Lead With That: What Cancel Culture Can Teach Us About Impact and Accountability

image with microphone and lead with that podcast episode title, What Cancel Culture Can Teach Us About Impact and Accountability

In this episode of Lead With That, Ren and Allison explore “cancel culture” from a leader’s perspective.

Pepe Le Pew, Elmer Fudd, Yosemite Sam, even Minnie Mouse – all impacted by cancel culture. Dave Chappelle, Joe Rogan, Gina Carano, J.K. Rowling – whether an animation character or just simply an animated character, no one’s safe. But is it cancel or consequence? And really, how does it impact you, working with and on teams and leading people through change? 

What are the implications for leading teams and managing conflict, risk-taking, and the perceived threat of making a mistake in this new era of communication? As more voices get involved in the conversation, there are going to be that many more colliding perspectives. A good leader considers others’ perspectives and makes space for people to make mistakes without fear. So, we’re curious and want to explore how leaders can make room for people to learn from their mistakes while also honoring the sentiments of those around them. How can we as leaders balance the benefits and consequences of cancel culture and lead with that?

Listen now or read the full transcript below. 

Listen to the Podcast

In this episode, Ren and Allison explore what we can learn about impact and accountability from the rise of cancel culture.

Interview Transcript:

INTRO:

Welcome back to CCL’s podcast Lead With That. We talk current events and pop culture, we look at where leadership is happening, and what’s happening with leadership.

Ren Washington:

Allison, we’ve been canceled.

Allison Barr:

By who?

Ren Washington:

Well, not the show, but America. I’m told you can’t say anything anymore. Pepe Le Pew, Elmer Fudd, Yosemite Sam, even Mini Mouse, all are victims to cancel culture. Dave Chappelle, Joe Rogan, Gina Carano, J.K. Rowling, whether an animation character or simply just an animated character, no one’s safe.

But is it cancel or is it consequence? And really, listener, how does it impact you working with and on teams with people and leading people through change? Today, we want to explore “cancel culture” from a leader’s point of view.

What are the implications for leading teams and managing conflict for risk-taking and the perceived threat of making a mistake in this new era of communication? As more voices get involved in the conversation, there are going to be that many more colliding perspectives. And good leaders consider others’ perspectives and make space for people to make mistakes without fear.

So we’re curious and want to discuss how leaders can make room for people to learn from their mistakes while also honoring the sentiments of all of those around them. So, how can you navigate cancel culture in your everyday life? Welcome back everyone. I’m Ren Washington, and as usual I’m joined with Allison Barr. Allison, have you ever been canceled?

Allison Barr:

Well, define canceled.

Ren Washington:

I don’t know. You tell me. Have you, in any instance, can you think of a moment where for some of your behavior you were summarily removed?

Allison Barr:

Removed? No.

Ren Washington:

No.

Allison Barr:

Criticized by a lot of people? Absolutely.

Ren Washington:

Yeah.

Allison Barr:

Yeah.

Ren Washington:

You want to share?

Allison Barr:

Sure. I mean, we’ve talked about social media. You know I like social media. And on TikTok, for those of you who don’t know, it’s very easy to reach a broad audience. And actually, what I posted was if you are a manager, one of the best things that you can learn is conflict resolution and that’s in some ways a more important skill set than technical skills. And I got over 1.2 million views on that, and I just got ostracized. I stopped reading the comments. It was bad.

Ren Washington:

Wait, hold on and pause. You got 1.1 million views on a TikTok?

Allison Barr:

1.2, don’t take that two away from me.

Ren Washington:

Oh, my bad.

Allison Barr:

Yes.

Ren Washington:

My bad everybody. Holy smokes. Check out Allison on TikTok people, you’re missing it. 

Allison Barr:

Just don’t read the comments on that one.

Ren Washington:

So you got flamed in the comments, huh?

Allison Barr:

I got flamed. I got called a Karen. That was the first.

Ren Washington:

You got called a Karen. Wow.

Allison Barr:

Yes. Yes. So I don’t think that’s canceling necessarily, but rather people wholeheartedly disagreeing with me, with their whole hearts.

Ren Washington:

I’m reminded to treat failure and success as the same two imposters.

Allison Barr:

Sure.

Ren Washington:

So don’t ride the highs too high, don’t ride the lows too low. But no, not canceled, we could still find you on TikTok?

Allison Barr:

Yes.

Ren Washington:

Despite all the fervor and polarizing commentary? I’m starting TikTok everybody. I don’t think I can make content as cool as Allison, but geez, getting me a sliver of that $1.2 million or 1.2 million views action. Holy smokes.

Allison Barr:

It’s too bad I don’t get a dollar for every view, that would be amazing. Wouldn’t it?

Ren Washington:

No. Yeah. Well, yeah. I mean, let’s not be greedy, I’d take a quarter for every view at that point. I’m not a greedy man. Yeah. I don’t think I’ve ever been, well, no, I think I have been canceled.

