Lowery: I love that you asked about the class. What I would say about that course is something that I’ve already pointed to, that it really is an opportunity to engage with others with a degree of openness that we rarely have in our day-to-day experiences. And it requires a degree of vulnerability, a degree of openness that if you’re willing to engage with it can change the way you understand yourself. That’s really — I would say that course primarily allows space to develop a degree of self-awareness that people often don’t have coming in.
For example, we rarely get honest feedback. You go through life most of the time and people want to be nice. And they’ll praise you and that’s fine. And even people you trust will give you feedback, but it’s often hindered or hampered by the desire to maintain a positive relationship. And also, especially in work context, many people are afraid to be themselves. They’re afraid they’re going to be judged.
They don’t know how they’re seen. So creating a space where people can try out new things, where they can try to reveal things that they normally would hide and they can get real feedback about how people are responding to that, or people are telling them things that normally people won’t tell them — that’s really, I think, the core of what happens in that class that people find transformative. I don’t want to overstate it. There’s a lot that happens in that course. [You have to take it] to completely get it. But I would say, primarily, it’s about self-awareness.
Matt Abrahams: Right. And the psychological safety to be vulnerable and to actually get honest, direct feedback.
Brian Lowery: And to experiment with different ways of being. Some people sometimes leave that realizing they’ve been hiding this part of themselves that they didn’t need to hide. And that can be transformative for people.
Matt Abrahams: Excellent. We’re in this business to help people become better or different, and I think that course is a crucible for that. Before we end, I’d like to ask you the same three questions I ask everybody who joins me. You up for the questions?
Brian Lowery: All right. Let’s do it.
Matt Abrahams: All right. Question number one. If you were to capture the best communication advice you ever received as a five-to-seven-word presentation slide title, what would it be?
Brian Lowery: Nobody cares more than you.
Matt Abrahams: I like it. Tell me more.
Brian Lowery: There’s this effect called the spotlight effect, where you think everybody is so focused on you and everybody is dissecting every word you say. The reality is often times, you have to work to get people to pay attention to what you’re saying. They are not hanging on every word dissecting what you’re saying. They’re thinking about what they’re going to say or they’re thinking about what they’re going to have for dinner. And I think that there’s a way in which, if you understand that, it allows you to relax a bit.
Even in big talks where people are paying attention to you, if you give a half-hour talk, you hope that people walk away a day later, and they can remember a sentence or two. They’re just trying to distill in down into the essence or what they’re walking away with is how they felt. And so I think that we can lose sight of that by thinking that everybody is thinking about it and as anxious about it or whatever it is as we are. And that’s just not true. I think that’s never true.
Matt Abrahams: Right. I don’t know if you know this history, but the namesake of this podcast, Think Fast, Talk Smart, is based on a talk I did a number of years ago. The dean’s office at the time, before you were in your role, asked me to help because many students were struggling with cold-calling. And the struggle that they were having is they putting so much pressure on themselves to give the right answer, and it’s a direct result of the spotlight effect you’re talking about.
They feel that everybody is so focused on them giving that right answer at that moment, when in fact, everybody else, if you were to poll them, is so worried that they’re going to be called next, they’re fixated on what they’re going to say. So the think fast, talk smart is really all designed around what you’re talking about. It’s helping people realize that you don’t have to get it perfect. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It just has to get done. And then when you take that pressure off yourself, you can actually do it even better. So I love the quote and highlighting the spotlight affect is really important for people to think about. Let me ask you a question —
Brian Lowery: [Unintelligible] — just one more thing about this piece of — there was some research done a while back that suggests that it’s how much you talk that is predictive of how intelligent people think you are. Because they forget — in essence, they’re not paying attention to what you say — if you’re the right kind of person anyway. They just know that you spoke.
Matt Abrahams: Right. Exactly. I have been told by many of my friends that I found the perfect career for myself — getting paid to talk a lot. I think maybe there’s something to that. Question number two. Who is a communicator, Brian, that you admire and why?
Brian Lowery: I’ll go with James Baldwin. I’ll go back a bit. I admire him because there was — in addition to a deep erudition, there was just a comfort with who he was at some point that was incredible. And I often don’t see that mix. I think often a deep intelligence can yield an arrogance, which I don’t find that impressive. Or people are just presenting in a way that makes sure that you see their intelligence. It’s really hard to actually convey a depth of knowledge and also present as someone who’s engaged in the day-to-day world. And I’m impressed when people can successfully pull that off.
Matt Abrahams: Certainly. Certainly. So our final question — what are the first three ingredients that go into a successful communication recipe?
Brian Lowery: The first two jump right out to me. The third one is less clear. So I would say know your audience. You have to know who you’re speaking to. I think you have to have a sense of what your goals are. What is it that you’re trying to achieve, and what do you want your audience to do for the second one. And I guess I would say know what you want your audience to feel might be the third. I’m going to separate the do and feel to get two out of that.
Matt Abrahams: All right. We’ll let you by with that.
Brian Lowery: I appreciate it. I appreciate it.
Matt Abrahams: Yeah. We’ll let you by. Yeah. So know, feel, do, right?
Brian Lowery: Okay. I’ll give you one more, and I’ll give you a different one. Plan and then forget about it. Someone once told me the best way to dress is to think really hard about what you’re putting on and then completely forgot about it once you’re done. That’s how you dress.
Matt Abrahams: Well, I think that’s great.
Brian Lowery: I think that’s probably how you communicate well, too.
Matt Abrahams: And for people who don’t know you, Brian, I have to share that you are a very stylish dresser, and so you take that advice well. Thank you. Thank you for that and thank you for your time today. Your thoughtful insight into race and power along with your specific suggestions will certainly help in the persistent struggle for a more just and equitable world. And I just want to remind everybody about Brian’s podcast and efforts. It’s called Leadership for Society: Race and Power. Episodes are available now, and new episodes come out every other week. Brian, thanks again.
Brian Lowery: Thanks again for having me. I really appreciate it. It was fun.
Matt Abrahams: Thank you for listening to Think Fast, Talk Smart: The Podcast, a production of Stanford Graduate School of Business. To learn more, go to gsb.stanford.edu. Please download other episodes wherever you find your podcasts.
(As published on the Stanford GSB website.)