It’s often the ‘straightforward’ responses or reactions from other people that help us make changes – also when it’s painful. That was the case for me many years back and I am grateful for how it changed my approach to achieve diversity, equity, and inclusion. It’s a shame that we leave it up to chance to get such valuable (and sometimes painful) feedback. Perhaps we could seek it out more proactively and that is our path to making more progress?

Two experiences have been particularly game changing for me in my work life and in my approach to making changes for more diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). These were the straightforward responses from a CEO and from a colleague.

“Just stop!” was the straightforward response from the CEO. He looked straight at me as he continued “… we don’t want to understand this. It’s too complex. We believe in this with our hearts. We are ready to run. Just guide us how and get the other 16,000 people moving in the same direction. Goodbye – I do not want to hear anything more!” It wasn’t painful that he had just interrupted my presentation about the need to re-design the organisational processes to mitigating unconscious bias and eliminate structural discrimination to achieve DEI. It was also that he had stopped the important discussion about unconscious bias (a completely new concept to them) that I had managed to get the executive leaders engaged in, and to top it off, he asked me to leave the meeting 30 minutes before my time was up. It was exceedingly difficult to not feel rejected. It was painful. As I was leaving the room, I turned around in the door opening and said to him “I just need to understand my mandate. You want me to get thousands of people moving in the same direction without speaking with them and without them understanding why?. When he answered “yes”, I replied “then it can take a really long time before they meet at the same destination”. He turned his chair towards me “That’s okay, changes like this take a long time”. After this meeting, several colleagues came by to hear how the meeting went. They knew how much work I had put into this. This presentation was important for the DEI change initiative. These were my trusted peers, so I was honest with them. To my relief, they all said statements like “No, way. How rude of him!” and “How cynical and cold!” and “What an asshole!”… exactly, my thoughts!

Blaming the CEO together with the others felt great. I later learned that the psychological definition of blaming is discharging the feelings of discomfort and pain. It might work in the moment but not in the long run. The feelings are not numbed but instead are reinforced and lead you into a negative spiral. And so, it did for me too. I was stuck.

“Wow, what a mandate!” was the straightforward response from another colleague when I told her in detail about the incidence. Luckily for me, she said “That is potentially the biggest mandate you will ever get! So, what are you doing to do about it?” It took me off guard. I felt embarrassed and surprised that I did not notice this big mandate (regardless if this was the CEO’s intention or not to give me it) and that I did not notice this opportunity of being set free to do my work. Her feedback catalysed me into a different mindset and path. Maybe because I no longer felt rejected, but instead felt empowered with a mandate, I started searching and exploring what to do instead of hiding and feeling paralysed.

That same week, I randomly picked two books from my big pile of books – you know, that pile that keeps growing because you honestly believe that one magic day you will have so much time on your hands that you will read them all and that’s why you keep buying even more books. The first book was Jonathan Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis and the other was Switch – When Change is Hard by Dan & Chip Heath.

I read about Haidt’s brain metaphor about the unconscious mind (the system dominating our behaviour) being like a six-ton heavy elephant and the conscious mind being like the rider on top of the elephant. The rider can guide our behaviour in a meaningful direction but is not doing our behaviour – that’s the unconscious mind. The Heath brothers elaborated with examples of how the rider cannot with intellectual and rational understanding get the elephant moving. The unconscious mind is motivated to move when it is emotionally motivated to do so and when it is easy to do.

This was an aha-moment for me because this was exactly what the CEO had said to me:

“Don’t make us understand” = it’s not going to make a difference to talk to the rider.

“We believe in this with our hearts” = leverage that belief in the elephant – make it feel the need.

“Get us moving and guide us” = give us practical actions and just make the elephant do it.

It was the missing piece in the puzzle for me to grasp how to execute my mandate. So, I made a pledge to myself: From now on, I’ll not present one single business case on DEI to the rational mind. I’ll move the elephant by using behavioural insights design. And so, I did, and this has completely changed my work approach and influence. In the blog article The Power of Speech Bubbles you can read about the first design I made and the impact it had.

Today, I am grateful for these experiences – but I am mostly grateful for the combination of all the incidences because that is what became game changing for me. As I look back at all these years since then, I realise how big an impact this serendipity has had on me – this is what led me to meet Lisa (co-founder of Inclusion Nudges) and for us to combine our approaches of applying behavioural insights design and developing the Inclusion Nudges change and design approach. I can’t help wondering, if we all proactively ask for this kind of straightforward feedback – even when it’s painful – instead of leaving it up to chance, could that be the missing piece in the puzzle for all of us to make more progress for diversity, equity, and inclusion? Maybe going forward, we should all practice asking for this kind of somewhat painful input.

If like me, your fear of being vulnerable (and being rejected) is holding you back, then I just want to remind you that the brain is just a muscle and by practicing asking for help, you can desensitise yourself from the pain and make the fear disappear – and the bonus is a lot of new opportunities opening up as a result of the straightforward feedback you’ll be receiving. It’s a win win.

If you want inspiration to get started on practicing this, I recommend that you listen to this TED talk What I Learned From 100 Days of Rejection by Jia Jiang and his real-life experiments on asking for help and seeking out rejection. It turned our really well.

And remember this:

It’s not the rejections that define us. It’s our reactions to the rejections that define us.