Allison Barr:

Really?

Ren Washington:

When I was in elementary school, we had these things called Safeties. So they were like fourth and fifth graders, you’d wear a little reflective vest and you would line up the underclassmen, the underclassmen, the young kids, first, second, third grade, you’d line them up and get them to their buses.

And I remember, I was standing in line next to some other Safeties and some teacher. And I think I made an unsavory joke, and I was removed because I was in a position of responsibility. And I was told, that I wasn’t allowed to say those kinds of things. And I still remember actually, I was channeling it today, kind of my walk of shame. I remember holding the vest and the band and dropping it off in this fifth grade teacher’s office.

And they were having a safety meeting in there, so all the other safeties were there, and I had to drop it off and then walk away. And I could see the kids staring at me through the window. It was an interesting frame and time in my life, but it makes me think a lot around, well, and you even asked it, what is cancel culture?

Allison Barr:

Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah.

Ren Washington:

What does it mean?

Allison Barr:

Well, so I did some digging, right? And the history of cancel culture has a lot of different perspectives. So a couple perspectives speculate that saying that “you’re canceled” came from a television show in the ’80s where if you were broken up with, you were said to have been canceled, right?

Like, “I’m going to break up with you, you’re canceled.” And it was sort of in jest. And then the queer communities of color picked that up mostly on Twitter and made that language of being canceled a meme. And then other people picked that up because as I understand it, they originally thought it was funny, right?

Like, “I’m canceling you. Ha ha ha.” Because saying you’re canceled does not actually do anything. However, what I found from New York Times article in 2018, was that they described canceling as an act of, I’m quoting here, “Personal agency, a withdraw of one’s attention from those whose values or actions conflict or hurt us directly or harm a marginalized group.” And so I thought that was an interesting definition.

It’s almost a way to speak up about inequalities, while you can’t necessarily change the system. So canceling with that definition is intended to be a way to resist oppression and move toward coalition. What’s interesting is that social media, well, media in general, I would say, has given people such a broad reach, if they want it, that it allows for millions to be involved, to express that active agency.

Whereas beforehand, if I wanted people to get on board with canceling you, Ren, for some reason, that’d be very hard to do to get millions on board, right? So social media has given people a very broad reach, if they want it. And it’s really causing panic amongst some who have larger platforms, but I don’t know that panic necessarily needs to exist.

Ren Washington:

I appreciate you running through the details there. And I had a question that I wanted to ask you a little bit later, but it makes me want to just ask you now because something you said there around how cancel culture or canceling thing could be a mechanism for some kind of standing up to oppression.

And I wonder, when we think about cancel culture or rather when we think about people actively trying to create more empathy and inclusion by removing things that might be troublesome for that kind of inclusion, in our effort for inclusion, are we creating exclusion?

Allison Barr:

Well, give me an example of where you’ve even seen that.

Ren Washington:

I think there are plenty of people I’ve talked to who truly feel like they are not welcome and that their commentary is not welcome. And they, like I said, in the beginning, just aren’t allowed to say anything anymore.

Allison Barr:

Well, I think people often confuse canceling with accountability and responsibility. And there’s an interesting thing that’s happening with canceling and cancel culture, and it’s been manipulated by some who have been canceled, who have those larger platforms, to make it seem as if a freedom is being infringed upon, right? Can’t say anything, freedom of speech, right?

Where I would argue that freedom of speech has never been freer. Ren, I could right now get on the interwebs, try to start a movement that house cats are a government conspiracy. Nobody would stop me from doing that. Nobody would. And I might get some people on board. And no one, again, no one’s going to stop me from doing that.

But I might get criticized. So freedom of speech and having freedom to speak does not mean freedom of consequence or criticism. For those people who say, you can’t say anything anymore, which we’ve all heard somebody say that. I would want to know, what are some of the things you want to say? What do you want to say?

Ren Washington:

Yeah. Yeah. What are you trying to say that you feel like you can’t say anymore? It’s interesting. I think comedians are a really curious place to dig into this.

Allison Barr:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Ren Washington:

And I was listening to a video clip with Adam Carolla. Do you remember Adam Carolla?

Allison Barr:

Yes, I do.

Ren Washington:

Yes.

Allison Barr:

Vaguely.

Ren Washington:

Yeah. I try to remember who, the guy has a night show now. He used to have a sidekick that’s now wildly more popular than him no. What’s-

Allison Barr:

I don’t remember.

Ren Washington:

Jimmy, not Jimmy Fallon. It’s the other guy. It doesn’t matter. And Adam Carolla, maybe most emblematic of a by gone era, the host of the once popular Man Show. You know what a characteristic trademark of The Man Show was at the end? When they ran their credits, they had girls in bikinis jumping on trampolines. That was how the show ended.

So Adam Carolla was doing a set, and he was talking about cancel culture and really talking about progressives in America. And he likened progressives to the same people who said, “Stop smoking cigarettes indoor.” When there was that big push, once upon a time, where you could still smoke cigarettes indoor. I remember when I was a kid, my parents smoked cigarettes.

We would sit in the smoking section in a restaurant. And there used to be a time in America where you could just smoke anywhere, that’s what Carolla’s joke was. He said, “You used to be able to smoke in a hospital.” And now they’re like, “Hey, don’t smoke in restaurants.” And then, bump, bump bump, they said, “Don’t smoke in bars.” Right? And so Adam Carolla is likening its kind of cancel culture to no longer smoking in bars.

And it made me curious to think about, it’s interesting that we would use something like cigarettes, wildly understood now to be damaging and deadly for you and, the secondhand smoke. And a recognition in the culture that, hey, maybe cigarettes aren’t so good for you anymore. At one point we used to say, look at a pregnant woman, “You know what’s going to help you and that baby? You should smoke some Parliament lights. That’ll be really good for you.”

And now we know that’s just not the case. And so when I think about this idea of what I am or am not allowed to say, from a leadership standpoint, it’s an interesting balance to strike because some things you’re just not allowed to say anymore. And I’m sorry to hear that. Allison, it’s wholly inappropriate for me to walk around and come next to you in the office and be like, “Hey, toots, how are you?”

Allison Barr:

I want to pause you, if you don’t mind.

Ren Washington:

Yes, please do.

Allison Barr:

Because nobody’s going to stop you from saying that Ren, it’s that you would have a different consequence now. Like if you said “Hey toots,” I would probably laugh. Honestly. But let’s just pretend for the sake of the podcast that I was deeply offended by that. We would have a conversation because I know you. But if I was uncomfortable around you, there might be a consequence for that.

You cannot call me “Toots,” just call me by my name. I’d prefer if you’d called me Allison, right? That’s a consequence. That’s not you not being able to say anything. You could still decide, even if I said, “Please call me Allison.” You could still decide not to. No one’s stopping you from doing that.

Ren Washington:

And it brings me to this idea of intent versus impact, something that we talk a lot about at the Center. And you’re right, it’s probably not fair for me to say I’m not allowed to say these things. And the reality is that what we’re seeing, I think, curved in the workplace and in culture is that people are being held accountable for their impact now.

And that’s true about all people is that we judge ourselves on our intent. Oh, you’re taking yourself too seriously. I didn’t mean to do that. Or take it easy Allison, we’re friends, I can call you that. Whatever, I didn’t mean to cause harm. And I think more now than ever, we’re seeing people being judged for their impact. One of my favorite clips that talks about that idea of what you can and cannot say, Delroy Lindo.

This very, very famous, an institution in Black American cinema, this actor. And he was doing this round table discussion on a new show around racism. And the prompt at the bottom is, is racism a one-way street? And he was on a panel full of White people. And the anchor was saying like, “I can’t say the N-word. Why is it that Black artists can say the N-word, but I can’t?”

And Delroy kind of, you can see rubbing his forehead when the question comes up, he looks tired and he kind of puts his hands up, he looks up to the guy, and he says, “Say it.” He’s like, “Go ahead. Just say the word.” He said, “No, this is America. You can say it.” And one of the people says, “Well, that’s hypocritical. You know that we can’t say it.”

And Deleroy said, “No, sure you can. Go ahead. I’ll even say it with you.” And then they pan away and they close the segment. But it’s an interesting reflection of the reality that there are consequences for what we say. There was a time in America where to suggest that my mother and father could be wed, could be united, a Black man and a White woman. To say that out loud, you’d be canceled.

Your life would be canceled to say that in 1950s, America, good luck. And so now we recognize that maybe the pendulum is swinging.

And there’s some new kind of consequence. Now, what I think a leader still has to manage is how to bring people into the conversation who maybe don’t know how to change their lexicon, or don’t even know what’s wrong with their lexicon. So when they say, “I can’t say anything,” maybe they’re just unsure about what they can say.

Allison Barr:

What’s not harmful, maybe is a better frame for me to have. Right? That’s a big role. That’s a big role as a manager. That’s a big role for a leader to play. And I think what can be helpful for a manager/leader is to coach that person in the most objective way possible. Right? So I’m going to give you another example. And we’re talking about famous people. And I do think there’s a difference between famous and well known people, but we’ll get to that maybe.

But Aaron Rogers is another example. The quarterback, right? He’s had some criticism. He recently said in an interview, okay. He said in an interview that he was being silenced. Sir, you were being interviewed. Your voice is being highlighted in a very public way. So you’re not being silenced, people aren’t in agreement with your perspective. And some people were asking for accountability, and that’s very different.

So I think if I were a manager or a leader and somebody threw up their arms, “You can’t say anything anymore.” I might say, “Hey, let’s go have a chat. I want to talk about this because I want you to know your voice is always welcome in the space. And if you’re saying things that are harmful, it’s probably a good idea for us to get on the same page as to why they’re harmful.” And that’s very different from saying I’m being silenced.

Ren Washington:

Right. I think helping people understand that their words matter is important. I remember, I was a child of the ’90s, growing up there. And we used the word gay all of the time as a derogatory comment. And I did too. And believe me, I couldn’t care less about people’s sexual orientation or who they partner with. It’s so far away from what I care about.

So I wasn’t doing it to demean. And I even remember logically trying to explain myself to other people when asked about why I used the word. And I would say, “No. I mean, I really don’t have anything against homosexuality. I just use the word because culturally it’s accepted to talk about something that’s uncool.” And then I paused and I thought, “Man, I’m the son of a Black guy in America. And there was a time in history where people use the same kind of logic around the N-word.” Like, “Oh, no big deal, man. That’s just what we say around here.” Like, “Yeah, everyone uses it. We just talk about them like that. It’s fine. And oh, and I have Black friends and I just use it to talk about things maybe that I don’t like.”

And it’s an interesting pause. And I think that’s where I had a shift in my life, the recognition that at using that word, regardless of my personal perspectives, using that word to highlight things that were uncool or unfavorable was used to further marginalize and demean a group of people for whom deserved more.

I’ve had these conversations with my college students 10 years ago in public speaking about what I did not want to hear in my class. And we had a debate around, Ren, is this censorship? Professor Washington, is this censorship? And I would say, “Look, if you want to have a discussion around why you need to use racial epithets, or if you want to use a conversation about how you want to marginalize people, then we can have that on the side.”

But I think if a world creates one where people don’t have to feel like they’re the butt of the joke, then maybe it’s okay. Now, I do understand how people are concerned of a pendulum swinging too far in either direction. Like at one point in US history, it was okay to say whatever you wanted and you were rewarded for marginalizing people. And now, you are really, really held to account almost so your past self is held to account.

Maybe Chrissy Teigen, most famously the author, the model, the chef, you might know her too as the better half of the John Legend duo. And she got in trouble for some tweets that she sent as a young person many years ago, I think even a couple decades ago. And so what do you say to someone now who’s like, “Well, even if I want to do better, someone’s going to look back at my Twitter history and then I’m going to be held accountable for a person that I am no longer?” What do you say to that person, Allison?

Allison Barr:

Well, there are two things that came up just now. I’m going to answer your question and I also want to add, I want to be thoughtful and careful with our language. Nobody is being censored. Hate speech has always been a crime. Hate speech is hate speech. That’s not the same as censorship, not even remotely close.

And so if you want to utilize hate speech, and people do, let’s be honest. Like it’s not, you can’t do it. However, people do it all the time. Right? So if somebody’s going to argue to me that they want to use hate speech, that’s very different than an example of Chrissy Teigen. I remember seeing something about that.

I think we just need to normalize people learning and making mistakes. I think we need to normalize that and let people learn, right? Let people learn and understand. I didn’t follow that still too closely, but as I understand it she’s put up on her social platforms and made a statement how apologetic she was and what she learned from it. And we need to let people do that.

Ren Washington:

So she lost the Bloomingdale’s and Target sponsorship and Macy’s I think too. So do we cancel people, air quoting here, our favorite thing to do on the podcast, as we know listeners, do we cancel people and still give them space to learn from the mistakes? Or do we let them hold onto the things they have in giving them space to learn? How do you toe the line between accountability and redemption?

Allison Barr:

Well, so if you, I’m not sure if you are, but if you are implying that because she lost those deals, she has been canceled. I don’t agree with you. She’s being held accountable. Target probably has certain standards that they want to uphold as a brand. And they’re a private company. They can do whatever they want, so that’s different.

And I think it’s important for us to look at, again, air quoting here, canceling as a positive. Okay. So here’s an example. The #MeToo movement is an example, though I hesitate to call it canceling. I don’t think it is. But people do call it canceling, The #MeToo movement, right? It was a movement against a form of oppression and violence towards women.

And Harvey Weinstein was at the center of that movement, some other people were as well, but Harvey Weinstein was convicted. This is a good thing. This is a good thing. He was not canceled. He was a criminal and he was a dangerous one and he was convicted and he was not canceled. And what that movement did was set the stage for certain behaviors to no longer be accepted.

And it gave a lot of women, and I do want to acknowledge some of this happens to men too, right, but predominantly it’s women. Gave women not only the courage to speak up. It gave women the ability to understand that they’re not alone, which is very important. Right? And I would argue that it gave education to a lot of people who didn’t understand certain things, certain behaviors that might be very harmful to people.

So the act of canceling is, I would like people to be careful with their language. What does canceling even mean? That doesn’t even mean anything, right? It’s, are you being held accountable? Do people not like what you’re saying? Are people shaming you? That’s not even the same thing. Getting shamed on the internet all over social media is not canceling. That’s people just being mean.

Ren Washington:

Yeah. I think, for me, cancel culture is the free market responding. And so I think cancel culture has been this lightning rod and probably a misnomer, because there are probably some people who looked at Me Too, who looked at Harvey and said, “Well, now geez, how am I going to interact with my female colleagues?”

And I would encourage those people to say, “Well, interact with them the same way you’d want to interact with any decent human being.” But the cultural, I think consequences for these folks who don’t understand where to go next is, is maybe that the ground that people are so furiously fighting over. Now for me, I look at it like the market responds. If the world wants access to you, it will have access. Do you know who Gina Carano is?

Allison Barr:

No. I have no idea who that is.

Ren Washington:

Yeah. Yeah. A middling actor who had a side role in the Mandalorian. And there is, it seems pretty clear, because of her personal views on a variety of things, which we’re not going to talk about here, Disney distanced themselves from her. Didn’t full right fire her, but just stopped projects. There was going to be a spinoff and she was going to be a character in it.

And now she’s struggling to find work. And I might point to that as an example. But maybe that has to do more with her acting prowess and her position in entertainment, and less maybe about the things she’s saying. On the other side of it, we mentioned Joe Rogan’s voice at the top. And regardless of what you think about Joe Rogan and how he’s at the center of a lot of interesting conversations now, his not getting canceled.

Allison Barr:

No.

Ren Washington:

He’s making too much money to be canceled. Joe might be getting pushback from different pockets of the world, but he’s not being removed. And so in that space too, when I try to bring this back to the world as a leader, as someone on a team, how do you manage the free market movements?

Because there might be things that team members say or people say that are out of favor. And then you’ve got to measure the space, where I think you said earlier, how do we create an environment where someone can learn from their mistakes, but also be held accountable for the things they’ve done.

Allison Barr:

Can you clarify what you mean by this? I’m quoting you, a free market movement. What do you mean by that? Because my brain goes to economics and maybe you mean something different?

Ren Washington:

Yes. No. Exactly. For me it’s an econ term. Basically, the market will… I liken it to this idea of, how do you know how much money you’re worth? And you’re worth what someone will pay. You’re worth what the market bears and deems reasonable, like 100 million acting contract for someone in the Marvel movies. I don’t know, is their work really worth more than a surgeon’s?

No, but the market says it is. And so when I look at free market movement as it relates to cancel cultures that the markets are responding, Target Bloomingdale’s, for instance, with Chrissy. They were looking at their user base. They were looking at their customers. And because they’re a private company in a capitalist structure, they made a decision.

They said, “Okay, we’re going to do this.” And you know what, if Target customers threw their hands up and said, “I don’t want to shop here anymore because Chrissy Teigen stuff isn’t here.” They’d bring Chrissy Teigen’s stuff back. I think what I mean by cancel culture is the market saying, “I don’t like this anymore. So I don’t want to hear it anymore.”

Allison Barr:

Yeah. Well, so right now we’re focusing a lot on these big names and people who are very well known, some actors, some famous people, some podcasters who are well known, right? So I mean, if we’re equating cancel culture with losing your job, that’s not how employment law works. That’s just not how it works.

You are right, marketing and large companies are going to respond to the demands of their customers. And so that to me is a strategic move to continue a business. I don’t think it’s canceling. I think they’ll probably pull in someone who can be an influencer, so to speak, to continue to drive their business. That’s what it’s about.

But if we’re equating cancel culture with losing your job at work, it’s very, very rare. It’s very rare. You’re not going to hear stories of people retweeting J.K. Rowling, and then all of a sudden getting fired. That doesn’t happen. That’s not how it happens. These are not actual threat to employees. A global pandemic forcing layoffs is a threat to an employee. The great resignation is a threat to an employer.

Shortage of people is causing extra work, right? These are threats to employers. Cancel culture is not a threat. It’s not. And I would even argue that, statistically speaking, if you’re on the receiving end of some behavior that is hostile on the workplace, the person who’s on the receiving end is more likely to quit that job than the person who instigated that behavior being held accountable.

So I said it before, I’ll say it again, I think it’s created such a panic that it prevents people from seeing the actual reality of a situation. And it’s a way to deflect personal responsibility. And it prevents conflict resolution, really. This notion of, you can’t say anything, cancel culture’s gone too far. Tell me how. Tell me how.

How is it directly impacting you? What has changed for you? Nothing. You are now worried about saying something that would be hurtful. That’s a good thing. That’s a good thing. You want to be empathetic. I guarantee you, Ren, if I said to you, “Last week in our meeting when you said X, Y, Z. I felt really hurt by that.” What might you say?

Ren Washington:

I’m sorry, Allison. I don’t want to cause harm to you.

Allison Barr:

Yeah.

Ren Washington:

Yeah.

Allison Barr:

And I would be like, “Thank you for the apology.” I would, like cancel culture is not a thing. It’s been blown way out of proportion. These are not threats to employees. It’s not. There’s always going to be conflict at the workplace. That’s not going anywhere. There always has been, and there always will be.

Ren Washington:

I think that’s interesting. And I’ll give you an example around, I know that I work with people and know people that celebrated the January 6th anniversary differently than I mourned it this year. And I know those very same people do not feel safe enough to express their point of view, that some of why that happened, happened for a reason.

And so what I think, someone who is experienced, who doesn’t share our perspective, Allison, someone who still wants to do locker room talk, someone who still uses curse words or N words or R words or F words or G words in common conversation. They likely don’t feel welcome any longer. Now whether or not we’d want to debate the merits of their welcome.

I think that the thing that cancel culture is causing in the workspace, especially for those of you leading disparate people coming from different backgrounds, who haven’t had the practice about talking with each other in tough conversations. The risk for me, the concern for me is that we have a group of people who continue to say these things that cause harm.

They just do it behind shutter doors, which I think is reality of a lot of things all of the time. But I don’t want those people to be hiding and thinking like, “Well, I can’t say anything in this room anymore is what we are saying. So I’m going to say this thing in this other room.”

And then all of a sudden what we’re doing is we’re losing out on a major part of the continuant that needs to be involved in the solution. If someone really believes that they want to be able to walk around and say things with just and talk about the context about who they are, but they feel like they can’t anymore.

Then I need to have a difficult conversation with that person to talk about why their words matter. To engage them in a about why they feel they need to maintain a certain behavior when other members on the team are saying your behavior hurts me. So I just want to… We can’t leave people behind who might actually genuinely not know how to move forward.

Allison Barr:

What do you mean you can’t leave them behind? How are any of those people that you mentioned being left behind?

Ren Washington:

They might be felt left out of the conversation.

Allison Barr:

What conversation?

Ren Washington:

I know people, especially as it relates to equity, diversity, and inclusion, who grew up in cultures and organizations who really didn’t understand that Black people had a different lived experience in America. And in a lot of rooms they feel, that they’re in, they don’t feel safe enough to say that because everyone look at them like, “Pssh, where did you grow up? Under a rock?” Who are you talking about, please?”

My biggest growth edge is often when I’m faced with someone like that, I go, “How could you not know?” And in reality is me saying that, especially with children, I think you’re going to empathize. Saying how could you not know, is maybe not the best posture that I need to take when I want to move a conversation forward with a team.

When I want to create risk-taking behaviors or how people feel like they can make a mistake, maybe I shouldn’t chastise the how could you not know. So as an example, and this was EDI, maybe not cancel culture, but someone who says like, “Wait, White and Black America don’t have the same lived experience?” Someone to feel psychologically safe enough to say that because maybe they want to do better, they just don’t know.

And so maybe the little version of me who used the word gay flippantly, and I do not use anything like that anymore. Matt Damon is a perfect example. Recently, you may have heard a story where he was using, I think, a version of that word at the table. Matt’s like this tough guy who grew up in whatever part of the world and right now he’s a movie star. And we kind of look at him and say, “Wait, you needed to be awoken by this?”

You’re around this stuff all the time, but even he had to be convinced by his daughter that that word was inappropriate. And said, “I’m not going to use that word at the dinner table anymore.” I think even he is an example, maybe, of someone who probably doesn’t want to cause harm, but maybe doesn’t recognize that they could do better or how to do better.

Allison Barr:

Yeah. So some of the examples that you are giving, I agree with, but we’re talking about topics that are real experiences that have left people deeply, deeply wounded. Like deeply. And so I don’t know, those to me have a different gravity than a meeting where the manager, we won’t use the manager, where a meeting and somebody yells, right?

Because that’s also common surprisingly. Right? People get fired up around topics that are not so just traumatic, truly traumatic. Right. So there’s a spectrum here that I think we’re not acknowledging. If somebody celebrated January 6th, you’re being vague, which I understand. Right.

But if we use that as an example, like if somebody at my at workplace, we work at the same place, right, is celebratory for January 6th. Why would we want to talk about that at the workplace anyway? They’re not being left out of the conversation. You still celebrated it. I did not. Right. To me, that’s very, very different.

Ren Washington:

Yeah. I mean, involved in a conversation around equity, diversity and inclusion, where the space would be fine. I’m not talking about at the coffee machine or at the water cooler high fiving over Jan 6. But we’re in the space where we would be talking about our culture, could someone feel like they could share that?

And I would argue that I want to know. I need to know someone who believes January 6 happened for a good reason because I don’t. And if we’re going to heal it together, I can’t not involve that person.

Allison Barr:

Right. And I think you will not be surprised what I’m about to say, because I always say this. It is 100% starts with self-awareness.

Ren Washington:

Yeah.

Allison Barr:

If I have an opinion or I say something, right? Like I used the term Asperger’s recently, which is out, it’s way out. I didn’t know that. Right? I had no idea. And some of the roots in that language are very problematic, which I didn’t know. Thankfully, this person told me. Right. I’m so grateful. I had no idea. And so instead of reacting like, “We can’t say anything anymore.” It was a, “Thank you so much for telling me.”

And so you have to be self-aware enough to know, is my response appropriate right now to somebody holding me accountable to a different perspective? That’s all it is. Hey, I want you to know a different perspective on this term Asperger’s, it’s truly offensive to the autistic community. I had no idea. Do you think I want to harm the autistic community? Absolutely not. And so thank you for telling me.

And so it’s a two way street and I’m with you, we, I’m going to air quote again, we can’t heal, so to speak, unless we have those conversations. But I cannot do the work for you. So I can’t do the work for that January 6th person to take an understanding of a different perspective. Right? I can’t do that for you. I can share a perspective. And if you are reactive, then that’s on you.

Ren Washington:

Yeah. I mean, I love your example. And that’s what I wonder for just anyone who’s listening, for all of us who are just normal people living life. How do you create an environment or relationship where you, Allison, can say that and someone can look at you and be, “Hey. Just so you know, that word is impacting people negatively?”

And then you’re faced with a choice. You either keep using it or you don’t. I mean, it’s just like we talk about with feedback and our feedback model, where we get to tell people, “Hey, this behavior is impacting me.” And a lot of people go, “Well, Ren, who cares about your feelings?” And I say, “Pause. No, what we’re saying here is that…”

Allison Barr:

Nobody says that to you.

Ren Washington:

No. People say it to me all the time, Allison. No. What we’re saying instead is that people will go, well, who cares about the feelings, just get the job done. And the common is, well, whatever your perspective might be on the work that needs to get done, when someone tells you your behavior’s having an impact on them, you’re now faced with a decision, keep making a negative impact or change your behavior.

And so often I think now we’re faced with that chance too. And what we need to do is create an environment where someone can be receptive to that feedback. You were receptive to the feedback. And I think you’re right, you called it, you’ve been doing the inner work.

You’ve got the self-awareness, you recognize that you need to have a different perspective or maybe that you’d be willing to reflect on it. And I kind of align with you, some things, people were like, flip chart paper for instance. That’s a current one that we should stay away from because of the word flip, is a derogatory term for someone in the Philippines, as I understand it.

So I’m making a conscious effort to say chart paper. Now you might say, “Ren, isn’t that a bridge too far? Wow. Is nothing safe, even paper anymore?” And my pause is, “Wow, I have to go through the inconvenience of habitualizing myself. Oh, darn. I have to drop one word?” If me saying chart paper helps one more person feel better, that’s worth it to me.

Allison Barr:

Absolutely. And to your point, I believe the vast majority of people are well intended. Maybe there are a few here and there that aren’t. But I mean, I’m going to knock on wood, I don’t know that many of those people. And I believe that most people do not want to intentionally, to your point, right? People don’t want to intentionally hurt others.

People don’t want to intentionally have conflict. And I’m not talking about challenging. I’m talking about conflict. Right? And so ways to mitigate that in the workplace, there’s so many things we could talk about. And I would say this is more about accountability.

And if we aren’t willing to try to resolve conflict or differences of opinion at the workplace, it would be really impossible to create psychological safety, which we’ve talked about being supremely important to the whole functioning of an organization. Let us not forget that your organization is made up of human beings.

Human beings are very complicated complex people. Right? And something that harms me, Ren, might very well not harm you. And so how could you understand that unless we have a conversation. But I think it’s important to have a balance of that accountability and psychological safety, to your point, where there is safety to have the conversation. And there’s also the accountability.

Oh my gosh, I did not know not to say it. I did not know that Asperger’s harms people. Nobody’s telling me not to say it. Right? Asperger’s is harmful to people. I wanted you to know. Thank you. I don’t want to harm people. I’m going to try not to say that word. Right. Has it slipped out? Not really now, but I had to work at it. Right.

So I had to work on like remapping my brain around that because when I went to graduate school and got my master’s degree in psychology, Asperger’s was a diagnosis. It’s not anymore. Right. So we get into habits. So it really is about just having a conscious awareness to other people holding ourselves accountable.

Ren Washington:

Yeah. I mean, that so links to some of my kind of major takeaways for all of this. One being, what can we do to intentionally recognize that context matters? Do you like Robert Downey, Jr.?

Allison Barr:

I’m indifferent.

Ren Washington:

Indifferent. Okay. I think he’s pretty awesome. But he did an entire movie in blackface. And you could think of so many other people who would do that, and you’d be like, “Whoa. Well, no, we’re done with you.” But in the movie Tropic Thunder, Robert Downey, Jr. was playing a White actor, playing a black character.

And one could say it was a Meta commentary, but I would say maybe more it’s just Robert Downey Jr. was in blackface for a whole movie. And he even said, “A lot of my black friends thought it was funny. Some of them thought it was a big misstep,” but the context is interesting and relevant. That’s an example of Robert Downey, Jr. seemingly, environmentally being recognized and appreciated.

You can think of Quentin Tarantino too. Quentin Tarantino often gets besmirched by the use of the N-word in his movies. Yet Sam Jackson has repeatedly come out in support of Quentin and saying, “Quentin’s one of my best friends. He doesn’t have a racist bone in his body. We’re making art.” And so I think context is interesting. And to that end, for a leader, two things we need to help people.

If they really believe that they are unsure about what can be said, then what is your role as a team member or as a leader to help them understand how their words matter? And if you are one of those people who says, “Well, I just can’t say anything anymore. So I’m not going to say anything.” I encourage you not to hide behind that veil because you need to be involved in this conversation.

And maybe we need to find a safe enough space for all of us to say, “I used to say this word. I understand that it’s not something I should say anymore. Help me continue to be better.” Some of it’s just, “I studied this in school. I got a PhD and that’s what they said. And now the terms have changed.” Or some of it’s like, “This is what I said in my neighborhood growing up.”

And so how can we, I think, as leaders create the space for us to maybe believe someone who says, “I don’t know how to do better,” how can we help them? And for those of you who say, who really believe that you can’t say anything anymore, you have to be involved in the conversation because you cannot stay behind closed doors saying the things that you think you can’t say in public. You need to be involved in the conversation.

Allison Barr:

I know a lot of people who have, really good people. I know a lot of really good, good humans who have said, “You can’t say anything anymore.” And if you are one of those people listening, I would challenge to dig a layer deeper to that. Because for a lot of people that I’ve talked to in this kind of conversation, I might say, “What do you mean?”

And then we uncover some things, right? And it’s like they’re deeply embarrassed, deeply ashamed. And I think instead of, like you said, hiding behind that veil of like, “Well, we can’t say anything but anymore. And I am a victim.” It is really understanding that it is normal. Unfortunately, it’s normal to hurt people. It happens.

And so it’s okay. Right? It’s okay. You can investigate that a bit. And having these types of courageous conversations, like you mentioned, Ren, is absolutely key to a conflict resolution in the workplace. And it’s the key to ideas. It’s the key to progression at the workplace. It’s the key to success. Right? You need it.

So I think if we were going to talk about one thing a leader or manager can do today, acknowledging that this is a very big conversation, there’s a lot more we could probably say. But we want to leave you with one thing that you can take away from this, right? So the team needs model includes psychological safety, conflict resolution, and motivation.

So you will have conflict. You can just exhale, you’re going to have conflict. And one tangible thing that a manager or a leader can do is set ground rules on how you expect and how you want the team who work together. That can include asking your teammates as well, what do we want to add to this list?

So a couple of things that I’ve seen that really work and you can add to these two, Ren. Couple of things that I’ve seen are take space, make space. Be aware, if your somebody who likes to dominate a conversation, you get excited, have self-awareness, be aware of that. Allow for others to speak, allow for that person. Who’s nervous to speak, right?

If you are feeling hurt by a comment that somebody said, I would encourage you to be speaking objectively and factually about that versus a blame or a judgment. Speaking from I would be something you could to the list of ground rules. So it’s really so that we are in agreement of how we’re going to work together, especially if conflict arises. Anything you might add to that list, Ren?

Ren Washington:

No. I love those. And I think, don’t make this a big mountain to climb, try to find a place to do this today. The moment you’re listening to this, is there a place for you to actively engage an individual or two in that kind of conversation?

So maybe my most favorite, Allison, is to take space, to make space. If you’re not usually in the conversation, why don’t you get in? And if you’re usually one leading, what does it look like for you to take a pause?

Allison Barr:

Yeah. Yeah. I like that one too. Well, thanks for this.

Ren Washington:

Thanks my friend. Yes, thank you.

Allison Barr:

Yeah. This was a good one. And a big thank you to, Ren. And a big thank you to Ryan and the marketing team for, of course, all of the behind the scenes work they do to make this podcast happen. And to our listener, you can find the links to all of our podcasts and our show notes as well on ccl.org. You can also find us on LinkedIn and most other social channels. Avoid my 1.2 million viewed TikTok comment section, please.

Ren Washington:

No. Watch it. Watch it more.

Allison Barr:

Connect with us. Let us know what you think about cancel culture. In the meantime, we look forward to tuning in next time. Thanks everyone.

Ren Washington:

Thanks a bunch folks. See you next time.

Related Content

Lead With That Podcast: What MacKenzie Scott and MrBeast Can Teach Us About Leadership in 2023
Podcast

Lead With That: What MacKenzie Scott and MrBeast Can Teach Us About Leadership in 2023

In this episode, Alison and Ren discuss some leadership highlights and low points of 2022 and what they’re most looking forward to when it comes to leadership in 2023. They explore examples of leaders who have used their power and influence to give back to others, and those who have not. This year, let’s emulate those who are making purpose core to their leadership style, and lead with that.

Please update your browser.

CCL.org requires a modern browser for an enhanced and secure user experience. Internet Explorer is no longer supported or recommended by Microsoft. The Center for Creative Leadership recommends that you upgrade to Microsoft Edge or similar.

Chrome

Edge

Firefox